A flight to remember

Name: Tony Tubbenhauer
Date: 1941-1945
Unit: 203 Squadron RAF
Location: Middle East

Tony Tubbenhauer proved to be a versatile pilot during World War II. He learned to fly on Tiger Moths in Australia, then moved on to Ansons and during the war flew 17 different types of aircraft including Blenheims and Baltimoresin his three-year tour of duty in the Middle East and Africa, and Liberators after returning to Australia.

He flew a variety of ancient aircraft with a Communications Flight in Iraq before attending a flying instructors course in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) prior to returning to Australia.

His last operational flight before attending the flying instructor's course called for him to use all the skills he had gained in the past few years.

"Not long after dawn on 29 September 1943 I eased the control column forward a little, carefully watching the blue surface of the Mediterraneanas it flashed by a hundred feet below our speeding aircraft. My aim was to stay as low as possible to avoid searching enemy radar for as longas we could, but not so low that we touched the water or left a speed boat-like trail on it with our slip stream, a beacon to a patrolling fighter.

"Away to the east the tops of the mountains on Crete broke up the otherwise flat horizon. Weather wise, it would be a beautiful day.

"Gordon, Bill, Bob and I, all Aussies, were flying with 203 Squadron,RAF, out of Benghazi in Libya. We'd been briefed the day before, shaken awake in the dark, fed, and, knowing what next day we had to do had slept badly, were only half awake. We'd climbed aboard Baltimore FA535 as it crouched in the dark like some prehistoric animal, brought it to life and roared down the flare path and into the darkness and had set a course that would keep us well off Crete and take us into the Aegean Sea.

"There, hugging the sea, photographing harbours and shipping, we would fly past the islands of Milos, Sifnos, Serifos, Cythnos, Syros, Paros and Naxos and turn for the gap between Crete and mainland Greece, again passing Melos. If the trip went as others had, we could expect to be fired on by harbour defences and if very unlucky, tangle with a Crete-based fighter, likely to be an ME109.

"We all constantly scanned the sky. Like many other aircraft during the war, the Baltimore, in our Squadron, was being used for purposes for which it hadn't been designed. A light bomber meant for short trips, a steel overload tank holding about 1000 litres of fuel had been hung in the bomb bay. Unlike the wing tanks, this had no self-sealing. Hit by enemy fire, it was likely to explode.

"We used its contents first, waiting for the engines to falter as there was no contents gauge. In a crash it usually split, drenching the machine and crew with fuel before exploding. At the resulting funerals the coffins were packed with sandbags to make up the weight. FA535 was powered by two 2000 horsepower radial engines.

"The unique open stub exhaust system blasted unbelievable sound straight at the pilot's ears. Both he and the navigator were in their seats for the duration of the flight, up to seven hours. A clearly marked water bottle was supplied for urination, another for drinking. Anything else, well bad luck. Definitely not for lady drivers.

"The compressed air bottle for dinghy inflation was in the pilot's seat and cut into the backs of his legs. There was no auto pilot. If flying high enough, to get some relief he could grip the runners of the overhead hatch and raise his backside off it. It was not a comfortable aircraft. The fuselage was too narrow to allow for dual instruction. Learning to fly a Baltimore comprised a quick circuit and landing with the trainee standing peering over the instructor's shoulder, then taking his place and flying solo.

"Every aircraft had its own characteristics. The Baltimore had a strong swing on takeoff, a one wing stall if held off too high on landing which could see it dip a wing and cartwheel across the ground, and a violent swing when the tail wheel touched. We landed them on the main wheels to avoid that for as long as possible. The under carriage was strong enough to support a modern 747. If most aircraft blew a main tyre at speed, the under carriage would fold and the machine would skate along on its belly. Not so the Baltimore. It would lurch, the leg would dig in and it would stand up on its nose and often go over onto its back.

"If the overload tank was full it would break loose and rupture. I know, because a tyre burst at 70 knots and I found myself looking at the ground over the nose. It almost reached the point of balance before crashing back onto the tail. In the air Baltimores gave confidence to crews. They were rugged and, carrying 12 machine guns, could defend themselves. Uncomfortable and noisy, they were fractious on the ground but having mastered their dirty tricks I got to enjoy them. We wouldn't have needed to ditch, though. They floated for under two minutes.

"We had crossed some of the Mediterranean at 1000 feet. We kept scanning the sky in case a long-range fighter might find us. No way could we relax.

"Before dawn, Bill had tested his turret guns. Their deafening blast shook the aircraft. I watched the tracers float away towards the sea.The stink of cordite filled the machine. I put my four wing guns on fire and pressed the button and saw four streams of tracers join his. We'd seen the sun rise out of the sea and light up our world.

"Well out of radar range, I'd lost height and we were now very low. Gordon, my navigator, handed up the change of course that would take us into the Aegean and to our first island, Milos. I turned onto it and shortly Milos appeared in my windscreen, a smudge on the horizon. As we flashed past it we were able to take in the beauty of the island, rocky slopes, with white buildings perched precariously on them, deep blue sea surrounding. How I'd like to come back when the shooting's over, I thought.

"Skirting Milos, I altered course for Sifnos, passed it, went onto Seriphos, turned right at Cythnos, turned again at Syros heading for the northern end of Paros and set course for Naxos. So far so good, no ships and not a shot fired at us.

"The Germans and Italians had observation posts on some of the islands. If we spotted one in time we'd give it a squirt from the turret guns. I guess that this didn't endear us to the occupants. We must have passed one. By radio they'd warned that we were in the area. Naxos was ready for us.

"We flew past as close as I could get to the sea and not a long way off the harbour. Smoke rose from the shore as every gun that could be brought to bear fired at us. An armed trawler at the wharf joined in. Tracers, which look somewhat different if coming towards you, were flying all around us. The surface of the sea below us was lashed into foam by the fire. I hurled the aircraft around, to try to make the gunner's task difficult. Our turret guns fired as Bill attempted to hit the depth charges stacked on the trawler's deck. Sparks flew off its side as the .5 roundshit. Not far ahead was a small headland. I put it between us and the guns.

"The firing stopped. The whole action had taken only a few minutes. It had seemed like weeks. There had been no time for fear. That came later. I'd had my wing guns switched on. Ahead were several fishing boats. Keyed up and somewhat pissed off I prepared to give them a squirt. We'd been advised that we could attack any boats, but not to fire on them if they dropped their sails as those would be friendlies.

"Sails on those boats came down in record time. I held my fire, flashing over the top of them just above their masts. Again skirting Milosand avoiding Crete where there was a fighter base, we left the Aegean and set course for Benghazi. Tired and deafened by engine noise, I set the main wheels firmly and smoothly back on Benghazi airfield and taxied in and shut down.

"The flight had taken a little under seven hours. A day later, good news. We'd gone direct from one Squadron to another, without the usual several months break as instructors after about 35 operational flights. The one to the Aegean had been our 76th. We were to be moved to instructing. That was a chance to survive the war."

Tony Tubbenhauer did survive the war. He went to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to take an instructor's course before returning to Australia. There he learned to fly Liberators and later taught others to do so. He was discharged on 7 January 1945.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), A flight to remember, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/flight-remember
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