Lone Pine

There were to be feints that were intended to draw Ottoman attention away from the main assault on the peaks at dawn the next day. The first of these was in the south at Helles, once more the focus of the 88th Brigade of the unfortunate 29th Division, committed to battle at Fir Tree Spur, across the patch of ground known as ‘The Vineyard’. As was customary at Helles, the attack was in broad daylight in the late afternoon of 6 August, the assault at 5pm following a 2½ hour bombardment. Like others before it, it was a failure; trenches were taken and lost to the seasoned Ottoman troops. Inexplicably, the battle was rejoined with another bombardment the following day, the 42nd Division taking the brunt. It too was to achieve nothing. The diversion would drag on until 13 August; the Ottomans were aware of both the feint and the likely British intent, and, unconcerned, committed two divisions from Helles to the battlegrounds of Anzac.

Closer to the point of conflict was another diversion at Lone Pine, the distinctive single-pine ridge across from 400 Plateau, along Second Ridge. The intention here was an all-out assault to distract the Ottomans, while the British were similarly engaged in the south. Yet, at Lone Pine, trench warfare had been developed to a high science. The Ottomans had created a formidable fortification, their trenches reinforced and roofed with timber baulks to prevent losses by shell and grenade. Like the battles at the Vineyard, Lone Pine has become a microcosm of the whole Gallipoli campaign at Anzac; hard-fought, but ultimately futile. So, on 6 August, at 5.30pm the attack was launched by the Australian 1st Division, following an artillery bombardment in ‘lifts’, the line of exploding shells moving progressively inland. Attacking over open ground, they found their route blocked by barbed wire, the roofed trenches with loopholes almost impossible to assault from the front. Not to be outdone, the Australians found their way into the underground maze from the rear, along communication trenches; the resulting hand-to-hand fighting below ground bitter and bloody, its aftermath, a charnel house.

Our casualties in this fighting amounted to 2,000 men, but the Turks themselves acknowledge losses totalling 6,930 in their 16th Division, and of some 5,000 were sustained in a small sector of the Lone Pine trenches. God forbid that I should ever see again such a sight as that which met my eyes when I went up there: Turks and Australians piled four and five deep on one another.

Lieutenant General W. Birdwood, ANZAC

Like the diversion at Helles, this battle was to rage for three days, and though capturing the Ottoman trenches, it failed in its prime purpose. Rather than diverting the attention of the Ottomans at Anzac away from the main assault, it was to attract reinforcement of two regiments from the 9th Division in Helles, and this at a cost of 2,200 Australian casualties, and goodness knows how many Ottomans.

The assault against the peaks of Sari Bair was to be commanded by Major General Godley of the Australian and New Zealand Division. On the night of 6 August, as the two feints were being fought out, the two assaulting columns were to leave the Anzac perimeter, striking out to the west to circle around the westwards facing foothills of the Sari Bair Range. The left-hand column was composed of the Australian 4th Brigade and the 29th Indian Brigade; closer to its target the two brigades would separate to form three assaulting columns, the Australians targeting Hill 971 (Koçacmintepe), the Indians Hill Q. The right-hand column was composed of the men of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, its main focus was to be Chunuk Bair. However, both columns were understrength and included men weakened by dysentery, an inevitable by-product of the summer months’ campaigning in Gallipoli.

The two columns moved to the margins of the Anzac perimeter, in the hands of guides who had knowledge of the intricate mass of gullies and ridges caused by the action of wind and water over centuries. Any Ottoman defences soon evaporated, but the left-hand column, commanded by Brigadier General Monash, got into difficulties. Fighting its way through the scrub to a watercourse, the Aghyl Dere, Ottoman resistance stiffened. Exhausted, the 4th Brigade would go no further that night: Hill 971 would have to wait. In fact, the left-hand column would never get close to Hill 971; though resuming the attack approach on the morning of 8 August, there was still confusion about which direction to take. Hill 971 would remain unassaulted. Behind them was the Indian Brigade; slowed up by the tortuous terrain, they too would be dispersed, a long way off their objective.

Only the 1/6th Gurkha Rifles got anywhere near Hill Q, within 200ft of their objective by 6pm. They would make their assault the next morning at 5am, following a naval bombardment. With no other battalions in support – all the others were lost in the gullies – they made a heroic assault on the hill that drove off the Ottomans. Tragically, they would become victims of their own naval support, and with no reserves, they lost their tenuous grip on Hill Q.

The right-hand column of New Zealanders, operating within the more familiar Anzac perimeter, fared a little better – but were still held up by Ottoman resistance. By dawn on 7 August some had reached Rhododendron Ridge, a spur that leads right up to Chunuk Bair; while others were lost in the complex terrain of ridges and gullies. Brigadier General Johnston, commanding the column, waited until he had sufficient men to continue the assault against what was still an unknown level of resistance. This was to prove a costly decision; it was to deeply influence the outcome of the attack by the Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, which was to take place at 4.30am on the 7th.

As the Light Horse were pushing to Baby 700 – the hill that had been the focus of so much attention during the landings – it had been intended that the New Zealanders would be pressing on from their newly captured positions at Chunuk Bair, thereby crushing the Ottoman defenders between them. It was not to be. In the absence of the New Zealanders, the attack at the Nek went ahead on the orders of Godley. Rising out of their trenches, the attackers were armed only with unloaded rifles and bayonets. The Ottomans wrought havoc with their withering fire, and the three successive waves of light horsemen were mown down – 378 casualties out of 600, 230 of them killed. Their bodies would remain on the battlefield, only to be gathered in after the war was finally ended.

For the New Zealanders on Rhododendron Spur, things were difficult. The Ottoman defenders were stiffening, the commander of the 9th Division, Colonel Kannengiesser was in position on the hilltop. Godley issued the terse order: ‘Attack at once’. The Auckland Battalion took heavy casualties; while Johnston ordered the Wellington Battalion into position, its commander refused to attack in daylight. Dug in as best they could, the New Zealanders were reinforced by two newly arrived battalions of the 13th (Western) Division, the 7th Gloucestershires and the 8th Welsh. At 3am, the peak of Chunuk Bair was to be taken by the Wellington men, and the Glosters. The navy had played its supporting role – the Ottomans had no way of digging down into what was hard and rocky soil, and were hopelessly exposed. However, this factor would come to count against the Allies.

The new defenders of the peak now found themselves in Ottoman crossfire, from Battleship Hill to the south and from Hill Q to the north – both of which would have been taken by now if things had gone to plan. By 5am, the Ottomans launched a desperate counterattack, reinforced by the 8th Division recently arrived from the Helles front. As the scale of the assault unfolded, von Sanders appointed Mustafa Kemal as commander in charge of the defence of Sari Bair. By that evening, the New Zealanders and New Army men held on grimly, their casualties mounting – the Wellington Battalion would lose 711 out of 760, the New Army battalions suffering similarly.

With Chunuk Bair holding, Hill Q would be assaulted on 9 August by a mixed force, led by Brigadier Baldwin, of four battalions from the 38th, 39th and 40th brigades of the 13th Division, and two battalions from the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division. Climbing to a flat area called ‘The Farm’, they moved up a feature known as Chailak Dere in order to take the assault to Hill Q, while New Zealanders from Chunuk Bair and the Indian Brigade would also attack the hill. Baldwin’s men met with stiff opposition. The only force to reach Hill Q was a battalion of Gurkhas, but they would be driven off by their own naval artillery fire, delivered from the newly arrived ‘monitors’ (gunships sent out to replace the capital ships) and the ageing battleship HMS Bacchante.

On the morning of 10 August Mustafa Kemal led an overwhelming Ottoman counterattack on Chunuk Bair at 4.30am, narrowly avoiding being wounded. Turkish historian Kenan Çelik has described the action:

When Mustafa Kemal gave the signal, 5,000 men in 22 lines charged on the New Zealanders and the British at Chunuk Bair. One second later there was only one sound – ‘Allah … Allah … Allah.’ The British did not have time to fire and all the men in the front-line trenches were bayoneted. The British troops were wildly scattered. In four hours’ time, the 23rd and 24th Regiments regained the lines at Chunuk Bair. The 28th Regiment regained Pinnacle (the highest point on Rhododendron Ridge). Just after the Turks regained Chunuk Bair, the Navy and artillery began firing. Hell let loose. Iron rained from the skies over the Turks. Everybody accepted their fate. All around people were killed and wounded. While Mustafa Kemal watched the fighting, a piece of shrapnel hit his pocket watch. The watch was broken but protected his life. He had a bruise on his chest, but nothing else. He was destined to save the country.

Kenan Çelik

The exhausted New Zealanders had been relieved by the 6th Loyal North Lancashires, who had arrived at 10pm (a second battalion, the 10th Wiltshires, had not yet arrived). The force of the Ottoman attack was to prove too much; breaking over the British battalions and sweeping them down the slope into the confusion of gullies below. Baldwin’s men at the Farm would suffer the impact of the Ottoman charge. Hill Q was no longer occupied and Chunuk Bair, so fleetingly held by the Allies, was now firmly back in Ottoman hands. The struggle for the heights was over; the campaign effectively finished, dead in the dark waters of the Dardanelles Straits.

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Tobruk Besieged: 4 May 1941 – 25 October 1941 Part I

By the beginning of May 1941 the situation on the Egyptian border, the losses incurred in the recent attack and more crucially supply problems ruled out further German attempts to seize Tobruk in the immediate future. German and Italian forces in Libya required an estimated 30,000 tons of supplies per month purely to remain operational, with an additional 20,000 tons to build up stocks for future operations. However, there was only sufficient coastal shipping capacity to move 29,000 tons per month, the bulk of which had to be unloaded at Tripoli and then moved the remaining 1,000 miles or more to eastern Cyrenaica by road. Damaged docks, RAF bombing and Royal Navy activity meant Benghazi could handle only small coastal vessels on an intermittent basis, Buerat and Sirte were too small and Derna could only be accessed relatively safely by submarines carrying ammunition. Rommel’s activities had strained this tenuous logistic linkage to breaking point; as Generaloberst Halder, head of the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), noted in his diary: ‘By overstepping his orders Rommel has brought about a situation for which our present supply capabilities are insufficient.’ Rommel became aware of OKH’s displeasure with the Libyan situation on 3 May, after Generalleutnant Paulus had rendered his initial report. As well as reprimanding him for his reckless and wasteful conduct to date, OKH explicitly forbade Rommel from renewing the attack on Tobruk or anywhere else and specifically ordered him to hold in place. Rommel’s reaction to this can be well imagined, but the news came as a considerable relief to the Tobruk garrison; Morshead received an intercepted copy of the signal, hand carried by a destroyer captain, on 6 May. Rommel therefore had no option but to resort to the more traditional siege tactics of containing the Tobruk garrison while starving the fortress of supplies and reinforcements. Responsibility for carrying out the process thus passed to Fliegerführer Afrika, Generalmajor Stefan Fröhlich.

The Luftwaffe had been active over the Tobruk perimeter in support of ground forces from early April 1941 reconnoitring the perimeter defences and dropping leaflets urging the garrison to surrender, while dive-bombers from Sturtzkampfgeschwader (StG) 3 had engaged in harassing artillery positions and attacking the harbour. Mass raids on 14 and 17 April were followed by smaller, sustained attacks on 18 April on a variety of targets inside the perimeter including El Gubbi airfield. In all, between 11 and 30 April twenty-one separate dive-bombing attacks were recorded, involving a total of 386 aircraft. Luftwaffe activity followed a similar pattern in support of Rommel’s May Day attack, with eight separate attacks on British artillery positions in the vicinity of Fort Pilastrino between 28 April and 2 May. Attacks on targets in what was dubbed the forward area of the perimeter then fell away, apart from reprisal attacks in response to damage inflicted by the garrison’s artillery. This was due to the Luftwaffe shifting its attention to Tobruk harbour, although this was not a totally new departure. The harbour had been attacked on 12 and 13 April, sinking one merchantman and damaging another, and again on 18 and 19 April. It is unclear whether these attacks were part of a deliberate effort to alternate attacks between the perimeter and Tobruk proper or provoked by the presence of shipping in the harbour, but the latter was where the bulk of Tobruk’s anti-aircraft (AA) strength was concentrated; three aircraft were claimed shot down on 12 April and three more and two probables on 20 April, for example. The statistics gathered by the defenders illustrate the intensity of the struggle between the Luftwaffe and the AA gunners at this early stage of the siege. Between 10 and 30 April 1941 Tobruk’s AA guns claimed to have downed thirty-seven attackers, sixteen probables and to have damaged a further forty-three for the expenditure of 8,230 rounds of 3.7-inch and 25,881 rounds of 40mm and 20mm ammunition.

While the 4th AA Brigade and Luftwaffe were fighting their own war over Tobruk and the adjacent harbour, the Tobruk garrison was becoming accustomed to existence within the perimeter. A billet in Tobruk meant relatively comfortable and fairly civilised living conditions but with the ever present danger from the Axis air attacks that came in day and night. Troops on the perimeter, on the other hand, were rarely troubled by aircraft but had to be constantly on the alert for enemy patrols and the like while enduring extremely primitive and uncomfortable living conditions. The greatest trial was the fine, powdery dust that permeated food, weapons, vehicle engines and moving parts, clothing and living quarters to the extent that the men ended up eating and breathing it as a matter of course. This was especially troublesome for the troops stationed on the Blue Line and inward, due to the constant passage of vehicles, and matters were exacerbated overall by the dust storms that occurred every few days that reduced visibility to near zero and made movement difficult if not impossible. The dust was exacerbated on the perimeter and in units stationed in the open desert by large numbers of voracious fleas and clouds of flies. One NCO from an AA crew claimed the former were more of a tribulation than enemy bombs, and the latter were attracted to refuse, food, bare flesh and broken skin with manic tenacity, clogging eyes, ears and nostrils and making eating a one-handed trial. The arid conditions meant there were no mosquitoes and thus no malaria, and generally the health of the garrison remained good. The exception was the occasional outbreak of dysentery caused by failure to observe sanitary arrangements and drinking unchlorinated water, but this was largely eliminated with rigorous enforcement of the rules following an outbreak in June that laid low 226 men in a single week. The lapses with regard to water were understandable if not excusable, given that the daily water ration up to 19 June was four pints per man for all purposes; after that date it increased to six pints.

There was little wildlife in the perimeter apart from a species of small brown mouse and the odd jackal or gazelle, but the troops adopted a number of starving dogs and cats that had belonged to Tobruk’s evacuated civilian population. There was also a lone, aged sheep nicknamed ‘Larry the Lamb’ by the AA unit that adopted him as a mascot; the gunners had to post extra guards to prevent Larry augmenting the rations of some prowling Australian. The latter threat was not an idle one, and not merely because bully beef was the staple ration item for the first three months of the siege and beyond, occasionally replaced with canned bacon, herrings and M&V stew. The canned rations were augmented with bread from the ex-Italian bakery in Tobruk, margarine, sugar and jam, although the latter two were in short supply. The rations were barely adequate and nutritionally deficient even with the issue of concentrated vitamin C tablets in lieu of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the limited diet eventually began to take its toll, most markedly in the shape of ugly and painful desert sores. The ration situation improved from mid-July 1941, with fresh meat being served to troops in reserve positions once a month, fresh fruit and vegetables on a weekly basis and more regular issues of the latter in cans. Even so, when the 9th Australian Division’s infantrymen were examined after being relieved it was discovered that each man had lost up to twenty-eight pounds in weight.

The garrison routine settled into a pattern that would have been instantly recognisable to the First World War veterans in its ranks, with units being rotated regularly between the perimeter, the Blue line, reserve and manning the exposed positions facing the Ras El Medauar salient. Troops in the perimeter split their time between patrolling, and maintaining their positions, while units in the Blue Line were not only employed in digging defensive positions, but in laying mines, erecting and maintaining barbed wire entanglements and creating a third line of defence dubbed the Green Line. While in reserve the troops were allowed a few days’ rest by the sea, where they could launder their clothing, swim and simply soak up the sun in relative safety. It was not unusual for units in reserve to suffer more casualties from air raids than they incurred while manning the perimeter; on one occasion a platoon from the 2/43rd Battalion lost two killed and three wounded to bombs while engaged in road repairs, for example. There was thus no real escape from danger and the concomitant mental stress anywhere within the Tobruk perimeter, although significant efforts were made to maintain morale primarily via the provision of cigarettes, comforts and mail. A weekly issue of fifty cigarettes per man was made from the beginning of the siege, augmented with another fifty from unit canteens to those with the funds to pay for them from June. Additional cigarettes were distributed for free by the Australian Comfort Fund (ACF), an organisation set up during the First World War to support the troops by providing canteens, clubs, hostels and the comforts to stock them. The ACF also provided the Tobruk garrison with pre-stamped air-mail letter cards, writing paper, envelopes and stamps, with £3,200 of the latter being sold in one month alone. The mail was handled by an Australian postal unit located in what had been Tobruk’s bank which received an average of 700 bags of mail and despatched half that number per week through the siege, equivalent to 5,000 parcels and 50,000 letters; by August 1941 the unit was moving fifty tons of assorted mail per week.

