If you head down the Geelong Road a short distance out of Werribee in Melbourne’s south west, you soon come to two almost identical big old buildings sitting beside the road. They are a little incongruous, until you realise that they sit next to a great big paddock which looks like it could once have been an aerodrome.
Indeed it was, in fact, once an aerodrome – leased by the Royal Australian Air Force from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1940 for a satellite relief landing ground for the nearby stations at Laverton and Point Cook. And the two big hangars are the last survivors of five, of American design, that were built there between 1942 and 1943. The original design called for steel to be used in the construction of the frame and roof trusses, but a shortage of that material meant that instead they were built using wood from the Otway Ranges.
Aeroplanes have not flown from Werribee for many years, the field reverting to MMBW use in the early 1952s. But there’s still at least one aeroplane in one of the hangars. It’s a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, one of only eight in the world and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. The actual aircraft is 44-41956, a B-24M, and while it never saw active service it did serve with the RAAF as A72-176 at 7 Operational Training Unit at Tocumwal. After five decades being used as temporary accommodation and as a wool shed on a farm at Moe in Victoria’s south east, the aircraft was acquired by the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration Fund and moved to Werribee in 1995, where it has been the subject of a slow, heroic and extraordinarily high-quality restoration ever since.
The hangar is open for visits three days a week and this afternoon I finally managed to go and have a look. It’s an impressive operation. The old hangar is full of aeroplane – I have no idea how they’ll get it out of the building once they’re done. It’s a tight fit, and the tailplane isn’t even attached yet. There are aeroplane parts everywhere, workshop areas that were in use while I was there and displays related to Liberators in general and this one in particular. They have four operational engines (none yet fitted to the aircraft) and they conduct public runs on a specially-constructed test rig once a month or so.
You can even duck under those amazing sliding bomb bay doors (apparently this was the favoured way for Liberator aircrew to access their machines) and stand up inside the aeroplane’s fuselage to have a look at the interior of the beast. There was a refreshing lack of safety barriers or fun police present – evidently the Fund has gone down the very practical “common sense” path. Standing here, looking up past the wireless operator and flight engineer’s positions to the cockpit, I thought of men like John McCredie who once flew – and indeed was compelled on one occasion to bale out from – these big silver birds.
There are those who have publicly lamented the lack of a WWII-vintage bomber in Victoria. Those people, I think, are doing this group a disservice. Here is a genuine WWII bomber, and indeed a genuine Australian bomber, and it’s right on Melbourne’s doorstep. I’m told the organisation holds about 97% of the parts required to make a complete Liberator, and what they are missing is non-essential ‘aesthetical’ pieces. So they certainly will eventually reach their goal of a fully-operational Liberator (albeit restored to taxying status only, much like Just Jane was when I visited it in 2009). The intent is to reach “museum piece” status, which apparently requires at least 51% of the aircraft to be verifiably original.
All they need is money. It costs a very reasonable $5 to go and have a stickybeak around ($5 more on engine run days), and further donations are much appreciated. They’re a very welcoming lot, I thought – so if you’re in the area, make the effort to go and have a look. You won’t be disappointed.
This is the vital thing in war, to have good fortune. – John McCredie
John McCredie’s story started off in a reasonably familiar fashion. “My military career was a bit frustrated by having a mother whose brother had had his face shot away in World War One,” he said. “She didn’t want me to have anything to do with the military.”
Until John’s 18th birthday in August 1939, that is, when he took the liberty of enrolling in the Militia – specifically, the Melbourne University Rifles.
War broke out three weeks later.
The third of my interview subjects for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive, John is a tall and distinguished-looking fellow who was wearing a natty neck scarf when I went to his home in very swish multi-storey retirement complex in Melbourne’s inner south-east. As we walked through the lobby I thought it looked less like an aged care facility and more like a rather exclusive hotel, except that all the guests I could see were over 80. We settled in his unit and he poured some pre-prepared coffee while I set up my recording equipment. And then he began telling me his remarkable story.
John didn’t last too long in the Militia, despite (or perhaps because of) at one point being offered a commission in the regular Army. “If you took a commission in the Commandos it tended to be considered a one-way ticket”, he explained. Besides, like many of his generation he was inspired by the stories of Kingsford-Smith, Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson, the Centenary Air Race and then, of course, the Battle of Britain. So once the Army let him he transferred to the Air Force.
We all probably wanted to be fighter pilots but you had to show that aptitude and I don’t think I quite had it as a flyer, so I was put on twins.
John learnt to fly at Temora and Point Cook and was then sent to England. Flying an Oxford at an Advanced Flying Unit at South Cerney one night, that good fortune he spoke about played its part for the first time. “I had an instructor who saw the crash coming before I did,” he said.
… dived and we just missed a crash at night, in mid-air… that was a lesson in alertness.
At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt discussed, among other things, the question of supply and demand for aircrew. The Empire Air Training Scheme had been in existence for several years and was churning out trained aircrew faster than even Bomber Command could use them. Meanwhile the Americans had lots of aircraft in the Far East but not enough crews to fly them. So it was decided, John said, to send a number of Commonwealth aircrew to India. He long believed that he had been given no choice in the matter but only a few years ago discovered, on reading some of his old letters, that he had in fact volunteered to be one of them. He was posted to 15 Operational Training Unit at Harwell, a unit which had become focused on providing those crews for the Far East.
