Famous Squadrons – 450 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) – ‘The Desert Harassers’

450 Sqn RAAF Operation Bowler

450 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was formed on 16 February 1941 at RAAF Williamtown near Newcastle in New South Wales as the first Australian squadron established under Article XV of the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS).

450 Sqn Kittyhawks

Nicknamed the ‘Desert Harassers’, the Squadron was one of the most famous RAAF units of the Second World War and derived its nickname from taunts made by the German propaganda broadcaster ‘Lord Haw Haw’ who, during the squadron’s operations in the Western Desert branded it a band of “Australian mercenaries whose harassing tactics were easily beaten off by the Luftwaffe”.

450 Sqn crest

Motto: ‘Harass’

Battle Honours: 10

  • South-East Europe 1942-1945
  • Egypt and Libya 1940-1943
  • El Alamein
  • El Hamma
  • North Africa 1942-1943
  • Sicily 1943
  • Italy 1943-1945
  • Gustav Line
  • Gothic Line
  • Syria 1941

450 Sqn Bombing up a Fighter Bomber

450 Squadron’s war ended with the surrender of German forces in Italy on 2 May 1945. It was disbanded at Lavarino in Italy on 20 August 1945.

450 Sqn Plaque

The 450 Squadron ‘number plate’ was inadvertently given to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) after the Second World War. Although Canadian squadrons were numbered from 400 to 449 during the war, an unusual twist of history resulted in the number 450 being allocated to a Canadian heavy transport squadron. Nevertheless, Canada received permission to adopt the number and 450 Heavy Transport Helicopter Squadron was formed at RCAF Station St. Hubert, Quebec on March 29, 1968. Whilst the Squadron inherited the 450 number plate it did not inherit the above Battle Honours.

You can find out more about the 450 Sqn RAAF Assocation here: http://www.450squadronraaf.org.au/

Customs and Traditions – Naval Pennants

HMS Ocean

With HMS Ocean (L12) entering Portsmouth for the final time late last week flying her paying off pennant, before she is decommissioned and transfered to the Brazilian Navy, it is worthwhile looking at the naval tradition of flying pennants.

A pennant is a flag that is larger at the hoist than at the fly, and can have several shapes, such as triangular, tapering or triangular and swallow-tailed.

In the days of chivalry, knights carried pennants on their lances, just as men-of-war flew pennants from their masts. During the conflicts of the thirteenth century, when merchant ships were commandeered and placed in command of military officers they transferred their pennants from their lances to the mastheads of the ships they commanded. The tradition continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars when the Royal Navy adopted the style of pennants used today.

Today the pennant is hoisted on the day a warship or shore establishment commissions and is never struck until the day of decommissioning. Onboard ship the pennant is flown at the masthead, for which reason it is also commonly referred to as a ‘masthead pennant’. In the Royal Navy (RN) today there are two types of pennant – a ‘Commissioning pennant’ and a ‘Paying off’ pennant.

In the RN the commissioning pennant (shown below) is flown continuously in every ship and shore establishment in commission unless displaced by a senior officer’s Rank flag. The masthead pennant is a cross of St George in the hoist and a white fly.

1920px-Royal_Navy_commissioning_pennant_(with_outline).svg

It is the custom in many navies for a ship which is ‘paying off’ to wear an extremely long commissioning pennant, which is normally at least the length of the ship, and the length of which reflects the length of service. HMS Gloucester (D96) is shown below flying her paying off pennant in 2011 when she decommissioned.

HMS Gloucester Paying Off Pennant

The term ‘paying off’ refers to the fact that RN ships formerly ‘paid off’ each time they returned home after a commission overseas. The ship’s sailors were not paid until the ship returned home, to avoid desertion.

In the US Navy (USN) the commissioning pennant is ‘blue at the hoist, bearing seven white stars; the rest of the pennant consists of single longitudinal stripes of red and white’. Like their RN cousins, ships of the USN fly the commissioning pennant from the moment of commissioning until the decommissioning ceremony. The commissioning pennant of USS McInerney (FFG 8) is shown below.

100831-N-8590G-010

The US Navy has no tradition of flying a paying off pennant before decommissioning. US Navy ships maintain a separate tradition of flying a ‘Homeward Bound’ pennant when returning from a deployment to their home port. The dimensions of the pennant are not prescribed by regulation, but the customary practice is one white star for the first nine months of continuous service outside the US, plus another for each additional 6 months. The overall length of the pennant is one foot for each member of the ship’s company on duty outside the United States for more than 9 months, but not to exceed the length of the ship itself. Below is a picture of USS George Washington (CVN-73) flying her 297 foot ‘Homeward Bound’ pennant returning from deployment in 2015.