The infantry were not employed solely in standing watch and maintaining their positions during their stints on the perimeter. Morshead implemented a policy of aggressive action and patrolling, partly to offset the enervating effects of boredom and partly to tie down as many Axis troops as possible to relieve the pressure on the Egyptian border. In essence Morshead’s policy amounted to a revival of the First World War practise of dominating no-man’s land, and this was literally the case on the southern and eastern sectors where the enemy positions were rarely more than a mile from the perimeter. Patrols up to twenty strong, carrying only weapons, ammunition and grenades leavened with Thompson guns and usually a single Bren for support were despatched almost every night, with socks over their leather-soled boots for stealth; special rubber-soled footwear and camouflage clothing became available in the later stages of the siege. If the target was an enemy position the patrol would navigate their way on compass bearings in the darkness, picking their way stealthily through the protective barbed wire, booby-traps and mines without alerting the sentries before attacking from the flank or rear. As well as inflicting casualties and unsettling the enemy a frequent objective for the patrols was to capture a prisoner for intelligence, often by penetrating beyond the enemy front line. On one occasion a patrol from the 2/23rd Battalion led by Captain Rattray captured a lone Italian sentry near the Bardia road after attracting his attention with a combination of low whistles and calling him comrade in his native tongue as they drew close enough to seize him. Among the most adept at this hazardous nocturnal activity were the dismounted armoured crewmen from the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment, who gained a fearsome reputation among friend and foe alike. Many moved silently on rubber sandals fashioned from discarded vehicle tyres, and one group is reputed to have presented their commander with two sacks of severed enemy ears when the veracity of their post-patrol reports was questioned.

The most intense activity took place facing the Ras El Medauar. The creation of the salient added an additional five and a half miles to the perimeter that had to be built from scratch under the noses of Infanterie Regiment 115 holding the hill. The extra frontage obliged Morshead to press personnel from support units stationed in Tobruk into service as substitute infantry; the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion held a section of the line until mid-May, for example. Initially the new line was sketchy, with random patrolling by both sides between front lines to half a mile apart, but on 13 May the 18th Australian Brigade was ordered to take over the salient and push forward until in close contact with the German line. Conditions on the salient were the worst in the entire Tobruk perimeter, not least because the terrain was almost completely solid rock under a thin layer of fine sand. This meant that the troops were unable to dig in properly and had to make do with makeshift positions that were part sangar, part shell scrape, with no overhead cover. The latter deficiency was especially grievous because the presence of German observers on the Ras El Medauar made daylight movement impossible, and the troops holding the line were obliged to remain totally motionless throughout the hours of daylight, totally exposed to the sun and enemy artillery or mortars.

Allied activity on the front line in the salient thus became totally nocturnal, revolving largely around the arrival of rations from the rear. Breakfast was served at 21:30, hot meals at midnight and just before dawn, the latter being accompanied by hard rations for consumption during the coming day. Units could not bear such conditions for long, and men emerged from a week long tour on the salient undernourished, weak and frequently racked with dysentery. The traffic was not all one-way. On 12 May the 2/13th Battalion shot up a number of Germans who had taken up the habit of taunting the previous unit by walking around and shaking their bedding in the open, and A and B Companies from the same battalion sprang a successful hasty night ambush on German troops attempting to occupy some partly-completed positions in no man’s land fourteen days later. The Germans had to bring up five ambulances after first light to remove the resulting casualties, and the Australians made good use of the brief truce to openly examine their surroundings from a standing position in daylight.

The salient was also where Morshead’s strategy to keep the maximum number of Axis troops occupied on the perimeter was most successful, not least because Rommel had to keep hold of it as a springboard for future attacks into the Tobruk perimeter. The order for the 18th Australian Brigade to close up to the German front line on 13 May was part of a ploy to persuade Rommel that the garrison were about to attempt a break-out, in order to draw German troops away from an upcoming British attack on the Egyptian border. Throughout 14 May vehicles were driven back and forth near the south-western sector of the perimeter to simulate a pre-attack concentration, supported by spurious radio traffic. The following morning three Cruiser tanks and two platoons from the 2/12th Battalion attacked positions held by elements of the Pavia Division near defence Post S15, and in the afternoon the 2/10th Battalion launched another limited attack further north to straighten out its section of the line. The attacks succeeded in their intent. The Pavia Division infantry abandoned their positions, and RAF reconnaissance on 15 May noted German mechanised units moving toward Tobruk from Sollum to the east, and Axis armour concentrating west of Tobruk near Acroma.

In one way the deception succeeded rather too well, insofar as it provoked a strong German pre-emptive strike. After a two hour preparatory artillery and mortar bombardment the Germans attacked Posts S8, S9 and S10 in the late evening of 15 May supported by five Panzers, while the Italians counter-attacked S15. The attack was well organised, using coloured tracer ammunition to guide the troops toward their objectives, and went on throughout the night. One party penetrated into S9’s anti-tank ditch before being forced back by a counter-attack. The Germans did succeed in overrunning S10 with the aid of flame-throwers and close support from the Panzers, taking a number of the Australian defenders prisoner and cutting off S8 and S9. The Panzers withdrew before first light but German infantry held onto S10 and beat off a counter-attack by a platoon from the 2/12th Battalion just after dawn. Another attack at midday finally retook the post, capturing twenty-eight Germans and liberating three wounded Australians. Contact was re-established with S8 and S9 after dark on 16 May and in the nick of time; the posts had beaten off numerous attacks through the day, but by dusk were running dangerously short of ammunition.

Having gained the Germans’ attention, Morshead set about keeping it with a larger attack on 17 May that had the secondary intent of eroding the size of the German salient by taking S6 and S7, and S4 and S5 as secondary objectives. The attack was assigned to the 2/23rd Battalion, supported by nine Matildas, and began at 05:27 with an artillery bombardment from thirty-nine guns, thickened with indirect fire from twelve Vickers medium machine-guns from the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, a smoke barrage on the Ras El Medauar to blind German observation posts and a fortuitous early morning mist. Things did not go according to plan from the outset. The Matildas failed to reach the start line in time, lost touch with the infantry despite the efforts of the reserve platoons to attract their attention and abandoned attempts to find their way forward after becoming disoriented by a German counter-smokescreen. The Germans hit the attacking infantry with every weapon they could bring to bear, with AA guns firing shells fused to detonate overhead being especially troublesome. S7 was seized by Captain Ian Malloch’s Company in spite of this, but the troops could not be reinforced and by 07:30 the Germans had retaken it using Panzers. To the left Major W. H. Perry’s Company secured S6 and moved on to take S4, taking a total of twenty-three Germans prisoner, but were then cut off by the weight of German defensive fire. An attempt to reach them at 07:40 was driven off despite support from four Matilda tanks, although two Bren Carriers succeeded in delivering ammunition and rations to S6 under cover of the mist and dust.

With no further contact, 2/23rd Battalion HQ wrote off Perry and his men after Panzers were seen in the vicinity of the recaptured posts at around 09:00, until the Company Clerk, Corporal Fred Carleton, succeeded in reaching Battalion HQ three hours or more later. By this time Sergeant-Major W.G. Morrison and twenty-three men were holding out in sangars 200 yards from S6, and Morrison was able to break up several attacks during the course of the afternoon by calling down artillery fire via a field telephone line repaired by Private H.P Clark under heavy German fire; at one point Morrison was obliged to call down fire virtually on top of his own position. The little band was finally ordered to withdraw from their embattled outpost at dusk after a relieving attack was abandoned for want of tank support and Panzers were seen advancing on the sangars. Despite being ordered to abandon his five wounded after an attempt to lift them with two Bren Carriers was thwarted by a German anti-tank position, Morrison brought them and his fourteen able-bodied survivors out after a hair-raising crawl along an old Italian pipeline trench under constant German machine-gun fire; his was the only organised sub-unit to survive the day’s action. Only two of the ten officers from the two companies that spearheaded the attack escaped injury. Of the remainder, four were killed, one was seriously wounded and three were wounded and taken prisoner. In all the 2/23rd Battalion suffered twenty-five dead, fifty-nine wounded and eighty-nine missing, at least half of whom were believed killed. The Tobruk garrison thus paid a heavy price, and arguably one it could ill afford, for the privilege of diverting Axis attention from events on the Egyptian border, which did not meet expectations either.

The attack the Australian diversionary operation was intended to assist was Operation BREVITY, commanded by Brigadier Gott. Contemporary accounts cite the Operation as an attempt to relieve Tobruk, but Wavell’s typically wide-ranging and arguably contradictory instructions for the attack show this was not the case. Gott was ordered to recapture Sollum and Fort Capuzzo, inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy while not endangering his own force, and to exploit any success as far toward Tobruk as the logistic chain would permit. With large-scale reinforcements en route from the UK, Wavell allotted Gott all the armour and mechanised forces that could be mustered; two Squadrons of Cruiser Tanks from the 2nd RTR totalling twenty-nine vehicles, and two Squadrons of Matildas from the 4th RTR totalling twenty-four vehicles, along with the 22nd Guards Brigade mounted in vehicles borrowed from the 4th Indian Division, and the 7th Armoured Division Support Group. Artillery support was provided by the 8th Field Regiment RA, air cover by Hurricanes from No. 274 Squadron, and close air support by fourteen Blenheims from No. 14 Squadron. The attack began in the early hours of 15 May, and was initially successful. The Halfaya Pass, lost to Oberstleutnant Maximilian von Herff at the end of April, was retaken by the 2nd Scots Guards and a Squadron from the 4th RTR, the 1st Durham Light Infantry and more tanks captured Fort Capuzzo and the 7th Armoured Division Support Group made good progress toward Sidi Azeiz, ten miles north-west of Fort Capuzzo. Progress had not been easy or universal, however. The attackers were unable to clear enemy forces from the crucial approaches to the Halfaya Pass, and the various actions cost Gott’s force nine tanks destroyed or otherwise put out of action.

However, BREVITY had been compromised by poor signal security which allowed Rommel to send the Ariete Division to El Adem as a backstop, and more pertinently permitted the local German commander, Oberstleutnant von Herff, sufficient time to organise a response in advance. Thus after initially giving ground Herff launched a counter-attack with a battalion from Panzer Regiment 5 that recaptured Fort Capuzzo, from where he launched a second attack on 17 May after receiving reinforcements including another battalion of tanks from the newly arrived Panzer Regiment 8 from 15 Panzer Division. The reinforcement was not straightforward for Panzer Regiment 8 ran out of fuel after reaching Sidi Azeiz at 03:00 on 16 May and remained stranded for fourteen hours but Herff was able to begin his counter-attack in the early afternoon of 17 May, which forced the 7th Armoured Division Support Group back toward Bir El Khireigat, over ten miles south of Fort Capuzzo. Herff halted as ordered on a line running south and west from of Sollum, which efficiently screened and further British moves toward Tobruk. Overall BREVITY yielded only the recapture of the Halfaya Pass in return for six RAF aircraft lost, five Matildas destroyed and thirteen damaged. This was equivalent to the loss of three-quarters of the Matildas committed, while the 1st Durham Light Infantry suffered a total of 160 casualties in the fight for Fort Capuzzo. On the other side of the ledger German losses totalled three Panzers destroyed, twelve killed, sixty-one wounded and 185 missing, along with an unknown number of Italians taken prisoner. There matters rested, with a small British all-arms force built around the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards holding the Halfaya Pass, for nine days while the Germans organised fuel supplies for their Panzers. Von Herff then retook the Pass with an attack that began on 26 May and forced the British back with the loss of five Matildas, twelve assorted guns and 173 casualties.

With the end of the fighting on the western sector of the perimeter the struggle for Tobruk shifted to the sky, most intensely over the harbour. Tobruk’s AA defences grew out of a relative handful of guns deployed to protect the harbour after Operation COMPASS, augmented with reinforcements brought in by sea. Between 6 and 12 April 1941 the 4th AA Brigade HQ and five fresh AA units arrived by ship, along with an additional twelve 40mm Bofors and eight 3.7-inch guns configured for static emplacement; all the latter were immediately co-opted for harbour defence despite a shortage of personnel to construct the necessary emplacements and man them. By 11 April the commander of the Brigade, Brigadier John Nuttall Slater, had at his disposal the 51st Heavy AA Regiment with two batteries of 3.7-inch guns, the 14th Light AA Regiment with a total of seventeen 40mm Bofors, the 306th Searchlight Battery and a number of signal and workshop units. These were supplemented with forty-two Breda 20mm automatic cannon, one twin 37mm Breda, four 102mm guns and two searchlights, all captured from the Italians; the static 3.7-inch guns were later formed into a third battery.

Within fifteen days of the 4th AA Brigade’s arrival, the 3.7-inch guns had been deployed around the harbour in six Sites labelled A, B, C, D, G and H, with B and D Sites being equipped with predictor apparatus for use against high-level targets and for night barrages. The newcomers soon found themselves directly targeted as the Luftwaffe attempted to suppress Tobruk’s AA defences. On 14 April 1941, for example, six to eight Junkers 87s attacked a 3.7-inch Site, killing two, wounding nine and destroying two battery vehicles. As a result of this 4th AA Brigade HQ ordered all gun positions and control posts to be dug in and reinforced, the preparation of alternate gun positions and purely dummy positions to confuse the high-level and dive-bombers; the former tended to make pre-planned attacks based on aerial photography, while the latter identified targets visually during their attacks. The dummy gun positions were sophisticated affairs carefully constructed to be indistinguishable from the real thing, complete with mocked-up guns, flash and dust simulators, vehicle tracks and dummy ammunition dumps. A defensive tactic nicknamed the ‘porcupine’ was also formulated, which involved attacked gun positions pointing all guns outward and firing at maximum rate at an elevation of sixty-five degrees or above. The wisdom and effectiveness of these precautions was to become apparent in due course.

Axis aircraft were an almost permanent feature in the skies above Tobruk during the siege, with high-level bombing raids a daily occurrence from the outset. Their frequency increased markedly from the end of May 1941, with ten to fifteen raids per day on some occasions, and fell off abruptly in October with only four in the first ten days of that month. In all, between 9 April and 10 October a total of 301 separate attacks were recorded reaching a peak with eighty-seven raids during July. The vast majority were directed against the harbour, Tobruk town and surrounding dumps and installations, although at least two high-level attacks were made against troops in the western side of the perimeter. Most were made from 18,000 to 25,000 feet, sometimes in formation and sometimes independently. Bombing from such altitude permitted most attacks to deliver their loads before the AA defences were aware of their presence, which was exacerbated by the location of most of the 3.7-inch gun Sites. While accuracy did not compare to that achievable by dive-bombing they did enjoy some success. The tail end of a stick of bombs destroyed a large dump of captured Italian ammunition four miles south-west of Tobruk town at the beginning of August, for example. For a while the bombers were able to confuse the AA fire control system by attacking in spaced increments; this was overcome by devolving fire control instructions from battery to gun section level, and the handicap of poor early warning was offset to some extent by authorising all guns to engage any target within range without waiting for permission.

There was no respite during the hours of darkness. The port was on the receiving end of a total of 908 night bombing raids between 9 April and 9 October, the peak month being August with 205. For the first two months raids averaged between one and three raids per night, and apart from a handful of aircraft dropping mines into the harbour, involved scattering Italian AR-4 anti-personnel devices across the town and harbour side. The devices were nicknamed ‘Thermos Bombs’ due to their resemblance to the vacuum flask of the same name and were dropped from low level, often in a tight pattern of thirty to forty at a time. The attackers launched a concerted attempt to block the harbour and approaches with mines on the nights of 21, 27 and 30 July, coming in at a variety of heights and directions to confuse the AA defences; this was the first time that the night attacks presented a serious threat to Tobruk. The raids refocused on the town and harbour installations in August, while the bulk of attacks in September took place on moonlit nights and were more balanced between mining missions and attacks on the town; the latter alternated between dropping Thermos devices and larger bombs, with some raids also dropping very large, parachute-delivered aerial mines. On 1 October the attackers dropped incendiary bombs on the town for the first time, but to little effect; as the official report dryly noted, by this point there was little left in the town to burn. The incendiaries nonetheless set parts of the town ablaze, but other enemy aircraft did not appear to make much use of the resulting illumination. Overall the night attacks did not present the AA defences with any special problems, apart from some minor modifications to fire control procedures. By the end of the siege the night barrage was employing twelve Bofors, seventeen 3.7-inch guns along with the five ex-Italian 102mm guns and twin 37mm Bredas.

