A beer bottle barrage and stealing into Timor

Name: Bernard Harte
Date: 1941-1944
Unit: 11 and 20 Squadrons RAAF
Location: Australia, Pacific

During World War Two I spent much of my flying career in the Royal Australian Air Force as a wireless operator-gunner in Catalina flying boats, from mid-1941 to 1943, mostly covering the South Pacific theatre. Operating out of Port Moresby in Papua and recently established Advanced Operational Bases in island countries - including the Solomons, we were involved in reconnaissance work to guard shipping lanes to Australia from German surface and submarine predators.

When the Japanese came into the war we turned our attention to evacuation and bombing missions on Rabaul, the tip of Bougainville Island and Guadalcanal in the Solomons, but we did get as far north as the Caroline Islands on one occasion, to attack the giant Jap naval base at Truk. It wasn't a successful operation as our bombs went astray as the weather closed in over the target, which was just as well as we wouldn't have stood a chance in an air battle.

When the first few batches of Catalinas were delivered from the San Diego factory in the United States they had to be accepted as a non-military aircraft without armaments, as the US was not then at war. All the RAAF could drum up for us were Lewis machine guns made in Belgium in 1917. They were quite useless in the tropics as they would invariably jam up after a few bursts.

Before the attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour precipated the Jap invasion, we generally cruised along at a height of about 800 feet (240 metres), but once we were sent on bombing missions we decided we'd be more comfortable over the target at a few thousand feet, so we went looking for parachutes - just in case. We found a few in the RAAF store at Moresby but they were a bit mildewed, so we left them there reckoning we'd be safer without them.

For the first three months or so in '42 we kept up a relentless program of strikes against the Japs with no more than three Cats serviceable at the one time between our two squadrons - 11 and 20, operating out of Moresby and AOBs until we moved our operational base to Cairns at the end of April. The long haul to targets would generally keep us in the air from 10 to 24 hours at a time.

We could carry up to twelve 250 pound bombs on these missions. One day we ran out of our usual 250 pounders. To fill the gap - so to speak, we took along a couple of crates full of 20 pound fragmentation bombs. Each one had to be fused by hand using a pair of pliers and then thrown over the side a là World War One. This meant circling the target for about half an hour to get rid of them.

When the availability of 20 pounders was almost exhausted - and our 250 pounders had not arrived - one Cat crew decided to augment the small supply on their next trip with a couple of crates of empty beer bottles, kindly supplied by the Cairns Brewery.

The noise generated in the throat of an empty bottle falling from a few thousand feet could be quite frightening to those below - so we were told. Even more frightening if a razor blade was stuck into the neck of the bottle - so we were told, but we didn't get around to testing that theory.

Certainly we didn't anticipate killing many Japs with our beer bottle barrage or decimating them with 20 pounders. Our main purpose was to keep them from getting any sleep at night, with the willing co-operation of the hordes of mosquitoes that inhabited the area - being Buka, on the tip of Bougainville Island. We counted on the Japs being too exhausted at the break of dawn to even give the scheduled flight of American B17 bombers a friendly wave as they dropped their messages of joy in the shape of a cluster of 500 pounders.

Although bombing missions were our main activity in '42 and '43 now and again we were diverted to rescue jobs - which weren't exactly all beer and skittles. One of the stickiest was on 18 August '42 when we stole in to Portuguese Timor to pick up 13 sick and wounded Australian commandos. The rendezvous was a thin strip of beach near the Dutch Timor border, which meant putting the Catalina down on the open sea and then standing off the beach about 100 yards (90m). To hold our Cat back from being washed ashore we took along a few extra drogues and an auxiliary anchor, plus a long length of rope which we took ashore and fastened one end to a tree, the other to our Cat. The rope was to be our lifeline.

From dusk to 3.30 next morning, two of us kept up a shuttle service using rubber duckies, pulling ourselves along the line, carrying one passenger at a time to our Cat, then returning to the beach with supplies wrapped in waterproof groundsheets. The supplies - being radio equipment, ammo and food - were for the rest of the commandos working their way south through the jungle.

I found getting back to the beach on each return trip was a bit dicey. As I got near the beach the ocean swell would get hold of my duckie and dump it upside down in the surf intent on sucking it and its contents back into the sea. At the right moment two commandos would hop in and grab everything - including me. Minutes later I would be on my way again with another passenger, dodging the giant float as the flying boat swung restlessly at anchor.

We had been instructed to be airborne before dawn to avoid a coastal sweep the Japs flew every morning, using a flight of Zeros. Trouble was we could only get one engine to function. We were now a sitting duck.

Luckily the Zero sweep didn't materialise that morning so we were free to try and coax the dead engine back to life. After about an hour bouncing about in the sea we found the fault - a burnt out solenoid in the starter motor. We were now committed to a hand start, using a crank handle like the one we used in the old days to start the family car. Though this one had a long rod - about four feet.

We only took a skeleton crew on this operation for obvious reasons, so it fell to me to wind up the huge motor. Noticing me struggling away with the handle the officer in charge of the army contingent, climbed up on the mainplane to lend a hand while the sick and wounded remained entombed in the stifling hot flyless Cat boat.

After 10 minutes or so winding away with me, the officer went back to placate his men who were now restless and very concerned about the delay.

Meanwhile the skipper, Gil Thurston, stood on top of the pilot's cabin, wringing his hands.

"Bernie,' he said with a grin. "This is the unhappiest day of my life!"

"Gawd! That's not very uplifting when I'm trying to start this bloody donk," I quickly retorted.

Nevertheless, Thursty's declaration was enough to spur me on. The engine also got the message and sprang into life after a few more turns with the handle. I just had time to extract the handle from the bowels of the engine before Thursty revved her up. Then I was nearly blown into the sea. Fortunately I managed to grab a small handle - set into the mainplane for the use of maintenance men - and held on like grim death as I eased my way down into the blister compartment helped along by someone grabbing my feet. By this time Thursty was taxiing our beloved Cat for a quick take off.

Precisely 3 hours and 50 minutes later we touched down in Darwin Harbour with 13 very relieved commandos. I wonder what happened to them and their officer as the war progressed? I was the only member of the crew to survive the war. The skipper transferred to Qantas in 1945 after a meritorious career in the RAAF, not only in the Pacific but also the European theatre, flying Sunderlands. The second 'dickie' was shot down and killed. Our flight engineer, Jack Dewhurst, with whom I flew on every operation until the morning of 1st March 1943 when I was posted south for a spot of leave - was caught by the Japs when on a mission a few nights later. He was taken ashore near Gasmata (New Britain), and decapitated, along with the rest of the crew. The skipper was Wing Commander Frank Chapman of Brisbane. Their remains lie in the Rabaul Cemetery.

On 7 October 1944, I made a return trip to Timor as a supernumerary Gunnery Leader in a Mitchell B25 from Darwin, to attack enemy barges and a gun emplacement on shore. One of our three aircraft was shot down and went into the sea . The remains of the crew were never recovered but they are remembered at the Adelaide River War Cemetery.

Material supplied by Bernard Harte of Queensland


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), A beer bottle barrage and stealing into Timor, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 24 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/beer-bottle-barrage-and-stealing-timor
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