USS George Washington Homeward Bound Pennant

On this day – Australia’s worst peacetime naval disaster – HMAS Melbourne (R21) and HMAS Voyager (D04) collide at night off Jervis Bay

HMAS Voyager

On this day in 1964 what is considered to be Australia’s worst peacetime naval disaster occurred 20 nautical miles off Point Perpendicular near Jervis Bay in New South Wales, when at 8.56pm the Majestic class aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R21) and the Daring class destroyer HMAS Voyager (D04) collided at night during manoeuvres.

At the time HMAS Melbourne was performing flying exercises and HMAS Voyager was performing plane guard duties, positioned behind and to port (left) in order to rescue any aircrew if a plane was forced to ditch.

HMAS Melbourne following Voyager collision

After a series of turns effected to reverse the course of the ships HMAS Voyager ended up ahead and starboard (right) of HMAS Melbourne. Voyager was then ordered by Melbourne to resume plane guard position, which involved turning to starboard, but then she came around to port. The crew on the bridge of HMAS Melbourne thought that Voyager was zig-zagging and would turn to starboard and resume her correct position.

At 8.55pm both ships began desperate avoiding manoeuvres but a collision was inevitable. One minute later the bow of HMAS Melbourne (travelling at about 22 knots) struck behind the Bridge and Operations Room of HMAS Voyager, effectively cutting the ship in two.

Over the coming hours, frantic efforts were made to rescue the crew of HMAS Voyager, with helicopters from both HMAS Melbourne and Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra, as well as five Minesweepers and two search and rescue boats were dispatched from the shore establishment HMAS Creswell, moving to the scene to pick up survivors.

HMAS Voyager Crest

Sadly, of the 314 crew on board HMAS Voyager, 82 were killed, most of whom died immediately or were trapped in the bow section, which sank after 10 minutes. HMAS Melbourne was damaged, but suffered no fatalities.

CPO Rogers GC DSM

One particular crew member of HMAS Voyager showed great bravery and sadly lost his life as a result. Chief Petty Officer Jonathan Rogers DSM, a Welshman and Second World War Royal Navy  veteran, along with 50 other men, was trapped in the sinking forward part of the stricken destroyer.

Recognising that he was too large to fit through the escape hatch, he organised the evacuation of those that could escape, then led his trapped comrades in a prayer and hymn as they met their fate. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross (GC), which is now held by the Australian War Memorial.

CPO Rogers GC DSM Medal Collection

Following the disaster two Royal Commissions were held in 1964 and 1968. The first Royal Commission ruled that the collision was the fault of HMAS Voyager’s bridge crew and also blamed the Commanding Officer of HMAS Melbourne, Captain John Robertson and two other officers on that ship. Robertson resigned after the first Royal Commission, rather than accept a shore posting to HMAS Watson (in effect a demotion) and was widely seen in the media as a scapegoat for the incident.

In 1967 a second Royal Commission was announced following increasing pressure from the public and the media, including claims made that the Commanding Officer of HMAS Voyager, Captain Duncan Stevens (who had died in the tragedy), was a heavy drinker and unfit for command. The second Royal Commission came to that finding and absolved Captain Robertson and the two other officers from HMAS Melbourne, of any blame.

You can find out more about HMAS Voyager (II) here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-voyager-ii

On this day – German forces surrender to the Russians at Stalingrad – 2 February 1943

Stalingrad Von Paulus Surrenders

On 2 February 1943 the remaining German forces defending Stalingrad surrendered, ending one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War.

It was a pivotal victory for the Soviets who, after two years of being pushed back by Nazi forces, turned the tide and changed the course of the war in eastern Europe.

Two years previously, in June 1941, the Nazi’s unilaterally terminated the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and launched Operation ‘Barbarossa’ invading eastern Poland. They advanced deep into Soviet territory and occupied some of the most economically important regions of the Soviet Union including Ukraine, and inflicted heavy casualties on Russian forces.

The German offensive stalled in the Battle of Moscow and the subsequent Soviet winter offensive in December 1941 pushed German forces back.  The winter of 1941-42 proved to be the coldest of the twentieth century with temperatures as low as -45 degrees centigrade (-49 degrees F).

In June 1942 the Germans launched a second major offensive in the east aimed at the industrial city of Stalingrad and the oil rich Caucasus. Like in their earlier offensive in 1941, German forces advanced quickly and entered the city of Stalingrad in September 1942 having destroyed most of the city with aerial bombing and artillery bombardment.

German advance to Stalingrad

In November 1942 the Russians launched a major counteroffensive, Operation ‘Uranus’ which encircled the 250,000 men of General Friedrich Paulus’s German 6th Army. Over the next two months the encircled German forces faced bitter winter conditions and starvation. In January 1943 the Soviets offered General Paulus the opportunity to surrender, which Hitler refused to accept.

Stalingrad map

On 30 January 1943, a day before the German surrender, Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of Field Marshal, as in German history no previous Field Marshal had surrendered to the enemy.