Flying from Harwell was the closest to Bomber Command that John got in his career. Here he carried out what he called “two little flights over France”, dropping leaflets. The first went more or less uneventfully, but on the second one the Wellington iced up and could not climb above 8,000 feet. Then his navigator, struggling a bit, took them over the defended town of Lisieux.
“I don’t know if as a small boy you ever ran along a picket fence with a stick making a noise?” John asked.
Well that’s exactly what it’s like listening to the flak hitting a canvas-covered aircraft.
They escaped with a couple of holes.
John’s good fortune again came to the fore during his time at Harwell. John having in his words given his Flight Commander “some cheek” at some point, the senior officer decided to get his own back at briefing one day when he picked on John to refresh the crews on the emergency fire drill for a Wellington.
He said, ‘McCredie, you tell us what you’d do in fire drill’, and McCredie got up and stuttered and stammered…
After he mucked it up, John was made to repeat the correct procedure, word for word, in front of everyone. And then, not very long after he had been singled out in briefing, John had an engine fire for real – and, having been so recently and embarrassingly reminded of the correct procedure, was able to carry it out in a timely manner and allow his crew to bale out before making an emergency landing at Silverstone.
John eventually got to India where his good fortune continued. On a ‘show-the-flag’ formation flight (called a ‘Glaxo’) over one of the big cities in India in a 99 Squadron Liberator, he had a runaway propeller. This necessitated three or four hours flying on three engines – which proved very useful experience when, a couple of months later, he was attacking a ship near Kaligauk Island and was hit by anti-aircraft gunfire.
We moved quickly enough, we had a fire… the boys reported the fire to me and I boldly told them to put it out!
They returned without further incident.
Prior to this, though, John was flying as second pilot with 355 Squadron based at a place called Salbani. Here there was apparently an issue with morale and, as it was difficult to keep the squadrons supplied with fuel because they were at the end of a very long supply chain, there was a certain amount of pressure to reduce fuel consumption. John’s Flight Commander and skipper, a man named Joe Morphett, advocated flying “on the step”, a method of reducing engine power slightly in the cruise that was reputed to reduce drag. This led directly to what was one of the closest calls that John had in an eventful Air Force career.
They were returning from bombing Mandalay, needing to cross the 10,000-foot Mt Victoria to get home. Flying ‘on the step’ had resulted in a gradual and unnoticed loss of altitude, until Morphett saw the mountain looming large in his windscreen. He poured on the power to climb, and they made it over the terrain. But the emergency climb had cost them too much fuel. Some time later, an engine faltered and stopped. John immediately turned on the emergency pump and it came back to life. But then it failed again, and this time the other three went with it. They had run the tanks dry. Somewhere over Bengal, Morphett held his aircraft steady while the rest of his crew, including John, baled out into the bright moonlight (the flight engineer needing some ‘encouragement’ courtesy of the wireless operator’s boot in his backside on the way). They got out at “God knows what height, because we were within very short walking distance of Joe’s crashed aircraft,” John said. With the help of some villagers they proceeded to the aircraft to find Morphett laid out under a mango tree, with half his scalp peeled back. “I couldn’t eat mangoes for years after that.”
Morphett survived and would be given a bar to his DFC for his efforts.
Interviewing John was an absolute pleasure. The bombing war in the Far East is a story seldom told and he is one of the most erudite and eloquent people I have ever met. John tells his stories with good humour, his face crinkling into a grin at frequent intervals. Before I’d even arrived home after our interview he had sent me an email correcting one or two facts.
It’s no wonder John was a career diplomat after the war, having taken advantage of the Australian government’s offer of a university education on his return. “The first year at university was very difficult because I had all sorts of unfulfilled ambitions… it was very much a party year, first year back, so I had a bit of trouble settling down and it wasn’t until I saw myself on the brink of being thrown off the course that I could really get down to applying myself full-time to study.”
What struck me most of all, though, apart from the extraordinary good fortune that seemed to follow him around the world, were the people John spoke of who made the stories come to life. He encountered a range of colourful characters throughout his Air Force career, and indeed would run into many of them years later. Men like Hubert Opperman, the Australian cyclist known as ‘Oppy’ who was his Flight Commander at Initial Training School and later went into politics, and to whom John would later sell a car. Like Lionel Watters, the ex-Broken Hill tin miner who, as a “rough diamond” of a flight instructor, had such an effect on John’s early flying training. Like Brian Inglis, a close friend with whom John shared many adventures. (Inglis would go on to become the CEO of Ford Australia). And there was Major Crennan, the overly-enthusiastic disciplinarian whose antics on the ship to the US earned him a poem in the on-board newsletter.
Perhaps the man who John most respected, though, was his 99 Squadron Commanding Officer Lucien Ercolani, who he called “an outstanding man by any classification”. Ercolani had turned morale at the squadron around by sheer force of leadership, John said, and the results in terms of aircraft serviceability spoke for themselves.
Ercolani interrupted a successful career in the furniture business to serve in the Air Force. After the war, when John was serving as a diplomat in Holland, he encountered his old Commanding Officer, who gave him a striking mid-century coffee table.
The table was between us as we did the interview.
Two months after this interview I visited John for lunch, where he presented me with a copy of the book he wrote about 10 years ago called ‘Survival of the Fortunate’. It’s a beautifully-written book and I could hear his voice as I read it. Sadly I never got a chance to discuss it with him. Six weeks after our lunch meeting John died, on 29 January 2016.