However, the most intense struggle in the sky above Tobruk took place in daylight, between the AA defences and Sturtzkampfgeschwader 3’s dive-bombers. The contest began on 27 April with an attack on the AA positions covering the harbour by approximately fifty Junkers 87s, with twelve dive-bombers targeting each site. The gun positions went into porcupine mode, engaging all visible targets, and the tactic worked well for the A and C Sites; no bombs landed closer than fifty to a hundred yards and the newly dug gun pits effectively shielded guns, crews and ancillary equipment; only one man was killed and another wounded another. The B and D Sites were not so fortunate. The guns were not manned, the lookouts failed to spot the dive-bombers approaching from out of the sun, and the guns were not properly dug in, with flimsy parapets made of empty oil drums. The attack killed five, wounded over forty and put four of the 3.7-inch guns out of action for forty-eight hours; in addition the cables linking the individual guns to the predictor gear were shredded and the predicting equipment at both Sites was damaged. The B Site was hit again on 12 May, along with the G Site. According to the official report, the latter failed to defend itself with sufficient vigour while the B Site personnel panicked instead of manning their guns. Two men were wounded, one of whom died later, and four guns were put out of action for between twelve and twenty-four hours.

The process of measure and counter-measure set in these early encounters continued in the months that followed. The poor performances of 27 April and 12 May led 4th AA Brigade HQ to order all personnel in gun positions under attack to take part in the fight using small-arms, with only the unarmed being permitted to seek cover. Each gun pit was issued a Breda machine-gun for this purpose, although these had to be sited some distance away to avoid being unsighted by the dust kicked up by the larger guns. In addition, all gun pits and control posts were modified to withstand the impact of a 1,000 pound bomb landing within ten yards, and after members of a gun crew were injured by a primed 3.7-inch shell detonating after being struck by shrapnel, ammunition storage was modified so that stored shells faced outward. Observation showed that dive-bombing attacks were most accurate when delivered at a seventy to eighty degree angle, but this left them vulnerable to fire from light AA guns when pulling out at low level. Many attacks were thus made at shallower angles in the region of forty to fifty degrees, which allowed the dive-bombers to retain the safety of altitude at the cost of reduced bombing accuracy; bomb releases at altitudes as high as 6,000 to 8,000 feet were noted over Tobruk harbour, for example. It was also noted that accurate AA fire could provoke attackers to opt for the shallow angle attacks, and gun crews were encouraged to assist this tendency whenever possible.

By June 1941 the dive-bombers were becoming noticeably reluctant to press home their attacks. All of the Junkers 87s involved in attacks on AA positions on 1 and 2 June stayed above 3,000 feet, for example, with none of their bombs coming within 150 yards of their targets as a result; eyewitnesses also reported some aircraft jettisoning their bombs into the sea. The 2 June attack was accompanied by three Henschel 129 observation aircraft, presumably to gather information on the AA defences, and their presence was noted in subsequent raids too. The Luftwaffe tried a number of innovations during July. Some raids were preceded by small groups of Junkers 88s as a diversion, and on 4 July the dive-bombers avoided the 3.7-inch barrage by approaching from the west rather than south. Unfortunately this took them directly over a Bofors emplacement which promptly shot down five with a sixth being downed by a direct hit from a 3.7-inch shell. On 10 August Tobruk’s AA defences deployed a new weapon against an attack by eighteen dive-bombers, the Unrotating Projectile Rocket Barrage, consisting of salvos of 3-inch rockets containing contact-fused parachute mines on 400-foot cables. The mines were ejected automatically when the rocket reached an altitude of 1,000 feet, and the attacking aircraft were supposed to obligingly snag the cables and pull the mines onto themselves. Overall the system was not a success, although on this occasion its spectacular firing disrupted the incoming formation, two dive-bombers detonated mines with unknown results and another ended up with a mine parachute wrapped around its tail.

Over the next two weeks the attackers tried attacking through low cloud, approaching simultaneously from three different directions and preceding the latter with a diversionary gliding attack on the harbour. On the other side of the fence, the presence of the Henschel 126 prompted the AA defence to amend the porcupine defence by ordering only half the guns in any Site to fire at any one time; the reduction in the intensity of the barrage was considered worthwhile in order to avoid revealing the true gun strength of the defences. On 1 September the Luftwaffe roped in the Regia Aeronautica to assist in an attempt to overwhelm the AA defences by sheer weight of numbers. An estimated mixed force of 120 Junkers 87s, Fiat BR20s and Savoia Marchetti SM.79s attacked the harbour and surrounding AA positions, while additional aircraft bombed positions on the perimeter; this was the single heaviest air raid on Tobruk during the siege. The AA gunners claimed one Junkers 87 shot down, three probables and a number damaged in return for one killed, six wounded and up to five 3.7-inch guns put out of action by shrapnel, all of which were back in action by 16:30. In the event, this mass raid proved to be the penultimate major dive-bombing attack on Tobruk. The last, on 9 September, turned out to be something of an anti-climax, with only one Junkers 87 making a shallow angle attack on the harbour. The remainder of the formation were seen to jettison their bombs on finding no worthwhile shipping targets. Altogether Tobruk withstood sixty-two separate dive-bombings in the course of the siege, and over the same period the AA defences suffered a total of 158 casualties, forty of which were killed in action. In return they claimed ninety enemy aircraft shot down, seventy-four by light AA, a further seventy-seven probables and 183 damaged.

Tobruk Besieged: 4 May 1941 – 25 October 1941 Part II

An aspect of the struggle between the Tobruk garrison and the Luftwaffe that has gone virtually unremarked is the role played by camouflage and deception. The man behind it was Captain Peter Proud RE, who arrived at Tobruk after an eventful journey from Cyrenaica during the Benghazi-Tobruk Handicap. He was appointed ‘G3 (Camouflage) Desert Force Attached to the 9th Australian Division’ at some point shortly before 16 April 1941, and on that date wrote to a Major Barkas at GHQ Middle East explaining the importance of his work and recommending the formation of a dedicated force to help him carry it out; at the time of writing he was co-opting Indian Sikh troops in increments of 200 on a day-to-day basis. The latter were employed gathering and preparing a stock of materials that included approximately 2,000 coloured nets, 20,000 yards of natural Hessian, 250 gallons of assorted paint, a number of stirrup pumps for use as improvised sprayers, and an ex-Italian workshop with tools and an electrically powered band saw among other equipment. The nets were modified with strips of Hessian referred to as ‘garnish’ and part painted to match the terrain, the colour of which was likened to the shade of the foundation cosmetic Max Factor No.9. The nets were then configured for specific applications, such as covering pre-manufactured metal frames artillery gun pits. Sufficient equipment was provided to permit artillery sites to place all gun pits, crew bivouacs, slit trenches, ammunition storage and latrines under camouflage.

The latter idea was adapted for other purposes, with smaller frames being manufactured in the workshop to suit positions and even individual slit trenches out on the perimeter, and not just there. A large net was made to cover the gunboat Gnat when occupying her berth in a narrow cove on the south side of the harbour, the vessel’s mast and searchlight top being removed to ease its deployment, and a similar expedient was employed to protect A Lighters while berthed in the harbour. The Lighters were run into the shore bow first near a small headland projecting into the harbour and covered with garnished nets pegged to the shore. The open end of the net was then draped over cables stretched taut behind the Lighters and allowed to dangle down to the water; from the air the camouflaged vessels looked like an innocuous extension of the headland. A system for camouflaging aircraft was also formulated, using three thirty-five foot square camouflage nets linked in a T-shape, pegged out over specially made support posts mounted in sand-filled petrol cans. Blast walls and slit trenches for ground crew were constructed under the netting.

Many of Proud’s initiatives were equally simple but effective. A drive-through paint-spray booth was set up for vehicles at the building Proud had commandeered as a combined store house and workshop. To stretch the limited supply of paint, vehicles were sprayed with used engine oil scrounged from the garrison’s REME vehicle workshops before being driven outside for a second coat of sand and dust that blended perfectly with the surrounding terrain; instructions, oil and other kit were available for units to camouflage their own vehicles on request. The booth was later augmented with a mobile spray unit, using a captured Italian compressor mounted on a 15 cwt truck, equipped with fifty gallon oil drums as a paint reservoir and a folding ladder for spraying tall buildings and tents. Fuel dumps were concealed by distributing the fuel cans in irregular linked patterns stacked only one or two cans high to avoid casting tell-tale shadows. These were then flanked by berms formed from supply boxes filled with sand and then coated with oil and more sand to protect the fuel cans from shrapnel.

In addition to merely hiding things from enemy view, Proud supervised the construction and execution of a number of novel and in some instances highly sophisticated deception measures. At the lower end of the scale wrecked vehicles were positioned to the south of weapon pits in order to cast them in shadow, and discarded Italian uniforms were stuffed to create dummy personnel to man dummy positions. Decoy tanks were constructed from camouflage nets covering a stone sangar to the front surmounted by a wooden frame and pole to simulate the turret and gun. Proud’s workshops also produced a more sophisticated version of wood and canvas with painted running gear and folding mudguards fashioned from petrol cans along with a 3 ton truck of similar construction, some mounted on wheels to ease movement. There was also a plan to produce dummy fighter aircraft of similar construction, complete with compressors to simulate propeller wash, although it in unclear if they were actually produced. Convoy movements were simulated by single vehicles towing a number of weighted sledge-like devices, while sea water was used to damp down the dust created when moving guns between locations.

On a grander scale, a fake fuel dump was constructed, complete with a convoy of wrecked Italian vehicles towed into position on the supposed approach road. The dummy AA positions with gunfire simulators and other equipment constructed in the vicinity of the harbour have been mentioned above, and a similar site was constructed 1,000 yards from one of the 51st Heavy AA Regiment’s positions facing the Ras El Medauar in mid-May. The dummy incorporated four unserviceable guns and was sufficiently convincing to draw German artillery fire directed by a Henschel 126, while the real site was left unmolested. Perhaps the most spectacular was a scheme to deceive the enemy into thinking that Tobruk’s coal-fired power station had been damaged and put out of action. During a daylight raid smoke bombs were set off near the station and one of its tall chimneys was brought down by a demolition charge, empty crates were scattered in the vicinity along with pieces of corrugated iron and other bits of scrap metal; sheets of hessian painted to represent bomb holes were hung on the building itself later.

Unfortunately camouflage and deception was of limited value to the vessels carrying supplies into the besieged port and evacuating the wounded and prisoners on the return trip. Air attacks thus took an increasing toll on shipping in the approaches to Tobruk and the harbour itself. On 1 May the minesweeper Milford Countess was machine-gunned while picking up the crew of a downed Blenheim, and a high-level bombing attack on two A Lighters being reloaded for the return trip on their designated beach in the north-east corner of the harbour killed one crewman and wounded another; other A Lighters nearby beneath Captain Proud’s camouflage netting remained unnoticed. As a result of the incident it was recommended that A Lighters only be used for embarkation at Tobruk in an emergency. On the afternoon of 2 May a dozen Stukas attacked shipping therein and two days later, in a rerun of the events of 14 April, another dive-bombing attack set the engine-room of the Hospital Ship Karapara ablaze on the vessel’s second trip to the port after being redirected from Aden; she was towed out of danger and reached the safety of Alexandria on one engine and with jury-rigged steering. On 12 May another mass afternoon raid by thirty Stukas and eight Junkers 88s caught the gunboat Ladybird at the western end of the harbour. One bomb hit a 2-Pounder AA gun on the vessel’s stern, killing its crew and wounded two men manning Italian 20mm weapons mounted nearby, and another detonated in her boiler room blowing out the ship’s bottom and setting her fuel oil tanks ablaze. As the Ladybird listed heavily to starboard her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Jack Blackburn, ordered the wounded evacuated while the forward 3-inch and 2-Pounder guns continued to engage the attackers; the latter remained in service after the gunboat had settled upright in ten feet of water.

In all eight ships were lost during May, and not all of them in Tobruk harbour or its environs. The sloop HMS Grimsby and merchantman SS Helka, carrying a cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk, were sunk after being caught by dive-bombers forty miles north-east of the port on 25 May; the anti-submarine trawler Southern Maid which was also accompanying the Helka shot down one of the attackers and damaged another before ferrying the survivors to Mersa Matruh. By the end of May it was virtually impossible to use Tobruk harbour in daylight, and vessels were instructed to avoid approaching the port before dusk and to be well clear before first light. Matters were complicated yet further by Axis aircraft assiduously sowing the harbour and approaches with mines, usually at night, which had to be painstakingly cleared by the minesweepers Arthur Cavanagh, Bagshot, and Milford Countess. Axis torpedo bombers also proved adept at attacking at night, and the movement of petrol and water carriers like the ill-fated Helka was restricted to no-moon periods as a result. A variety of small craft were pressed into service as supply carriers by the Inshore Squadron, and warships visiting Tobruk invariably carried supplies in and wounded out.

Thus by the end of May 1,688 men had been carried into Tobruk and 5,198 lifted out, the latter including wounded, POWs and unnecessary administrative personnel. In addition, 2,593 tons of assorted supplies had also been delivered, a daily average rate of eighty-four tons and fourteen tons above the estimated daily requirement. Even so, at the beginning of June the loss rate had become prohibitive and Eastern Mediterranean Fleet HQ in Alexandria temporarily decreed that only destroyers should be employed on Tobruk supply runs because their speed permitted them to make the round trip in darkness. The wisdom of this decision was highlighted on 24 June, when an attempt to get another cargo of water and petrol into Tobruk aboard the SS Pass of Balmaha, escorted by the sloops HMS Auckland and HMAS Paramatta, again ended in disaster. The little flotilla was attacked by torpedo bombers approximately twenty miles north-east of Tobruk, and then by a total of forty-eight Junkers 87s in three groups. The Auckland was abandoned after being badly hit and sank after almost breaking in two while the Paramatta was picking up survivors. The Pass of Balmaha was also badly damaged and temporarily abandoned, but was eventually towed into Tobruk after dark by the destroyer HMAS Waterhen. Even then, night runs provided insufficient protection for the destroyers as Axis aircraft proved adept at locating them and attacking with the aid of moonlight, and the fast runs had to be further restricted to no-moon periods. Runs were made by up to three destroyers per night and the fast minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona once a week; during the no-moon period in August 1941 the minelayers made seven round trips to Tobruk and the destroyers twenty-seven.

The regular Spud Runs by the A Lighters and other small vessels continued throughout. The latter, consisting of a number of small, aged merchantmen and four captured Italian fishing schooners, were responsible for carrying in most of Tobruk’s food. The schooner Maria Giovanni, commanded by Lieutenant Alfred Palmer RNR, was perhaps the most famous, making runs into Tobruk loaded to capacity with assorted victuals, sometimes including live sheep and bristling with jury rigged weaponry. She was lost after a German decoy lured her onto the shore in mistake for the light marking the entrance to Tobruk harbour; Palmer was shot and wounded trying to escape and was repatriated to his native Australia two years later. The A Lighters were based at Mersa Matruh from June 1941, carrying vehicles, ammunition and fuel into Tobruk and, time and enemy activity permitting, returning with cargoes of damaged equipment for repair in Egyptian workshops, wounded and prisoners. Attack could come at any time. One A Lighter was sunk by a magnetic mine as it approached its unloading point inside Tobruk harbour, and on another occasion two more were attacked by dive-bombers off Sidi Barrani. A four hour fight ensued during which the A Lighters fired off over 1,000 rounds, in the course of which one was sunk by multiple bomb hits. Only one crewman survived, after forcing himself through a small scuttle as the vessel went down, breaking all his ribs in the process. The second was taken in tow by a tug from Tobruk, but was so badly damaged she broke up and sank en route.