Stalingrad September 1943

By the time of the surrender of the remaining German forces defending the city on 2 February 1943, only 91,000 soldiers of the German 6th Army remained. Following the end of the war, only 5,000 of those men returned alive from Soviet prisoner of war camps. In captivity General Paulus became a vocal critic of the Nazi’s and settled in East Germany after the war.

Today you can visit modern day Volgograd and see the massive 85 metre tall statue of ‘The Motherland Calls’ on the hill at Mamayev Kurgan overlooking the city. The statue was unveiled in 1967 to commemorate the battle and at the time was the largest statue in the world. It remains the tallest statue in Europe and the tallest statue of a woman in the world.

Stalingrad Memorial 2

You can find out more about ‘The Motherland Calls’ statue here: https://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Attraction_Review-g298537-d5770796-Reviews-The_Motherland_Calls_Sculpture-Volgograd_Volgograd_Oblast_Southern_District.html

 

 

For Gallantry – US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant John Canley to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Hue City in 1968

John Canley

The President of the United States, Donald Trump signed into law a Bill on Monday 29 January 2018,  authorising the award of the Congressional Medal of Honor to US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant John Canley (Retired).

Canley was previously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the Battle for Hue City between 31 January and 6 February 1968. During that time amongst many acts of gallantry, Canley carried a number of wounded Marines to safety under heavy fire, temporarily assumed command of his Company when the Company Commander was wounded and dropped a satchel charge into an enemy position. The medal will be presented at a future ceremony by President Trump.

US Navy Medal of Honor

In order for an existing gallantry award to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor both the US House of Representatives and US Senate must first waive the five (5) year limit for recommending the medal (in this case via Bill H.R.4641). The US Secretary of Defense must then endorse the recommendation and provide it to the President for final approval.

Canley, now 80 years old and living in Oxnard, California, is the latest veteran awarded the Naval version of the Medal of Honor. The most recent recipient is another Vietnam veteran, Private First Class Gary Rose (later Captain) who had his existing Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) upgraded to the Army version of the Medal of Honor for his actions treating over 60 wounded soldiers, whilst himself being wounded multiple times, during in Operation ‘Tailwind’ in Laos in May 1970. The medal was presented to him in October 2017.

You can find out more about the Naval version of the Medal of Honor here: http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/moh/index.html

Great Reads – ‘No Front Line’ (2017) by Chris Masters

No Front Line

I’ve just finished reading this book, published in October 2017, which you can find in paperback form at most Australian bookstores.

Written by the acclaimed Australian journalist Chris Masters (whose previous book on Afghanistan was ‘Uncommon Soldier’) it tells the story of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan from 2002 onwards, through the lense of those who served in Australian Special Forces (the SASR, Commandos or Special Operations Engineer Regiment) as well as those in the various Reconstruction Task Groups or Command appointments.

Overall I found it to be a great read that fills a void, as restrictions on media coverage really limited what was told at the time that many of these events happened.

My only complaint about the book is the lack of any maps used to describe events in each Chapter. They were probably omitted for security reasons, which I find perplexing.

Commandos Afghanistan

You can buy the book here: https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/military/No-Front-Line-Chris-Masters-9781760111144

On this day – Queen Victoria approves the introduction of the Victoria Cross (VC) awarded for gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’ – 29 January 1856

Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross, Britain’s (and some Commonwealth countries) highest award for gallantry for members of the Armed Forces, was officially constituted by warrant on this day in 1856.

Since that time the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients. Only 15 medals have been awarded since the Second World War.

As of 2018, there are six (6) living recipients of the Victoria Cross, three (3) living recipients of the Victoria Cross for Australia and one (1) living recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand. They are:

  • Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC, 210 Sqn RAF (awarded  for his actions in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1944)
  • Sergeant Bill Speakman VC, Black Watch attached to King’s Own Scottish Borderers (awarded for his actions in Korea in 1951)
  • Captain Rambahadur Limbu, VC, MVO, 2nd Battalion, 10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkha Rifles (awarded for his actions in Borneo in 1965)
  • Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Payne VC, AM, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (awarded for his actions in South Vietnam in 1969)
  • Corporal Willie Apiata VC, New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2004
  • Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry, VC, CNG, 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (awarded for his actions in Iraq in 2005)
  • Corporal Mark Donaldson VC, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2008)
  • Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Dan Keighran VC, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Joshua Leakey VC (shown below), 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2015)

Joshua Leakey VC

The largest collections of VCs in the world are held by the Ashcroft Collection in Britain (established in 1986) which now contains 210 medals and the Australian War Memorial, which has 69 medals on public display.

You can find out more about the Ashcroft Collection here: http://www.lordashcroftmedals.com/

You can find out more about the AWM collection here: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/vic_cross