This book answers a question asked of an Australian airman by a Soviet Naval aircraft electrician when the two met inside the Arctic Circle in September 1942. “Why have you come so far, why are you helping us?” In truth the airman probably had little knowledge of the broader picture to be able to answer such a comprehensive question.
At the start of World War II in Australia, Prime Minister Menzies pledged full support for the Mother Country and set in train the creation of RAAF squadrons for virtual inclusion into the RAF. 455 Squadron (RAAF) was one such unit formed in Australia in June 1941 against the backdrop of the Depression and unemployment. The squadron, when it moved to England to meet it’s officers and aircraft became a nucleus, training groundstaff and aircrews who served with other Australian Squadrons in Europe. When formed, 455 Squadron joined 5 Group Bomber Command, flying Handley Page Hampdens.
While this aircraft was relatively new it was already technically obsolete and due for replacement. The war at this time was fairly relaxed for 455 Squadron. Losses were not heavy and the massed “1,000 Bomber raids” were only just starting in early 1942. This was a hiatus period in the war, Singapore had fallen, the war in the Western Desert was not going well and Stalingrad was on the verge of collapse and could bring down the Soviet Union with it. Then England was humiliated by a German Fleet “dashing” up the English Channel, the first fleet to do so since the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Squadrons from all over England were called on to hurl anything they could at this fleet. The fleet were protected by heavy weather and every Luftwaffe fighter Adolf Galland could keep in the air. Several 455 Hampdens made it through to attack and it is believed one bomb actually struck home. The episode left the British realising that all their torpedo aircraft had been transferred overseas. Hurriedly the Hampden was pressed into torpedo service and the crews trained into a new role. 455 Squadron was now transferred to 18 Group Coastal Command.
Earlier in June 1941, Britain faced the reality of invasion, their only protection from German might was the English Channel. Not unexpectedly Hitler chose to invade Russia with another blitzkreig. In a few weeks he had hoped to secure the industrial resources of that country to support his war in the west. Prime Minister Churchill saw a war with Russia as the saviour of Britain. If Germany could be left to exhaust herself in Russia, she would never have the strength to invade Britain.
Immediately after Germany moved on Russia, Churchill ordered the diversion of American material to Russia. Just six weeks later Churchill landed a Wing of Hurricane fighters at Vaenga in Russia, this was a fighting Operational Training Unit. In their short stay they downed several Messerschmitts before handing their aircraft over to the Russians. The Russians survived their first winter and the pace of aid quickened until June 1942 when convoy PQ17 was largely destroyed, 22 ships sunk with only 11 surviving. The rate of attrition was too much for the British but the situation in Russia was precarious. The Tirpitz outgunned anything the Royal Navy had, her supporting ships were equally frightening. U-boats of the “Ice Palace” group patrolled the Arctic Ocean while the Luftwaffe controlled the corridor between Norway and Spitzbergen.
Churchill was insistent that PQ18 get through. A large fleet of destroyers, anti-aircraft ships, submarines, led by an anti-aircraft cruiser were assigned to escort the convoy. To deal with the powerful surface fleet, two newly trained Hampden torpedo bomber squadrons were despatched to northern Russia. The aircraft had to fly across Occupied Norway and Finland, the distance was about a 100 miles beyond the theoretical maximum range of the aircraft. This did not take into account having to climb over 9,000 foot mountains, bad weather and operating normal aircraft compasses inside the Arctic Circle around the Swedish mountains of iron.
The two squadrons, 455 RAAF AND 144 RAF had been told to expect 25-30% losses if they managed to attack an enemy battle fleet. Their losses on this ferry flight were 25%!
Once in Russia the Australians found themselves 30 miles inside the Eastern Front. At night the horizon was alive with the flashes from artillery duels. By day they were bombed as Germans broke through the Russian patrols. Then their time came.
The Tirpitz was missing from her anchorage, Convoy PQ18 was within range. With heavy hearts the airmen flew north in search of their quarry, a ditching in that hostile ocean meant certain death. It was an 8 hour patrol in clear but heavy turbulence, and many experienced crews were sick. It was their only patrol from Russia, the Tirpitz was on sea trials! For the Germans the Tirpitz was too valuable to risk, while she floated, she tied up 40 or more British ships who maintained guard on her.
With convoy PQ18 through the RAF wanted its airmen back. Schemes were floated about them flying south through Persia and the Middle East or flying toward Scotland and ditching in the sea. A more sane idea won the day. Hand the remaining aircraft and spares to the Russians and ferry the crews home on a naval ship. While training the crews to fly Hampdens was no problem, teaching the maintenance staff was a bigger issue.
Six Australians were left behind to provide this technical training. After some dangerous weeks during which they could not be flown out by seaplane because of ice, they eventually made their own way home by destroyer.
This Australian link with Russia was quickly masked by the “Cold War” and while it was the most popular topic of Anzac Day reunions, men worried about being suspected of being linked with the communists. Apart from two men there were no honours awarded by the British or Australian governments for the Australians who went to Russia. In 1988 the Russian Government issued a medal to the airmen in appreciation for their part in the campaign.