Neither were mines and aircraft the only threat. In the evening of 9 October a convoy of three A Lighters, A2, A7 and A18, left Mersa Matruh loaded with tanks, intending to rendezvous with an anti-submarine trawler and air cover at around noon the following day. At 04:00 on 10 October they were attacked by a U-Boat on the surface, whose gunfire damaged the A18’s bridge, cut her degaussing cable, carried away her mast and badly wounded her navigator. The A Lighter responded with its own armament and A7, commanded by Sub-Lieutenant Dennis Peters, part lowered her bow ramp with the intention of ramming but the U-Boat disappeared. The convoy then became split, with A18 limping back to Mersa Matruh while the other two A Lighters pushed on to Tobruk. The remainder of the voyage was far from uneventful. The air and sea cover failed to materialise and the A Lighters came under attack from a dozen aircraft at 17:00, from two more at 22:00 and from enemy coastal guns at around midnight; to round things off Tobruk was undergoing a heavy air raid when they finally arrived at 01:30 on 10 October. After unloading A2 and A7 sailed back out of Tobruk harbour at dusk on 11 October. They were ambushed at around midnight by U-75 lurking inshore, again using guns rather than torpedoes. A7 suffered several hits that set her engine room and mess deck on fire, while return fire forced the U-Boat to submerge. The A2 took the A7’s wounded aboard and put the vessel in tow when the latter’s commander, Sub-Lieutenant Bromley, declined to scuttle her. The U-75 then reappeared and sank both vessels with gunfire. Only one crewman of the thirty-seven men aboard the two vessels survived, being picked up by the same U-Boat after twenty-four hours in the water. Eleven days later the gunboat Gnat was torpedoed by the U-79 off Bardia; she was towed back to Alexandria by the destroyer Jaguar where she was beached and written off.

The first attempt to relieve Tobruk came in mid-June, using recently arrived equipment from the UK. When the presence of 15 Panzer Division in Libya was confirmed in mid-April 1941 Lieutenant-General Wavell had appealed to London for reinforcements, and on 21 April Churchill and the Defence Committee authorised the despatch of a special convoy. Codenamed TIGER, the convoy consisted of five fast merchant vessels, the Clan Chattan, Clan Lamont, Clan Campbell, Empire Song and New Zealand Star, carrying a total of 295 tanks and forty-three Hurricane fighters. By mid-May Wavell’s need had grown even more acute, as the failure of Operation BREVITY reduced the Western Desert Force’s armoured strength to a single Squadron of Cruiser Tanks located at Mersa Matruh and up to forty vehicles undergoing workshop repair. Arriving at Gibraltar on 5 May, TIGER was directed through the Mediterranean rather than taking the longer Cape route in order to cut forty days from the journey time; this was the first convoy to run the gauntlet since January 1941 when Fliegerkorps X had badly mauled Operation EXCESS, sinking the cruiser Southampton and seriously damaging the cruiser Gloucester and aircraft-carrier Illustrious. Virtually the entire strength of H Force and the Mediterranean Fleet operating from Gibraltar and Alexandria respectively was mobilised to protect TIGER, including the battleships Barham, Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and Warspite, and the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Formidable. The convoy docked in Alexandria on the morning of 12 May, after fighting off numerous day and night air attacks and accompanied by a telegram from Churchill quoting Scripture: ‘For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of Salvation have I succoured thee; behold now is the day of salvation.’ The TIGER convoy did not escape totally unscathed. The New Zealand Star and Empire Song detonated mines at around midnight on 8 May. The former suffered minor damage but the latter caught fire, blew up and sank at 04:00 on 9 May, taking fifty-seven tanks and ten Hurricanes with her.

The Western Desert Force thus received a total of 238 tanks: twenty-one Mark VIC Light Tanks, thirty-two Cruisers, fifty of the latest Mark VI Cruisers dubbed ‘Crusaders’ and 135 Matildas. These were immediately earmarked for Operation BATTLEAXE, for which Wavell issued his orders on 28 May. The attack was to be commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, and carried out by Major-General Frank Messervy’s 4th Indian Division and the ubiquitous 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh. The first phase was to be a three-pronged attack to recapture the frontier area with the 4th Indian Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade securing the Halfaya Pass, Sollum, Bardia and Fort Capuzzo, while the 7th Armoured Division looped around to the south to deal with the Panzers believed to be concentrated in the vicinity of the Hafid Ridge, just west of Fort Capuzzo. With this done the attack force was to relieve Tobruk and destroy any enemy forces in the region of El Adem before exploiting as far west as possible toward Mechili and Derna. Although the TIGER convoy arrived on 12 May, it took some time to unload the new vehicles, disperse them to workshops and modify them for desert service, and 10 June 1941 was earliest possible date for launching BATTLEAXE. In the event several days were added to allow the crews time to train with their new tanks, and for the 7th Armoured Division to train as a formation, having not operated as such for several months. In parallel with this the RAF stepped up its day and night attacks upon Axis airfields, the port of Benghazi and the columns carrying supplies and munitions up to the border area, right up to the point where the BATTLEAXE force left its concentration areas for its start lines near Buq Buq and Sofafi on the afternoon of 14 June. It was going up against a number of fortified positions strung out between Sidi Azeiz and Halfaya, equipped with mines and anti-tank guns. The line had been ordered by Rommel as a precaution after BREVITY and was backed by newly arrived Generalleutnant Walther Neumann-Sylkow’s 15 Panzer Division, with the Trento Division under command; 5 Leichte Division was held in reserve south-east of Tobruk.

The attack began at dawn on 15 June. The 7th RTR had taken Fort Capuzzo by the early afternoon, and after being reinforced by the 22nd Guards Brigade, succeeded in repelling a series of small counter-attacks by elements of Panzer Regiment 8. Other elements subdued a German position atop a height to the south known as Point 206, after a hard fight that saw one Squadron from the 4th RTR reduced to a single Matilda, while a battalion from the 22nd Guards Brigade occupied Musaid to the south-east. However, the attack to secure the Halfaya Pass was stopped by a combination of mines, anti-tank guns and armoured cars despite numerous attempts by tanks and infantry to push forward. The 7th Armoured Brigade reached the Hafid Ridge at around 09:00, but then ran into dug-in German anti-tank guns that the Cruisers lacked the firepower to deal with; at least four of the German guns were 88mm pieces. An attempt to outflank the guns from the west in the late morning was halted when the complexity of the enemy positions became apparent, losing a number of tanks in the process. At around 17:30 the Crusader-equipped 6th RTR launched a hasty attack after receiving reports that the German anti-tank screen was withdrawing; the withdrawal was a ploy and eleven Crusaders were knocked out in a well-executed ambush. The British withdrew under cover of long-range gunnery and the action tapered off with the onset of darkness despite the arrival of a number of Panzers from the north. By nightfall the attack had achieved only one of its initial objectives, and at some cost. The 7th Armoured Brigade had thus been reduced to forty-eight tanks, and the 4th Armoured Brigade had only thirty-seven Matildas left of the hundred or so it had begun the battle with. Many of these were repairable but the withdrawal made retrieval difficult.

The pendulum swung to some extent on 16 June. Panzer Regiment 8 launched a pincer attack on Fort Capuzzo at 06:00, led by Generalleutnant Neumann-Sylkow in person. The attack was fought off by dug-in Matildas and 25-Pounder guns brought up during the night; by 10:00 approximately fifty Panzers had been put out of action, and Neumann-Sylkow broke off the attack at around midday. British attempts to renew the attack on the Halfaya Pass were stymied again, while the 7th Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Support Group fought a day-long running battle with 5 Leichte Division that ran south for the fifteen miles from Hafid Ridge to Sidi Omar, and then east toward the Cyrenaica–Egypt border. The Panzers skilfully orchestrated the superior range of their 50mm and short 75mm guns, using the latter to knock out the British 25-Pounders to clear the way for the Panzer IIIs, which then exploited the superior range and penetrating power of the former against the 2-Pounder armed Cruisers Tanks. By evening the 7th Armoured Brigade had been pushed well east of the border, and only darkness saved it from a strong German attack launched at 19:00. Rommel, meanwhile, had decided to concentrate his force to encircle and destroy the 7th Armoured Brigade, and at 16:00 ordered 15 Panzer to leave a screen at Fort Capuzzo and move south-east through the night to join 5 Leichte Division.

The redeployment of 15 Panzer Division threatened to leave the 4th Indian Division and 4th Armoured Brigade high and dry in the vicinity of Fort Capuzzo and Sollum. Fortunately for them Messervy learned of the German move during the night of 16–17 June and ordered a withdrawal on his own initiative, instructing the surviving Matildas to form a protective screen to cover the infantry. The Panzers resumed their advance at 04:30, and by 08:00 5 Leichte Division had reached Sidi Suleiman, twenty miles or so inside Egypt and due south of the Halfaya Pass. Two hours later they made contact with the armoured screen protecting the withdrawal of the 11th Indian Brigade and the 22nd Guards Brigade, sparking a battle that went on for the rest of the day. The British armour held the Panzers back until 16:00, by which time Messervy’s infantry had successfully evaded the developing trap.

Thus by 17 June Egypt lay virtually undefended once again, and Rommel was once again incapable of exploiting his advantage, having overtaxed his tenuous supply line. Operation BATTLEAXE cost the British 122 dead, 588 wounded and 259 missing, along with sixty-four Matildas and twenty-seven assorted Cruisers and Crusaders; many of the tanks were only damaged or broken down but had to be abandoned on the battlefield during the withdrawal. Overall, Afrikakorps tank losses were substantially lower for although a total of fifty Panzers were put out of action in the course of the battle, only twelve were totally destroyed. The remainder were returned to service by recovery and repair crews, underscoring the importance of retaining control of the battlefield. There was less disparity in the human cost with German units suffering a total of ninety-three killed, 350 wounded and 235 missing, while the Trento Division lost an additional 592 casualties. The failure of BATTLEAXE also prompted a major reshuffle among the British senior commanders. Dissatisfied with Wavell but unable to simply remove him for political reasons, Churchill arranged a sideways exchange with the Commander-in-Chief India, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, with effect from 1 July 1941. Beresford-Peirse was replaced as Commander Western Desert Force by Lieutenant-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen, and Creagh was supplanted as commander of the 7th Armoured Division by newly promoted Major-General William Gott.

While the Ras El Medauar salient saw the most intense fighting of the siege, matters were far from quiescent elsewhere on the perimeter due to Morshead’s First World War policy of dominating no-man’s land. On a day-to-day basis this consisted of maintaining outposts forward of the main defence line, manned by two or three men equipped with a field telephone during daylight and carrying out aggressive patrols during the night, with larger raids to pre-empt enemy action or keep him off balance being mounted where necessary. On 13 May, for example a company from the 2/43rd Battalion, supported by eight Matilda tanks and seven Bren Carriers launched a dawn attack on an Italian strongpoint straddling the Bardia Road a mile east of the perimeter, and on 30 May a clash between a patrol of three Light and four Cruiser Tanks and a force of enemy tanks on the southern side of the perimeter sparked a roving skirmish that lasted most of the day. The garrison also disrupted the largely Italian construction of minefields and defences along the southern sector, not least by lifting and stealing newly laid enemy mines. On 1 July Lieutenant-Colonel Colonel Allan Spowers of the 2/24th Battalion led a party of fifty with three trucks that returned with 500 German anti-tank mines, and exactly a month later a patrol from the 2/13th Battalion occupied a partly built position during darkness and ambushed the Italian working party as it came forward to work, killing four, taking one prisoner and scattering the remainder. It was not all ambushes and hostility on the perimeter, and in another echo of the First World War a live-and-let-live system developed between friend and foe. Local truces to allow the dead and wounded from clashes to be evacuated were common, and on the sector straddling the El Adem road both sides observed a daily semi-official cease-fire for the two hours before midnight, the end of which was signalled by a burst of tracer fired vertically into the air.

Such niceties were not unknown on the Ras El Medauar sector, but relations between the Australians and the German units manning the salient had an edge not apparent in the formers’ relatively benign attitude to the Italians. Sniping was a popular pastime, and the commander of 2 Bataillon, Infanterie Regiment 115 referred to the remarkable marksmanship of his opponents, who he credited with killing a number of NCOs doing their rounds in front-line positions. Morshead launched another attempt to reduce the Ras El Medauar salient at 03:30 on 3 August, after intensive reconnaissance patrolling had mapped out the defences. The attack was again a two-pronged affair intended to envelop the feature carried out by the 2/28th Battalion to the north and the 2/43rd Battalion to the south. The latter failed to get beyond the anti-tank ditch protecting Post R6, and while the former managed to secure S7 the small party holding it were again cut off and overwhelmed by a German counter-attack the following night. The attack cost the attackers a total of 188 casualties from the 264 men involved, while the defenders from Infanterie Regiments 104 and 115 lost twenty-two killed and thirty-eight wounded. The 3 August attack proved to be the final Australian attempt to retake the Ras El Medauar.

In the event, the 9th Australian Division was not to see Tobruk relieved either. Sir Robert Menzies’ Government had despatched the 2nd AIF to the Middle East in 1940 as a complete Corps, and on the understanding that its constituent divisions and sub-formations would continue to serve in that capacity. To this end the commander of the 2nd AIF, Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey, reported directly to the Australian Minister of Defence and was tasked to ensure the integrity of his command. With the exception of the 18th Australian Brigade’s temporary posting to the UK in the wake of Dunkirk, the understanding was respected until circumstances conspired against it in 1941, with Blamey’s Corps HQ and the 6th Australian Division joining the Greek expedition while the 7th Australian Division fought the Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria and the 9th Division went to Cyrenaica before being trapped at Tobruk. Blamey began agitating for the reassembly of his Corps after the Greek evacuation, and officially requested Wavell relieve the 9th Australian after the failure of BATTLEAXE, to join its sister divisions in Palestine. He was supported in this by Menzies and the Australian Government from at least 20 July 1941, when Menzies raised the matter with Churchill, which he did again on 7 August. The Australian Government’s interest was driven at least in part by public opinion, which gained the erroneous impression from news reports and German propaganda that Morshead’s men were fighting the Desert War single-handed, and there was also widespread and exaggerated concern over the privations they were suffering. The resulting furore forced Menzies to resign on 28 August. By that time Auchinleck, loath to lose seasoned units on the front line, had reluctantly agreed to the relief of part of the garrison and the operation had been going on for nine days.

The first lift of the relief was codenamed Operation TREACLE, allegedly because the RN personnel charged with carrying it out thought it would be a ‘sticky business’. The lift was carried out across the no-moon period beginning on 19 August in order to avoid moonlight air or surface attack. The RAF bombed Axis airfields after dark, loitering to prevent the airfields operating their runway lights, while the RN and the garrison’s own guns bombarded enemy artillery positions near Bardia. The latter was also intended to suppress ‘Bardia Bill’, the garrison’s nickname for a heavy gun or guns that had taken to dropping shells into Tobruk harbour. Most sources are vague on the details with the weapon or weapons being described as being of 8-inch calibre of possibly German or Italian provenance. The guns may have belonged to Artillerie Kommand 104, a siege artillery train despatched to Libya on Hitler’s orders to assist with the reduction of Tobruk. Commanded by Generalmajor Karl Böttcher, the unit was deployed around Belhammed, five miles south-east of the perimeter and was equipped with almost 200 assorted guns, including nine 210mm pieces. In Tobruk the harbour defences were strengthened by moving mobile 3.7-inch AA guns back from the perimeter, and two wrecked vessels were pressed into service as improvised jetties; according to one account they were connected to the shore by pontoon bridge. In addition the small vessels and A Lighters from the Inshore Squadron in the harbour on the nights of the lift were held back to assist with unloading. The lift was carried out by the minelaying cruisers Abdiel and Latona and the destroyers Encounter, Havoc, Jarvis, Jaguar, Kimberley, Kipling, Latima and Nizam.

For ten consecutive nights two destroyers, carrying 350 troops apiece and one of the cruisers, carrying an additional 400, entered Tobruk harbour, accompanied by a third destroyer carrying up to 200 tons of supplies. The cruiser was unloaded at anchor out in the harbour by the A Lighters and small vessels, and the supply destroyer moored alongside the permanent quay while the troop-carrying destroyers exchanged their human cargo over the improvised jetties. According to an eyewitness, the destroyers completed their exchange in ten minutes, and all four vessels were underway again with their new passengers within thirty minutes. This was not an arbitrary time period, for if the ships spent any longer in Tobruk harbour they would not be clear of Sollum and thus the clutches of the Luftwaffe by dawn. By 29 August General Stanislaw Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade had been delivered safely to Tobruk. Formed in 1940 from Polish regular troops who elected to continue the fight with the French, the Brigade had been posted to Syria and defected to the British in preference to serving the Vichy French regime after the fall of France in 1940. In exchange Brigadier George Wootten’s 18th Australian Brigade had been carried to Alexandria, along with the 16th Anti-Tank Company, the 2/4th Field Company, the 2/4th Field Ambulance, the 51st Field Regiment RA and the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment. The lift did not go totally unscathed. The destroyer Nizam was damaged by an air attack, and the cruiser HMS Phoebe, part of the treacle covering force, was so badly damaged by an Italian torpedo bomber on 27 August that she had to be sent to the US for repair.

Churchill and the British senior command appears to have hoped that returning the 18th Australian Brigade to its parent 7th Australian Division in Palestine would placate the Australian Government, but it soon became apparent that only the relief of the 9th Australian Division in its entirety would do. Menzies’ successor Arthur Fadden took up the gauntlet with Churchill within days of taking office, and reiterated the Australian position in no uncertain terms to the Dominions Office ten days later. Auchinleck appears to have been resigned to the fact by 10 September, given that he was discussing options with the War Office on that date. In the event, the 9th Australian Division left Tobruk in two lifts. Operation SUPERCHARGE ran from 19 to 27 September, and saw the 24th Australian Brigade and the 2/4th Field Park Company carried to Alexandria in exchange for the 16th Infantry Brigade and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade Forward HQ. The latter was augmented by four Light Tanks and forty-eight Matildas from the 4th Armoured Brigade, carried into Tobruk by A Lighter. C Squadron 4th RTR came in aboard Lighter A7, part of the convoy with A2 and A18 that ran into the unknown U-Boat on the night of 9−10 October. The tank crews were sleeping on the tarpaulins covering their vehicles, and when the gunfire began they unshipped their Matildas’ co-axial Besa machine-guns and went on deck to join the fray. A Trooper Weech was credited with scoring hits on the U-Boat when it appeared fifty yards off the Lighter’s port side, along with Sub-Lieutenant Peters wielding a Thompson gun on the bridge. According to one account C Squadron’s commander talked Peters out of trying to ram the U-Boat by pointing out the importance of delivering his tanks intact, and the two shared a celebratory whisky on the bridge after the U-Boat finally disappeared.

The third and final lift, codenamed CULTIVATE, ran for thirteen days beginning on 12 October, the extension being necessary because the lift had been expanded to include the remaining two-thirds of Morshead’s Division. Thus the 9th Australian Division HQ, Australian 4th Field Hospital, 20th and 24th Australian Brigades were taken off and replaced with the 14th and 23rd Brigades, the 62nd General Hospital and the 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion, which was attached to General Kopanski’s 1st Independent Carpathian Brigade. Moving the Australian infantry off the front line and getting the newcomers in place without weakening the defences or alerting the enemy was a complex and fraught business, and the timetable and organisation was a triumph of staff work in its own right. The Operation nonetheless proceeded as smoothly as its two predecessors until the final individual lift scheduled to move the 20th Australian Brigade HQ and the 2/13th Battalion on the night of 25−26 October. The convoy, consisting of the cruisers Abdiel and Latona and destroyers Encounter and Hero were spotted on the inbound leg near Bardia, possibly by a U-Boat, and underwent fifteen attacks by aircraft between 19:00 and 23:00. The Latona was hit in the engine room and the resulting fire grew out of control. The Hero closed in to take off the cruiser’s troops and crew and suffered structural damage from three bomb near-misses in the process. The Latona sank two hours later after a magazine explosion, possibly with the assistance of Encounter; thirty seven of Latona’s crew died in the attack. By the time all this was over it was too late to proceed safely to Tobruk and the convoy thus returned to Alexandria leaving the 2/13th Battalion stranded in Tobruk, a victim of its battalion number according to some of its men. The unit therefore returned to its positions within the perimeter where it remained until Tobruk was relieved by ground forces at the end of the following month; through this accident the 2/13th Battalion thus earned the distinction of being the only Australian unit to serve with the Tobruk garrison throughout the siege.

In all Operations TREACLE, SUPERCHARGE and CULTIVATE successfully shuttled in the region of 15,000 men out of Tobruk and carried a similar number into the port over a total of thirty-one nights. The shortest, SUPERCHARGE, took out 5,444 men and in excess of 500 wounded, and brought in 6,308 and 2,100 tons of supplies in just eight nights. Apart from the stranded 2/13th Battalion, the Australian role in the story of Tobruk now came to an end, although a large number of Morshead’s men would not be leaving under any circumstances. Between April and October 1941, the 9th Australian Division lost 744 men killed, along with 1,974 wounded and a further 476 missing. In the process they and their comrades established a legendary reputation based on standing firm in the face of stifling heat, sandstorms, thirst, hunger and everything Rommel could throw at them. It was now up to their replacements to carry out the final act in the siege.

‘X Lighters’

A number [100] of large purpose-built `X Lighters’ had been developed by the Navy in the First World War and these contributed to the landings at Suvla Bay in 1915.

Although something of a military sideshow, the campaign at Gallipoli also made a contribution to the acceptance of the internal combustion engine for marine use. Anticipating the need to land troops and equipment on beaches here and elsewhere, the British Admiralty ordered large numbers of small landing craft. To ensure a shallow draught, these X-lighters were fitted with lightweight motors, many being hot-bulb engines. After the war, these X-lighters were sold off and many were converted for commercial use, giving some British coastal shipowners their first experience of the motor vessel.

The search for a more suitable landing craft continued after the war and this requirement was consistently emphasised in exercise reports. In the 1920s an inter-service Landing Craft Committee was established to study the design and number of craft required to conduct a landing on a hostile shore. Their first attempt at a landing craft was the Motor Landing Craft (MLC(1)) completed in 1926. This craft was not a success and was followed in 1928 by the MLC(10). The MLC(10) was a flat-bottomed craft powered by a water jet. It could embark 100 troops or a 12-ton tank, discharging them directly onto the beach via a steep bow ramp. The water jet gave it a relatively slow speed of only 5 knots and the boat’s flat bottom and bow ramp made it rather unseaworthy, handicaps that are common in modern amphibious craft. By 1934 the MLC had been thoroughly tested in a series of exercises and the design proved satisfactory. Two more vessels were procured and these were joined by six more, ordered as a result of the 1936 Abyssinian crisis.

X-Lighters in WWI and at Gallipoli

X Lighters

Displacement 200 tons
 Dimensions  105ft 6″ x 21 x 7ft 6″
 Guns Unarmed (The crew may have had side arms for self-defence or covering fire on the beaches)
 Machinery  steam or diesel engines, speed 8 kts
 Crew  4
 Builders  various
 Laid Down  1915
 Completed  1915- 18

RNZAF Hercules I

KIW44/NZ7003 C-130H on 40 Squadron RNZAF with troops of the 25th Airborne Brigade JBER during Exercise ‘Talisman Sabre’ in 2015.

40 Squadron RNZAF at Whenuapai operates five C-130Hs, including the first three production H models which, were delivered in April 1965. The squadron’s duties include flights to the Antarctic base at McMurdo. The first major operation carried out by the RNZAF C-130Hs was in July 1965 when the three aforementioned C-130Hs (followed by the other two in January 1969) airlifted the New Zealand Army’s 161 Artillery battery and its equipment from New Zealand to Biên Hòa AFB in South Việtnam. Over seven days, 14-21 July, the aircraft carried ninety-six soldiers, five 105mm howitzers, fourteen laden Land Rovers, eight trailers, two water tankers and other equipment – a total of seventy tons. 40 Squadron continued regular flights in support of New Zealand’s contribution to this war, flying into Saïgon and Vũng Tàu. Between 6-19 April 1975 it made three trips between Saïgon and Singapore to evacuate New Zealand Embassy staff, refugee children and news media representatives.

‘There is no doubt that the C-130E is the right aircraft for the job. It will perform effectively, efficiently and economically, in both strategic and tactical roles.’ These were the words of Air Vice-Marshal Ian Morrison, Chief of the RNZAF Air Staff in August 1962. When the RNZAF entered the 1960s its heavy transport fleet consisted of three Handley Page Hastings Mk.IIIs. These aircraft were required to over the globe to meet RNZAF and New Zealand Government requirements. Delivered during 1952 and 1953, the Hastings was World War Two technology and at the end of their economical life. Furthermore, as ‘tail-draggers’, with only side doors for loading they were not suitable for the vast range of cargoes moved by the RNZAF. The search for a replacement heavy transport aircraft commenced as a result of the 1961 ‘Defence White Paper’, which directed replacement of the existing transport fleet. As an interim measure, three DC-6 aircraft were purchased from Tasman Empire Airlines Limited (TEAL) to augment the Hastings.

Air Staff in Defence Headquarters, Wellington, commenced research into the selection of a suitable aircraft to replace the Hastings and DC-6s. One of the officers involved, Wing Commander Richard Bolt, described the process for developing the specifications for the new transport. ‘I took the specifications and information on the Hercules from the Lockheed brochures and this formed the basis for the Air Staff Requirement.’ The proposal also required the selected aircraft to carry out maritime surveillance using ‘roll-on’ maritime modules. The maritime role was later dropped when the Orion aircraft became the obvious choice for this role. The 17th of June 1963 was a red letter day for the RNZAF. ‘HERCULES ARE ON!! three now, five later.’ The headlines of the RNZAF News said it all. Cabinet had approved an immediate order of three C-130E aircraft, including spares and support equipment, at a cost of £13.5 million (NZ). Approval in principle was also given for the eventual purchase of five maritime versions. By July 1964 the production of the RNZAF’s first three Hercules (NZ7001-7003) was under way at the Lockheed plant at Marietta, Georgia. By then the choice had been made to take the new C-130H model aircraft – the first production models of this variant. At that time, the primary difference, between the E and H models was the more powerful T56-A-15 engines in the H model. Three technical officers and 32 airmen commenced sixteen weeks of training at Travis Air Force Base on 17 June 1964. They then trained at various AFBs for the remainder of that year. Three aircrews were sent to the US for conversion training at the end of 1964. It was a profound shock to the aircrews when they arrived for training at Lackland AFB to find that they were scheduled to attend a school for ‘language training’.

Air Commodore Carey William Adamson, a Flying Officer at the time, recalls the incident. ‘We were to take a written test to establish our level of proficiency in English. This we refused to do. A senior officer was summoned and it was quickly apparent that there had been a major misunderstanding. Whoever had made up the training package for the RNZAF was not aware that New Zealanders spoke English. It was not possible to bring forward the rest of our training, so we spent the time at Lackland learning about the Constitution, the history of the United States, the federal system of Government, the philosophy and rules of American football and the finer technical points of baseball. This information was not wasted and proved valuable in following years.’

Air Commodore Adamson also recalls the delivery flights of the Hercules. ‘We went to the Lockheed plant in Georgia to pick up our new aircraft and on 1 April 1965 our crew flew NZ7002 for the first time. That was the beginning of a thirteen year personal relationship with a magnificent and elegant lady. We went on a navigational exercise on 5 April to check out cruise procedures and left for New Zealand on 8 April 1965.’ The other two Hercules also headed home that day.

Navigator Bob Howe, then a Flight Lieutenant, recalls his arrival in Wellington, New Zealand on NZ7003. ‘We were directed to return to Wellington first for a reception by the Prime Minister and the Chief of Air Staff. Two things stand out about the arrival: Firstly we got too close for comfort to the Hutt Valley power lines on a holding run; and secondly we knew we were home when a civil pilot, forced to hold because of our arrival, complained ‘what about us taxpayers?’ Shortly after noon on 14 April 1965 the first three Hercules arrived at Wellington’s Rongotai Airport, to a formal reception ceremony, headed by the Prime Minister (The Right Honourable Keith Jacka Holyoake). ‘I am sure that we have chosen wisely and well,’ he said of the Hercules.

In the months immediately after arrival, the three Hercules were seen above most New Zealand cities and towns as the RNZAF showed off its new acquisitions. Overseas trips were undertaken. On 29 April 1965 NZ7001 and its crew flew from RNZAF Base Auckland to Honolulu. Covering 3,840 nm in twelve hours and twenty minutes, it was the longest distance flown by New Zealand civil or military aircraft in a single day. Another major overseas trip was in May 1965, when one aircraft flew to Singapore and returned home via the Philippines where it uplifted support equipment for 5 Squadron Sunderlands.

The first major operation carried out by the RNZAF’s new Hercules took them straight into a war! The three aircraft airlifted the New Zealand Army’s 161 Artillery Battery and its equipment from New Zealand to Biên Hòa AFB in South Việtnam. Over seven days the aircraft carried 96 soldiers, five 105mm howitzers, fourteen laden Land Rovers, eight trailers, two water tankers and other equipment – in total seventy tons. The first flight was made on 14 July and the last on 21 July 1965. Each aircraft stopped only for fuel and a crew change at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Just twenty hours after leaving New Zealand the soldiers were in the harsh operational environment of South Việtnam. There was much public dissension over the role of the New Zealand Armed Forces in the Việtnam War. The Air Force’s involvement in the carriage of the Army Artillery units was conducted in utmost secrecy before the event. Sergeant Air Quartermaster Vern Carter remembers the degree of subterfuge used to disguise the involvement.

‘We were scheduled to fly to Singapore, leaving Whenuapai (RNZAF Auckland) on Monday morning 5 July 1965. We loadies were asked to come in on the Sunday morning and supervise the loading. On arrival at the Squadron hangar, there were no signs of aircraft on the tarmac. Instead we were confronted by the sight of 161 Battery’s Land Rovers and artillery waiting outside. They had driven up from Papakura at 0600 hours to avoid confrontation with the Progressive Youth Movement which was opposed to the Việtnam War. Thus we learnt that our ultimate destination was a little further than Singapore and we also learnt the reason for those nasty ‘plague’ jabs. Loading was a doddle, though carried out inside the hangar and the seats were rigged for the accompanying gunners. The technique for landing [at Biên Hòa, Việtnam] was to spiral down from 20,000 feet, remaining within the confines of the airfield, or you could get shot at by the VC around the perimeter of the field. When the aircraft commenced descent, the gunner’s staff sergeant leapt to his feet and bellowed ‘Load weapons’.

‘Whoa,’ yelled a startled Air Quartermaster. ‘Not on my aircraft you don’t.’ He visualised everyone disappearing through a small hole in the side of the still pressurised aircraft. The first confrontation of the war! 40 Squadron Hercules were to continue regular flights in support of New Zealand’s contribution to this war, flying into Saïgon and Vũng Tàu.

Acting Sergeant (later Squadron Leader) Warren Dale who was awarded the Việtnam Medal for duty was an Air Quartermaster on RNZAF Hercules transport flights operating between Singapore, Vũng Tàu and Saïgon.

‘Our Hercules’ were new and well capable of the work. Our course of air quartermasters were among the conversion courses to be trained in New Zealand by the RNZAF crews who had trained and brought the aircraft home from the United States. Vern Carter and Jock Scott (who both went on to become Master Air Loadmasters) made a good job of our training and we were confident because of this good solid grounding and the quality and capability of our aircraft and equipment. It was a time of contrasts; from seeing the mist still gathered just under the top of the jungle canopy as we flew low level over the Mekong Delta in the peace in the early morning just after dawn to the busy, somewhat dirty day-to-day business of an operational airfield. The air and the ground would shudder with the thudding beat of dozens of Iroquois and helicopter gunships lifting off in streams for their morning missions.’ The RNZAF contribution during the conflict saw 40 Squadron airlift New Zealand troops to South Việtnam and 41 Squadron freighters began regular re-supply missions from Singapore. In 1967 the first RNZAF helicopter pilots commenced duties with 9 Squadron RAAF in Việtnam. Other pilots served with USAF squadrons as Forward Air Controllers, bringing a total of thirty pilots who served in Việtnam between 1967 and 1971; ten of these received decorations for gallantry.

‘Getting to know our troops and gunners over the 2-3 days from New Zealand into South Việtnam was a highlight. Watching good, solid, quiet and determined New Zealand soldiers unloading their weapons, artillery and stores and going calmly about their business when we arrived was always impressive. We would sometimes lend the gunners aircraft ear defenders, for a few short months, as they looked to be better than the gear they had. Occasionally, we would collect the same people after their tour and remember each other. They were changed, but there was always a cheer as we lifted off for the flight home. Unfortunately, we needed to bring out some of them in their coffins which were a sobering reminder of the real war that our people were facing.

‘The war in Việtnam touched the public consciousness like no war previously, due in large part to the powerful then-new medium of television. It brought war – its sacrifice and horror – into the living rooms of ordinary kiwi families. People questioned New Zealand’s role in the engagement and protests were widespread. Our servicemen were not immune to these protests and were often the easy target of unpopular government policies. I was comfortable with our engagement in Việtnam. I saw it as New Zealanders helping to defend a small country threatened by insurgency and invasion by larger and more powerful enemies. By the same token I was comfortable with the demonstrations. We felt that the demonstrators’ freedom to do this was part of being New Zealanders and the sort of thing that our duties in Việtnam were intended to defend.’

Between June 1964 and December 1972 over 3,400 New Zealand military personnel served in the Republic of South Việtnam. Of that number 37 died in active service, including one RNZAF serviceman Sergeant G. S. Watt and 187 were wounded.

Meanwhile, in July 1965 a Hercules made the first around-the-world flight for this new RNZAF type, completing a circuit of the globe in 85 hours. Back home they assisted 3 Squadron Bristol Freighter aircraft in redistributing civilian prisoners throughout New Zealand after prison riots at Mount Eden (Auckland) and Paparua (Christchurch). The Hercules were beginning to show their versatility. On 12 September New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake used NZ7003 on a VIP trip from Rarotonga to Wellington. It was the first of many overseas VIP missions the Hercules flew until the Boeing 727s took over the role on their arrival in 1981. Towards the end of 1965 the three Hercules’ of 40 Squadron were busily engaged on a wide range of worldwide tasks. In October 1965 they provided support to 14 Squadron Canberras in a major international exercise in Australia. The first paradrops were made over RNZAF Auckland and training exercises to develop supply dropping techniques were carried out over Matamata airfield. In December the RNZAF’s first six Bell Sioux helicopters were delivered from the United States by Hercules. They went to Hobsonville at RNZAF Auckland, the home of 3 Battlefield support Squadron (3 BSS). In June 1966 the Hercules began delivery of five new Iroquois helicopters to 3 BSS. ‘The first flight out of Christchurch, the first ever made to the Antarctic by an RNZAF aircraft, left at noon on Wednesday 27 October and the last flight landed there at 5.25 on Saturday, 30 October 1965.’

This statement in the RNZAF News was the first comment on what has become the annual sojourn of 40 Squadron to the great white continent. Air Commodore Carey Adamson, then a young Flying Officer co-pilot, was on that first trip. He recalls this historic flight: ‘We had to deliberately fly past a point of no return to a destination with no alternate. We had heard horror stories of the destination weather closing in with no warning and shutting down the airfield in a matter of minutes. Although we knew all the theory, we were not sure what landing on the ice would actually be like. When the coast of Antarctica came into sight, the intercom became silent as everyone took in the grandeur of the scenery and the alien nature of the continent. After seven hours and ten minutes the first RNZAF flight to the Antarctic ended with an uneventful landing at Williams Field. We had proved that we now had the means to support our own people with our own aircraft.’

During this first venture to the deep-south, Hercules NZ7003 travelled 12,900 miles on round trips between Christchurch and Williams Field (McMurdo), carrying a total of 75,000lb of miscellaneous cargo for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme (NZARP) and for the United States ‘Deep Freeze’ programme. ‘It was different and challenging flying,’ Captain of the flight, Wing Commander Allan Wood AFC said. ‘It was with joy and pride that we watched the first RNZAF Hercules land at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica’ said Mr. M. M. Prebble, the leader of the New Zealand Party at Scott Base. In 1968 the New Zealand Government announced it had approved the purchase of a further two Hercules. These new aircraft (NZ7004 and NZ7005) were officially accepted at Dobbins AFB during the first week of January 1969 and arrived in New Zealand on the 9th.

On 28 July 1969 the Squadron had all five Hercules in the air for the first five ship formation over Auckland city. During May – June 1969, Hercules carried out flights to the Cook Islands in support of a Government requirement to assist this island nation. These flights were typical of those still carried out today by the Hercules to various island nations of the South Pacific. One of the first occasions the Hercules showed its skills to the New Zealand public was in April 1968. A severe tropical storm disrupted commercial shipping and Hercules’ were used to carry passengers over Cook Strait. Up to ninety people a time were carried on the twelve-minute flight between Wellington and Blenheim. The geographical nature of New Zealand, with Cook Strait dividing the land mass, made for an interesting industrial dispute situation. New Zealand Railways ran a ferry service between the two main islands. The link was treated as an extension of the national highway system, so when threatened by industrial action, the Government used other means to ensure the link was maintained. In late 1969 a Hercules and three Bristol Freighters carried priority freight across the Cook Straight when industrial action halted the ferry service. Code named Operation ‘Pluto’, 1,750 tons of freight were transported over 22 days. The operation has been regularly repeated, with the range of cargo expanded to include light vehicles and passengers. The most recent was in April 1991.

40 Squadron’s motto is Ki Nga Hau E Wha (‘To the Four Winds’). During the 1970s the men, women and Hercules of 40 Squadron lived up to this motto by visiting a wide range of countries. The Hercules had become a very important part of the projection of New Zealand’s foreign policy. In addition to the usual military work carried out during this decade, many new tasks for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were undertaken. Some of the decade’s highlights are recalled here.

One of the first major deployments in the early 1970s was to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in early 1972. Replying to a worldwide call for assistance to the war ravaged country, Detachment Commander, Squadron Leader Noel Rodger and the crew of NZ7002 under the command of Flight Lieutenant Peter Hensby-Bennett left Auckland on 23 February. During a fourteen day airlift in Bangladesh more than one million pounds of urgently needed food was distributed throughout the country. Another detachment, led by Squadron Leader Peter Tremayne, followed. Hercules NZ7002 returned to Bangladesh, captained by Flight Lieutenant Colin Harris, spending three weeks airlifting 3.1 million pounds of supplies. Flying conditions were harsh, with long days, extreme temperatures and no internal air traffic organisations to co-ordinate the many international aircraft crisscrossing the country. For its efforts the RNZAF was awarded the Red Cross Medallion for Meritorious Service. During regular overseas operations Hercules NZ7004 made the first nonstop flight from Changi (Singapore) to Whenuapai, on 12 May 1970. Captained by Wing Commander Mervyn Hodge, Officer Commanding 40 Squadron, the aircraft made the 5,290 mile flight in fourteen hours 45 minutes. All five Hercules visited the Far East on many occasions during this decade, flying missions in support of Exercise ‘Vanguard’ (a 75 Squadron RNZAF exercise) and the New Zealand Army Battalion based at Singapore. On 20 October NZ7005 appeared out of the hangar wearing the new ‘Kiwi’ roundel, adopted by the RNZAF to clearly identify New Zealand military aircraft. ‘As our most prominent ambassadors, it was appropriate that a Hercules should be one of the first types to carry the new national marking’.

Throughout the seventies the Hercules were pressed into service as VIP and VVIP transport aircraft, carrying these people around New Zealand and the South Pacific. Initially, a C-130 VIP Rig with plush seats mounted on a pallet was used. The pallet had screens around it with an open top. At least one Royal referred to it as ‘the horse box’. On 1 October 1978, NZ7002, under the command of Squadron Leader Carey Adamson, flew to Tuvalu to uplift Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret, who had fallen ill during a visit there. The Princess was flown to Sydney for treatment. A fully enclosed VIP module was developed by the Squadron, mounted or a large pallet ‘liberated’ from the Canadians. Another Princess, Princess Anne, also travelled by RNZAF VIP Hercules. Squadron maintenance flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Alan Gill, remembers the rush to complete the module in time. ‘The box arrived the day before the scheduled flight. Much effort was expended to get a satisfactory air-conditioned airflow through the enclosed room. Work continued through the night to complete the fit in time for the 0900 departure. After the mammoth effort, Princess Anne apparently spent very little time in ‘the box’. Probably the lack of windows and the carpet glue smell led her to decide that the flight deck was a more enjoyable vantage point.’

With some improvement in East-West relations, New Zealand decided to establish an Embassy in Peking. NZ7002 captained by Wing Commander Mervyn Hodge, set out for China on 22 July 1973 with a cargo of furniture and equipment for the new Embassy. The aircraft stopped at Canton to collect a Chinese navigator, radio operator and interpreter for the final leg of the journey. It was a very wet day in Peking on 25 July, but the crew quickly assisted local personnel in unloading the cargo before beginning the trip home. On 5 December Hercules NZ7002 arrived in Moscow after a six hour flight from England. Captained by Wing Commander Mervyn Hodge, the aircraft carried equipment for the New Zealand Embassy being built in Moscow. It was the first RNZAF aircraft to land in the Soviet Union and was the first of three flights made by New Zealand Hercules to the Soviet Union’s capital city. To enter Russian airspace each flight needed a Russian navigator and radio operator. One of the crew was a loadmaster named Sergeant Warren Dale. He recalls an unusual incident at Copenhagen while collecting the Russian escorts: ‘The tarmac was covered in a deep layer of clear ice. Our fancy little wooden chocks wouldn’t hold the aircraft – it slid happily off down the tarmac, chocks and all, immediately the brakes were released – the Danes fixed that with the meanest-looking set of spiked chocks I’ve ever seen.’

On 25 December 1974, when most Hercules crews were enjoying an antipodean summer, a cyclone hit Darwin on the northern coast of Australia. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Wallace Rowling, offered immediate air assistance and on 27 December a Hercules with two crews was on its way to Darwin. 40 Squadron had a close affinity with Darwin, as it had been a major staging post for the Squadron since the mid 1950s. During the next five days the Kiwi crews flew 65 hours, carrying urgently needed equipment to Darwin and evacuating residents to safer areas. With the impending collapse of South Việtnam in early 1975, a Hercules Detachment, under the command of Wing Commander A. E. ‘Tommy’ Thomson (CO 40 Squadron), made three trips between Saïgon and Singapore between 6 and 19 April 1975 to evacuate New Zealand Embassy staff, refugee children and news media representatives. In 1977 and 1978, 40 Squadron Hercules flew into Burma. Here was a country shut off from the world for many years, now seeking assistance from New Zealand on a number of technical education projects.

On 27 January 1977 NZ7005 captained by Squadron Leader Peter Bevin headed for the northern city of Myitkyina with an ambulance and machinery for a school. Further flights carrying other aid equipment were made to Myitkyina in March 1978 and January 1980. Navigator, Flight Lieutenant Terry Gardiner, remembers the hospitality shown by local ‘armed civilians’ at Myitkyina. ‘By unmistakable gestures, they insisted on entertaining us with afternoon tea before we left. This consisted of sweet biscuits, cakes and beer served to us in a fairly ramshackle airport building which appeared to have been left untouched since the end of World War Two. Our Captain looked askance at the beer and then at the size of the cannons draped across our hosts’ shoulders and made his wise decision. The rest of the crew were to drink; he would abstain and trust that it would not prove too much of a provocation. It didn’t. The return flight in my memory has a warm mellow hue.’

When the Iranian revolution reached its peak in 1979, Hercules NZ7004 captained by Flight Lieutenant Ray Robinson flew to Teheran at short notice to evacuate NZ Embassy staff. RNZAF Hercules had previously visited Iran in January 1976, transporting material for the New Zealand Embassy in Teheran.

New Zealand provided an Army component to monitor the truce in Zimbabwe during 1979. On 20 December Hercules NZ7003 captained by Flight Lieutenant Scott Glendinning flew through Australia, Cocos Island, Mauritius, Durban and Salisbury with the main body of troops. They were recovered from Zimbabwe by Hercules in March 1980. In July 1979 the RNZAF’s most senior Hercules, NZ7001, travelled to Greenham Common, England to take part in the International Air Tattoo. The theme for that year was the 25th anniversary of the first flight of the Hercules. In a line-up of 26 Hercules representing fourteen nations, the RNZAF Hercules was judged best aircraft on display. It was a very proud crew headed by Squadron Leader Trevor Butler, which brought home the prestigious Concours-d’-elegance trophy. The Hercules had undertaken a standard freight/passenger task to the United Kingdom before being meticulously prepared for the line-up. Another award also went to the Kiwis – Warrant Officer S. Peyton won the trophy for best crew chief. Throughout the decade, the RNZAF also enjoyed successes at ‘Bullseye’ competitions and at ‘Volant Rodeo’ in the United States.

Throughout the 1970s Hercules carried Iroquois helicopters and relief aid to a number of New Zealand’s South Pacific Island neighbours struggling to recover from cyclones. Other flights carried injured patients to New Zealand for treatment. Often a crew would be called out at short notice to evacuate a seriously ill patient from somewhere in the Pacific. RNZAF medical staff provided medical assistance on these flights. Closer to home, NZ7003 made an airdrop of young trees to the Chatham Islands during April 1978. These were planted to assist the survival of the rare Chatham Island Robin.

Constant demands on such a small Hercules fleet, was tremendous. Often there were only three or four aircraft available due to servicing. Meeting requirements meant dedication from the Squadron’s small maintenance team. One of the maintenance flight commanders was Flight Lieutenant Alan Gill. He recalls the degree of effort required to keep the fleet in the air.

‘The NCOs were the backbone of the maintenance operation. Their dedication in ensuring serviceable aircraft were available to taskings is something I will never forget. The nature of 40 Squadron’s tasking saw aircraft departing in the morning, returning in the evening and needing to be ready again the next day. The night shift was busy and the day shift was sometimes just cleaning up the mess from the night before. The ‘groundies’ very rarely went on the aircraft to see what it was all about. My predecessor had argued for a maintenance position on the crew for some flights and also for a training exercise base in Fiji. That maintenance position enabled the ground crew to observe that long flights through various time zones were mostly hard and tiring work. Late arrivals and early departures, invariably the norm, left little time to enjoy the ‘exotic places’.

‘Allowing the ground crews to see air crews at work enabled better empathy between them and consequently provided a more cooperative dialogue and work arrangement.’

The decade ended on a sad note when an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed on Mount Erebus in Antarctica. All 257 people on board the 29 November 1979 flight died. Within hours, Hercules NZ7004 captained by Flight Lieutenant Scott Glendinning was on its way to the southern continent, carrying a civilian police contingent and an air accident investigation team. The Hercules then recovered to Christchurch ending 28 hours of flying for one crew.

Other Hercules had the unenviable task of recovering bodies back to Christchurch. This whole operation greatly affected the crews and support personnel involved. As the Squadron history records, it was a sad way to end what had been a very successful year.

When the Hercules fleet entered the 1980s they and their crews were seasoned campaigners of military air lift operations. This decade continued to provide challenges and changes in emphasis. With the introduction of the two Boeing 727 trijets into the squadron, the Hercules crews could concentrate more on tactical airlift, paratrooping, aerial delivery and heavy freight movements. However, the responsibility of moving personnel both internally and externally remained an important task. March 1980 was a typical month with eleven overseas tasks, ten internal tasks and the commencement of a Hercules conversion course, put heavy demands on the Squadron and its aircraft. Tropical cyclone ‘Wally’ in Fiji during April saw the Hercules complete six return flights to Fiji carrying two helicopters and approximately 75,000lbs of tents and blankets.

RNZAF Hercules II

One of five 40 Squadron RNZAF C-130Hs, which included the first three production H models and were delivered in April 1965, crossing a remote Pacific island. The squadron’s duties include flights to the Antarctic base at McMurdo.

The RNZAF has provided Hercules air support to cultural activities in New Zealand and neighbouring South Pacific countries. One such task was in July 1980, when Hercules NZ7005 captained by Wing Commander Ken Gayfer (then CO 40 Squadron) flew to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in support of the South Pacific Festival of the Arts. The extremes of the climate, topography and lack of air traffic control facilities were matched by the variety of passengers and freight carried. Now an Air Commodore, Wing Commander Gayfer recalls one colourful occasion.

‘The first task was to convey a PNG Cabinet Minister and his wife, plus twenty or so locals to a remote part of PNG where there was to be an official ceremony connected with the festival. I assessed the status of the Minister to warrant VIP treatment and accordingly saluted him on board. He was dressed in a smart business suit. On arrival I climbed out and raced to position myself by the steps so as to provide the same courtesy. I noticed a welcoming group of fifty women was arranged in neat rows in order to complete a ritual tribal dance of welcome, clad in only grass skirts. Then to my astonishment the Minister appeared down the aircraft steps wearing only a loincloth and a massive headdress, followed by his wife in similar minimal attire to that of the women dancers! They had changed in the aircraft just prior to landing.’

In March 1981 a commercial airline strike in Australia stranded thousands of civilian passengers on both sides of the Tasman. The RAAF and RNZAF were tasked to move the backlog of passengers across ‘the ditch’. 40 Squadron Hercules flew around the clock for four days using four aircraft and four crews, moving approximately 800 passengers between Whenuapai, Richmond and Wigram. Military bases were used each side of the Tasman to avoid further escalation of the industrial situation. On 11 April HRH The Prince of Wales on completion of a brief New Zealand tour flew from Christchurch to Canberra in VIP rigged NZ7002 captained by Wing Commander Ken Gayfer. The flight returned to Whenuapai having safely delivered its Royal passenger to Canberra. The introduction of the Boeings to 40 Squadron in July 1981 saw most VIP roles passed to these newcomers. However Royalty did again travel on a standard Hercules, when HRH Prince Edward flew on NZ7004. The journey from Christchurch to Antarctica and return, in December 1982 was captained by Squadron Leader Trevor Butler. In May 1981 NZ7004 flew to Dobbins AFB in the United States to undergo the first Outer Wing Modifications required by Lockheed. All five of the Hercules had completed this programme by the end of October 1981. During 1984 and 1985 the fleet underwent a Fuselage Improvement Programme at the RNZAF’s engineering facility at Woodbourne. An avionics upgrade was also started in conjunction with this programme.

From July to September 1981 a controversial Rugby Tour by the South Africans caused civil disturbances at each venue. Hercules’ were used to transport police contingents to the venues. This event coincided with the requirement to position and recover aircraft in the USA for wing modifications. Even the Base Commander of RNZAF Auckland, Group Captain Peter Adamson, returned to the cockpit to assist when a shortage of crews prevailed during this hectic period. A ‘first’ for the Squadron occurred during Operation ‘Ice Cube 81’ in November. An engine change on a Hercules was required at McMurdo in Antarctic and the aircraft remained on the ice at Williams Field, near McMurdo Station for several days during the change.

Between 1982 and 1986 the RNZAF supplied personnel to the Multi National Force of Observers (MFO) based at El Gorah in the Sinai, to operate Iroquois helicopters. In support of this deployment NZ7001 under the command of Squadron Leader Trevor Butler left Whenuapai on 3 August 1982 for El Gorah. This was to become a regular task for the Squadron over the next four years.

‘On behalf of our people and children, a very sincere thank you. You have saved our lives.’ These were the words of Mr Pau Toke, chairman of the Penrhyn Island Council, to the crew of NZ7004 on completion of a mercy mission to the island. This mission began on 11 September 1982, when NZ7004 under the command of Captain Don Stone (a USAF exchange officer on the Squadron), flew from Whenuapai to Rarotonga. From there 5,000 gallons of fresh water was carried in two sorties to Penrhyn Island, 727 miles north of Rarotonga. The island was suffering from a drought and a call for immediate assistance was made to the New Zealand Government by the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands. Once again it was Hercules of 40 Squadron that sprung to the rescue.

Pitcairn Island, a remote island in the South Pacific, is mostly populated by descendants of mutineers from HMS Bounty. On 22 February 1983, Hercules NZ7004 (captained by Squadron Leader Trevor Butler) over flew the island on its way back from the United States. The primary reason for this flight was to assess the feasibility of airdropping a bulldozer onto this small rugged island. The island’s first mail drop was made during the flight. Once back at Whenuapai, planning commenced to airdrop a 28,000lb bulldozer. On 30 May 1983 NZ7005 captained by Squadron Leader Trevor Butler, headed for Pitcairn. The co-pilot was Captain Mark Barrels USAF. Along for the ride was Group Captain Mason, the British Defence Attaché to New Zealand.

The actual airdrop mission was launched from Tahiti on 31 May 1983 during a nonstop 3000 kilometre flight. The bulldozer was broken down into two loads, with the first drop made just after dawn. Winds ebbed low enough for the load to descend under six 100 foot diameter cargo parachutes. Following a ‘streamer’ run to gauge the strength of the residual wind, the command ‘green light’ was given to extract the load. It was released over a football field drop zone in a small valley with sharp cliffs and ocean at either end. The load roared out of the aircraft with the rollers screaming and protesting at the weight and speed at which the bulldozer accelerated. Anxious loadmasters, Flight Lieutenant Warren Dale and Flight Sergeant Dave Neilson, moved to the ramp and monitored the sequence of parachutes as they deployed. They were rewarded with the sight of a fireworks display as the parachute ground release cartridges ripple fired. The bulldozer landed perfectly and was quickly joined by the second platform containing its cab and blade assemblies. Almost the entire population of the island was standing on the hills of the valley to see the loads come in. The people were rewarded with the sight of an immaculate airdrop performance and the bulldozer starting up – it was dropped with fuel and a battery ready for immediate service. It also arrived with newspapers and fresh fruit installed – courtesy of 40 Squadron.

Spare cargo space on international Hercules flights is often offered to charitable institutions for free carriage of goods and supplies. Some of the wide range of charitable goods carried by Hercules are: medicines, vaccines, hospital equipment, library books, school desks, chairs, kitset classrooms, sewing machines, clothing, generators, solar power panels, outboard motors, boats, bicycles, building material, roofing iron, refrigerators, tractors, along with lots of toys and teddy bears for children. When an aircraft carrying such goods arrives at a remote island airfield, the reception is overwhelming. A loadmaster recalls one welcome. ‘Everyone came to thank us,’ he said. They sang, danced and gave us floral leis and headpieces to wear. We looked really colourful as we took off from the coral runway. The only problem in departing was clearing the children away from the aircraft before we started the engines. We used to save up our flight rations and have carefully timed lolly scrambles at a safe distance from the aircraft.’

The hot and humid climate of Western Samoa was the setting for a major New Zealand Defence Force exercise, ‘Joint Venture 1988’. Most of the RNZAF’s Hercules deployed to the tropical island during April and early May 1988. The effort to lift support material for 75 Squadron Skyhawks, 3 Squadron Iroquois, New Zealand Army units and the RNZAF’s base camp in Western Samoa, placed a huge demand on the Hercules fleet. Operating from the main camp at Faleolo, the Hercules detachment flew many missions around the islands in support of the exercise. Regular deployments of this nature have allowed validation of the RNZAF’s deployable equipment pack-ups and ability to move away from the home base of Whenuapai at short notice.

The summer of 1989/90 marked the 25th season that RNZAF Hercules had travelled to Antarctica through Operation ‘Ice Cube’. As in previous years, the Hercules carried a wide range of freight and passengers of many nations to and from Williams Field at McMurdo Station. During the return trip on some flights ‘penguin counts’ and ‘iceberg surveys’ were carried out by New Zealand scientists. (In November 1984 NZ7002 captained by Squadron Leader Murray Sinclair, air dropped a scientific laboratory at Vanda Station, together with CDS system fuel and spares).

The 1990s started in traditional fashion with two devastating cyclones through the Pacific Islands to the north of New Zealand. The first was Cyclone OFA which ravaged Western Samoa, Nuie, the Tokelaus, the northern Tongan islands, American Samoa and Tuvalu in February 1990. The RNZAF provided an Orion aircraft to fly reconnaissance over the Tokelaus. This revealed that 45 percent of homes had been destroyed. On 13 February a Hercules was despatched to Apia (Western Samoa) with food, emergency building materials and Air Force engineers and equipment to re-establish communications with the outside world. The Hercules then began air dropping supplies to outlying islands. A further Hercules followed with specialist equipment to fix broken water mains and a number of generators to restore power to essential services. While this group of island states was recovering from this disaster, Cyclone ‘Peni’ arrived in the Cook Islands, causing damage to a number of small island communities. Hercules support for Cyclone ‘Peni’ involved one aircraft departing Whenuapai on 5 March, spending six days in the Cook Island area flying more than 8000 nautical miles and carrying almost 200,000lbs of freight. Within four days of commencing operations from Rarotonga, the aircraft had delivered thousands of pounds of civil aid to ten destinations within seven of the fifteen islands making up the northern and southern chains of the Cooks group. As well as the air crew, ground crews and movements teams spent long hours preparing loads for delivery.

With 1990 opening with a flurry of activity, the rest of the year seemed to settle down to the usual round of internal and overseas taskings, maintenance programmes and training. In September the New Zealand Government agreed to provide assistance to the large number of refugees trying to escape the Middle East, as the political situation deteriorated. Hercules NZ7002 was sent to Egypt with 16 tonnes of milk powder and then flew on to Amman, Jordan, where it carried refugees from the area. Two flights were completed to Karachi, Pakistan and another to Manila in the Philippines on the way home. A 40 Squadron Boeing 727 also diverted from a UK task to assist with the refugee flights. Towards the end of 1990 the Hercules crews were looking forward to a quiet Christmas; perhaps the cyclones would stay away for a change. However, another ‘cyclone’ was whirling its way through Kuwait! Along with many other nations, New Zealand responded to the call for help to this small nation when the Gulf crisis erupted. The NZ Government agreed to a Detachment of two Hercules and 46 personnel joining an RAF Hercules Squadron based at Riyadh (Saudi Arabia).

As the rest of the Air Force began the Christmas rundown in December 1990 40 Squadron personnel were frantically arranging last minute requirements to support a detachment of two aircraft in an operational area for an unspecified duration. Finally, the green light and on 20 December 1990 NZ7001, captained by Flight Lieutenant Tony Davies, followed by NZ7002 under the command of Flight Lieutenant David Wake, lifted off from Whenuapai. Arriving in Riyadh on 24 December, the Detachment wasted no time and commenced its first mission on 27 December. Working as part of the RAF Hercules Squadron, the Kiwi Hercs had flown almost 300 hours by the end of the first seven weeks. Tasking included the transportation of supplies and personnel to various locations during the build-up to the land war. It was a big adjustment for the New Zealanders to realise a chemical attack could be a reality. And then the Scud attacks began. Flight Lieutenant Rex Fraser remembers his feelings during those attacks: ‘It’s quite scary when you see missiles exploding outside your window and you’re trying to hurry to put your gear on (NBC kit) in the dark. Everything is for real and you’ve got to know what to do and do it quickly.’

On 14 January 1991 another Hercules, NZ7003 under the command of Wing Commander ‘Bob’ Henderson, (CO 40 Squadron), left Whenuapai with a further eight aircrew personnel to boost the RNZAF’s contribution. NZ7002 returned to New Zealand on 20 January. In his diary, Wing Commander Henderson records some of his impressions of the Detachment’s actions: ‘Monday 23 January. Thirteen days after leaving New Zealand. Flew today to Lzah and Qaisumah (Hafar al Batin) by the border. Lzah is a rough strip cut from the desert rock to the north of Jubail on the coast. We found the strip by using the aircraft’s inertial navigation system and the co-pilot identified it as we went through about 200 feet, by saying ‘there’s a windsock’. Then flew at 500ft along the ‘pipeline’ – the road from Jubail inland to Qaisumah. There were literally hundreds of vehicles on the road and helicopters flying below us, along the road. Very impressive. This flying is rather exhilarating. Our extra aircrew arrived this evening about midnight. All looking rather hyped up in their ‘marine’ haircuts. The lucky beggars were spared an air raid tonight!’

NZ7004 replaced NZ7001 on 1 March and on 12 April, NZ7003 and NZ7004 touched down at Whenuapai, returning some of the detachment to a welcome from the New Zealand Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Jim Bolger. A RAF TriStar and another Hercules carried the balance of personnel and equipment back to New Zealand.

While the focus of attention had naturally been with the Hercules Detachment in the Gulf, the RNZAF’s remaining Hercules had carried out a wide range of routine tasks in New Zealand and overseas. While on a standard flight in support of a ‘Vanguard’ exercise redeployment from Malaysia, a Hercules was diverted to carry 10 tonnes of milk powder and medical supplies to cyclone torn Dacca in Bangladesh. Another Hercules also flew charitable freight to various Pacific Island nations and to Papua New Guinea.

On 17 April 1991 a Hercules was despatched to Wellington to help with operation ‘Pluto Nine’ which had started the previous day. By the time the operation finished on 19 April, four Andovers and one Hercules had carried 819 passengers and 338 cars during 160 flights between Wellington/Woodbourne/Wellington. In June the RNZAF took back the Depot Level Maintenance (DLM) of the Hercules fleet. It was decided that this work, carried out by Air New Zealand since 1977, could be undertaken more efficiently and economically at RNZAF Woodbourne’s maintenance depot. An ingenious bogey arrangement was developed which allowed each Hercules, with main wheels removed, to be lowered and moved sideways into the hangar. A Hercules major re-fit takes about ninety days and involves both RNZAF and civilian engineers employed at the depot.

The annual cyclone season started early for 40 Squadron, when in mid December Cyclone ‘Val’ hit Western Samoa. A Hercules on stand-by since 10 December left early on the morning of the 12th for Faleolo (Western Samoa). On board was a 3 Squadron Iroquois which had not been assembled upon return from the Antarctic. A second Hercules quickly followed with an Air Loading Team, communications equipment and operators, Army personnel, media representatives, tarpaulins and oxygen cylinders for the local hospital. A third Hercules carried emergency supplies, fuel and a 400KVa generator in a 20 feet shipping container. It arrived on 14 December and was followed throughout the remainder of the month by a further four flights. So much for a quiet Christmas!

During the first part of 1992 the Hercules of 40 Squadron followed a fairly quiet routine. There was the usual activity in the Antarctic at the beginning of the year, support to the annual Army exercise in the Waiouru training area, winning of the annual ‘Bullseye’ competition in Canada for the second year in succession and delivery of a 3 Squadron Iroquois to England for Exercise ‘Helimeet 92’ – all before June 1992. Between 10 and 20 June the Hercules were busy carrying helicopters, material and personnel between New Zealand and Faleolo, in support of the first major tropical exercise held in three years. Once again external influences disrupted 40 Squadron’s plans for a quiet Christmas break. On 23 December the New Zealand Government’s offer to provide a Detachment of three Andovers and 69 personnel in Somalia, as part of the Unified Task Force, was accepted. The New Zealand endeavour, code named Operation ‘Samaritan’, was to take place in early January 1993. Over the Christmas break, 40 Squadron technical staff prepared three Hercules and a Boeing to deploy the Detachment to Mogadishu. Just down the tarmac Whenuapai, Base Auckland, 42 Squadron staff were busily preparing the three Andovers and myriad of stores and support material that the detachment would require for up to six months away from home.

On 2 January 1993 three Hercules and a Boeing headed for Somalia. The three Hercules rendezvoused with the Boeing in the Seychelles prior to the final leg into Mogadishu. On 5 January 1993, the Boeing with the majority of personnel arrived at Mogadishu and one hour later the first Hercules, NZ7001 under the command of Flight Lieutenant Tony Davies, arrived. The following day the remaining two Hercules arrived. NZ7002 (Flight Lieutenant Mike Morgan) and NZ7004 (Flight Lieutenant Dennis O’Connor) disgorged the mountains of equipment required by the detachment. The Hercules stayed on the ground long enough to unload and refuel before heading out of the extremely busy airfield. The next Hercules trip to this war-torn country was on 3 February when NZ7001, under the command of Wing Commander Bob Henderson, lifted off from Whenuapai for the re-supply trip to Mogadishu.

The crew of the Hercules joined the detachment in hosting a traditional Maori hangi to celebrate New Zealand’s national day of celebration (Waitangi Day) on 6 February. Total flying time for the round trip was 56 hours.

The Andovers were withdrawn in May 1993 and three Hercules transported the detachment back home. Other support flights for the NZ Army supply platoon at Mogadishu have since been flown.

During late March 1993, two Hercules, crews and support staff spent two weeks low-level tactical training at RNZAF Wigram. Between four and six sorties were undertaken per day over the South Island in the event known as Exercise ‘Skytrain’. These included the dropping of equipment at various drop-zones and night flying. The experience gained during ‘Skytrain’ was used the following month during the ‘Bullseye’ competition in Australia. However the Canadians beat the Kiwis by a narrow margin and the trophy was reluctantly surrendered for the first time in three years. It was also the first time a Royal Air Force team had entered.

On 13 May 1993 NZ7002 captained by Flight Lieutenant Dennis O’Connor left New Zealand with 25,000 ration packs gifted b; the NZ Government to refugees it Bosnia. The aircraft delivered the Ration Packs to Frankfurt where they were forwarded to Bosnia by the UN. During May the Hercules’ autopilots were replaced with a new automatic flight control system. This process was carried out at the Repair Depot at Woodbourne with the last aircraft fitted by the end of the year.

The 1993 year ended with twelve flights to Antarctica. The 4 Squadron Detachment operated from Christchurch International Airport, alongside its USAF (141), USN (LC-130) and US National Science Foundation (LC-130) counterparts. Also based at Christchurch was; RNZAF Mobile Air Loading Team, supplemented by New Zealand Army personnel, providing support for all aircraft on route to Antarctica.

During one flight, the weather closed in and the Hercules, well beyond the Point of Safe Return (PSR) diverted to an Italian airfield at Terra Nova, Antarctica. Following a very warm welcome and overnight stay with the Italians, the Hercules continued on to Williams Field. On another flight, 13,000lbs of explosives were air dropped in three areas of the polar plateau for seismic investigations by scientists at the ice. This operation was a first for the Squadron.

Christmas 1993 was relatively quiet for the Hercules crews and support personnel. Tasks included a routine trip to Somalia to transport New Zealand Army personnel and an emergency flight to Sydney with monsoon fire-fighting buckets and technicians to help extinguish huge bush fires threatening Sydney suburbs. The buckets and personnel were returned in early January.

During the first half of 1994 40 Squadron Hercules carried out the usual range of internal and external tasks. In April two Hercules, two Andovers and one Iroquois supported by 130 personnel carried out tactical air training during Exercise ‘Skytrain’. This year’s pre-‘Bullseye’ practice paid off with one of the crews under the command of Flight Lieutenant Robert Purvis winning back the ‘Bullseye’ trophy for the RNZAF.

The most rewarding task during the first half of 1994 was from 4-8 June when a Hercules was involved in the search for eleven yachts hit by a severe storm in the Pacific. A total of 21 people were plucked from their vessels during the five day mission. As the full extent of the searches began unfolding 5 Squadron RNZAF sought assistance from 40 Squadron. A Hercules and crew of ten personnel spent twelve hours in the air, locating three vessels. Winds of up to 80 knots and thrashing rain made for a challenging flight. It was thanks to the professionalism and dedication of the crew that the mission proved successful.

By June 1994 each of the five Hercules in the RNZAF had flown the following total hours: NZ7001 19,636.3; NZ7002 20,243.6 NZ7003 20,327; NZ7004 16,651.3; NZ7005 160,69.5.1

As of 2008 the Squadron began modernising its Hercules aircraft with new avionics, centre wing refurbishment, aircraft systems upgrade and complete re-wiring and replacement of major parts and interior to extend their life expectancy (for NZ$234 million). The package for each aircraft was known as the Life Extension Programme (LEP). Initially two aircraft were completed in Canada however the programme ran into difficulties when the company tasked with carrying out the refurbishments went into receivership. The remaining aircraft were then completed by Safe Air in Blenheim, New Zealand. The Hercules fleet now operate with glass cockpits and had one of the most extensive upgrades ever completed on this type of aircraft anywhere in the world. The last Hercules aircraft to be upgraded NZ7002 was completed by the end of 2015.

The new millennium brought with it a fresh set of the challenges for the streamlined RNZAF. New Zealand’s decision to join the ‘war on terror’ following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States led to a succession of air deployments to the Middle East during the early 2000s. When the Christchurch earthquake struck on 22 February 2011 the RNZAF (along with army and navy) responded within a few hours. On the afternoon of the quake, an RNZAF Orion flew over the city taking photographs of damaged infrastructure, while a Boeing 757 arrived with search and rescue teams and medical personnel. Other RNZAF aircraft helped deploy police and medical personnel and evacuate casualties and tourists. Three months after the attack on the Twin Towers, two Hercules from 40 Squadron carried elements of the NZSAS to Pakistan following the invasion of Afghanistan. Another detachment was sent to Kyrgyzstan in 2003 to fly cargo and personnel into Afghanistan, while 5 Squadron Orions carried out surveillance flights around the Gulf region in 2003–2004 during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. These deployments signalled the beginning of a new operational era for the RNZAF. Humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in the Pacific and Middle East reinforced the importance of strategic and tactical air transport, maritime surveillance and helicopter support for army and naval forces. They also exposed the limitations of the air force’s ageing equipment. In 2002 the government announced a major upgrade programme that has seen the modernisation of the Hercules and Orions and the renewal of the helicopter fleet,

The Hercules fleet was due to be replaced by 2018. The Boeing 757s were also upgraded with new avionics and more powerful engines. A cargo door was also fitted to allow pallet loading and an aero medical facility if needed. In 2015 the RNZAF was looking to replace the C-130 Hercules fleet as well as the Boeing 757s. This is due to take place over the next five years due to the C-130s and Boeing 757s reaching the end of their flying life. A replacement for the Boeing 757s looks likely to be the C-17 Globemaster and the replacement for the Hercules fleet being either the Embraer KC-390, the A-400M, or the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules.

Australian Hercules

Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has operated a total of forty-eight C-130 aircraft. The type entered Australian service in December 1958, when 36 Squadron at Sydney’s Richmond Air Force Base accepted the first of twelve C-130A-50-LMs, replacing its venerable Douglas C-47 Dakotas. The acquisition made Australia the overseas customer of the Hercules. In 1966 the C-130As were joined by twelve C-130Es, which equipped 37 Squadron. The C-130As were replaced by twelve C-130Es delivered from 1966 and the C-130Es by twelve C-130J-30 Hercules in 1999. RAAF Hercules’ have frequently been used to deliver disaster relief in Australia and the Pacific region, as well as to support military deployments overseas. The 17th of June 1963 was a red letter day for the RNZAF when the New Zealand cabinet approved an immediate order of three C-130E aircraft, including spares and support equipment and approval in principle was also given for the eventual purchase of five maritime versions. New Zealand thus became the fifth nation to purchase the Hercules.

Following the deployment of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment to South Việtnam in early 1965, the RAAF began fortnightly C-130 flights into the country from June that year. These flights were initially conducted by C-130As and carried high-priority cargo and passengers from Richmond to Vũng Tàu in South Việtnam via either Butterworth or Singapore. The scale of the supply flights into South Việtnam expanded in 1967 when 2 Squadron RAAF, which was equipped with English Electric Canberra bombers was deployed to Phan Rang. A large airlift codenamed ‘Winter Grip’ was also conducted in mid-1967 to replace two Australian Army battalions, which had completed their year-long tour of duty, with a pair of fresh battalions. The Hercules were called upon to support the withdrawal of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) from South Việtnam and Nos. 36 and 37 Squadrons undertook many sorties to fly equipment and personnel out of the country during 1971. In late 1972 C-130s were used to withdraw the last remaining Australian force in South Việtnam, the Australian Army Training Team Việtnam; the final elements of this force departed aboard two Hercules on 20 December 1972.

As well as transport operations, the Hercules flew many evacuation flights out of Việtnam to transfer wounded or sick personnel to Australia, via Butterworth, for further treatment. These flights were initially conducted as part of the regular courier service and the patients and RAAF nurses had to endure uncomfortable conditions as the aircraft had only rudimentary facilities for personnel on stretchers. Separate evacuation flights began on 1 July 1966 and continued at fortnightly intervals until 1972; more flights were made during periods in which 1 ATF suffered heavy casualties. While the flights were generally successful, only C-130Es were assigned to this task from May 1967 after an article criticising the use of noisy C-130As to transport wounded personnel was published in The Medical Journal of Australia. The C-130Es provided much more comfortable conditions and were capable of flying directly between South Việtnam and Australia when required. A total of 3,164 patients had been transported to Australia by the time the C-130 evacuation flights ended in early 1972. The Hercules also returned the bodies of servicemen killed in Việtnam to Australia.

Many of the RAAF C-130s were redeployed to South Việtnam shortly before the end of the war in 1975. The rapid North Việtnamese advance during the Spring Offensive displaced hundreds of thousands of South Việtnamese civilians and the Australian Government deployed a detachment of Hercules to Saïgon in March 1975 as part of an international aid effort coordinated by the United States. This force, which was designated Detachment ‘S’, had an average strength of seven C-130s and about one hundred air and ground crew and was initially used to transport civilian refugees away from the front lines. After South Việtnamese soldiers were reported to have been transported alongside civilians, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam directed that the Hercules were to only carry humanitarian cargo. As the North Việtnamese advanced on Saïgon, Detachment ‘S’ was moved to Bangkok in Thailand, but continued to fly into South Việtnam each day. Overall, Detachment ‘S’ had carried 1,100 refugees and 900 tonnes of supplies by the end of the war. On 4 and 17 April, aircraft of the detachment flew 271 orphaned children to Bangkok as part of the US-led Operation ‘Babylift’. In late April, two of 37 Squadron’s C-130Es were assigned to the United Nations to transport supplies throughout South East Asia; this force was designated Detachment ‘N’. The C-130Es began operations on 3 May and were mainly used to fly supplies into Laos. The aircraft transported cargo between Thailand, Butterworth, Hong Kong and Singapore; by the time this mission ended in early June, the two Hercules had conducted 91 sorties for the UN. Aircraft of Detachment ‘S’ evacuated Australian embassy personnel from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, as well as Saïgon, shortly before they fell to Khmer Rouge and North Việtnamese forces in April 1975, after which the force returned to Australia. Detachment ‘N’ also evacuated the Australian embassy in Vientiane, Laos, during early June 1975.

Nineteen of the RAAF’s fleet of twenty-four C-130s took part in relief efforts in 1974-75 after Cyclone ‘Tracy’ struck Darwin. Since then, the Hercules have been involved in humanitarian missions to New Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bali, Sumatra and New Zealand. They have also seen service during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Fijian coups in 1987, operations in Somalia in 1993, INTERFET operations in East Timor in 1999-2000 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001. In over fifty years of Australian service, the Hercules has accumulated 800,000 flying hours. 37 Squadron became the RAAF’s sole Hercules operator in 2006 when 36 Squadron transferred its C-130Hs prior to converting to Boeing C-17 Globemaster III heavy transports.

In November 2011 Australia gave four ex-RAAF C-130Hs worth an estimated $30 million to Indonesia for humanitarian and disaster relief work. The Hercules aircraft would cost about 25 million Australian dollars in maintenance to restore them to airworthiness and were due to be sold on the open market. The Australian Defence Force agreed to give them to the Indonesian military following a request for more resources to boost disaster relief in the region. On 9 May 2012 it was announced that the RAAF’s eight remaining C-130H Hercules operated by 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond were to be retired early to save $250 million in operational and maintenance costs.

The passing of the C-130H in RAAF service was marked by a fly over of the Blue mountains almost on the edge of Sydney to Cronulla a beachside suburb and an orbit of Sydney harbour in a shuddering lap of honour to say thanks for the 34 years of service during wars, floods, fires, droughts and disasters. It evoked the following impassioned response from an Australian journalist who flew on board one of the two ‘Hercs’ from Richmond Air Force Base: ‘I’m sweaty, shaking and being sick for the third time and I’ve been looking forward to this day all week. The man next to me is also being persistently ill into his vomit bag and I have no idea where the ground is outside the gyrating tin can I’m stuck in. I’m honoured and excited to be here. It’s the last flight of the RAAF’s work horse the C-130H Hercules at Richmond Air Force Base, with all twelve in the Australian fleet being decommissioned to make way for the newer C-130J model. For an aircraft that’s served our troops for 34 years the atmosphere is fitting – every second person I see is doing Movember so the base is alive with moustaches, aviators and one guy is even wearing knee-high khaki socks and shorts.

‘On the plane we take up position on what passes for seats. The first trouble I run into is when I can’t figure out how the seatbelt works. They show me that, then how to find the emergency exits, the oxygen bags (weird in themselves – think putting a chicken bag on your head) and the sick bags… which seem to be liberally sprinkled around the plane.

‘And then the C-130H starts her last show. ‘She starts like an old dancer. A slow side to side shimmy builds in the steel frame as the three metre long propeller blades start to turn. It speeds up to a shake as we taxi along the runway. Jarring, but not particularly uncomfortable. Then she starts to sweat – a diesel and kerosene smell creeping in from the engines as we bounce our way along the tarmac. The take off is faster than any I’ve been a part of. Pilot Tony Charles tells me afterward that Hercs are made to lift off from short or improvised runways. ‘You get up to speed pretty quickly,’ he says. ‘It’s not a long smooth start like a passenger jet.’ It needs to be – Australia’s fleet of Hercules have travelled enough kilometres to go around the world fifty times over carrying millions of tonnes of cargo along the way.

‘They’ve taken medical aid to victims of the Bali Bombings and Boxing Day tsunami, fodder to cattle during the Queensland floods and supplies of condoms to PNG to combat the spread of AIDS. They’ve even tried their hand at fire fighting. And they’re nothing like a passenger jet.

‘We lurch into a sprint from a standing start, bumping across the runway and into the air moments later, cartwheeling and shuddering through the entire 90 minute farewell to a trusted old friend. The hot air tosses us around so much we would be confined to our seats on a commercial flight. Not the case here – I get up and wander around. It’s a ton of fun, like being on a flying jumping castle that’s made out of steel. It looks clumsy from outside but flying these planes takes immense skill and breeds a special sort of love from the pilots. Tony Charles says the Hercules’ last flight was like losing a friend. ‘There are a few tears about the place,’ he says.

‘We dive and bank; only it’s not the banking from car ads. A C-130H banks the same way someone turns around when they hear a sudden noise behind them, which tends to leave your stomach back where you started a moment ago. The camera man across from me already looks ill. He’s leaning back with his eyes closed holding a fresh sick bag in his lap. Ha, trust TV news to cave first.

‘I’m invited up to the cockpit and watch as we cruise over the blue water of Sydney Harbour. The crew wave to the photographers and camera men crowded onto the lowered ramp of the second Hercules above us.

‘I return to the back of the plane and concede I’m going to be ill. It’s the smell – a rich, thick mess of sweat, kerosene and diesel fuel. The plane is painted black so it sucks up the heat until I feel like I’m being smoked, marinated in it while I’m shaken around. The guy beside me is next to go, vomiting into a bag he has doubled-up for the occasion. Doubling up the bag is a good idea. I think I’ll do that. Just in case. ‘If you’re going to do it you get it out of the way early,’ he tells me. ‘That’s the trick.’ ‘Two down from me one of the female journos starts as well. I wonder how the crew is all still so cheerful and if this is a right of passage. After this will I be immune to motion sickness?

‘Out the window I see sky, then water, then sky, then earth, then sky, buildings, sky, buildings, ocean, buildings, blur, blur, blur. ‘Eyes closed, no that’s worse. Eyes open. This seatbelt mystified me. Sky, water, sky, sky, ground, sky. The cameraman across from me is trying to climb into his vomit bag head first. It’s puffing in and out like someone trying not to hyperventilate only I can see wet stuff inside of it. My time has come. Eventually five out of eight of us are bested by the Hercules.

‘To my credit I didn’t bargain with god but I did make a ‘well if you’re already going to the shops’ request of him that if he was going to help the other journos he might want to see to me while he was at it. But there is something precious about the Hercules. The C-130H is a much loved part of the Air Force family – moving and supplying troops through some of our toughest campaigns. While it will now always be linked in my mind to a less-than comfortable experience to thousands of others has been a symbol of hope, relief and salvation. For the Special Forces in Afghanistan the C-130s were their ticket to safety and their supply line during hard times. For the victims of the 2004 Boxing day tsunami the C-130s were Australia’s first on the scene bringing supplies and aid to the disaster’s victims and showing them we would stand with them. For the Australian public during the 1989 pilot’s strikes the C-130s were there to transport them for four months after they were stranded away from home – action that won them a Queensland Tourism Award. They even flew the Iraqi Soccer Team out of Iraq to compete in the 2004 Olympics…where they went on to defeat the Ollyroos in the quarter finals. Well, I suppose even trusted friends can make mistakes. Members of the RAAF tell me they’ll miss the C-130H, that it’s a ‘part of history’.

‘Being ferried from the pass gate to the air strip my driver tells me she hopes the C-130s get a ‘proper send off’. They’ve earned it. It’s a symbol of everything that’s dependable and reliable in the air force, literally the ‘first to arrive, last to leave’. When I text my father, ex-air force himself, he replies: ‘Bastard. Say goodbye for me!’ Those are fond words from dad. And when I tell I failed to escape the trip unscathed he’s just as dry. Ha ha. Welcome to the wonderful world of the C-130. It’s much better up front.’

Twelve C-130J-30s were received by 37 Squadron during August 1999 and March 2000. The RAAF celebrated 800,000 Hercules flying hours in September 2014. The C-130Js had by this time accumulated over 100,000 hours and they are expected to remain in service until 2030.