Living through "friendly fire" in New Guinea

Name: Henry Booth
Date: 1943-194
Unit: 100 Squadron RAAF
Location: Milne Bay, New Guinea

Being shot at by planes and having bombs dropped near you was a fairly common occurrence in New Guinea during World War II, as Tony Booth would be the first to tell you. But when the bullets and the bombs came from Australian aircraft, it was a bit hard to take.

Tony Booth was an aircraft mechanic, a job that had its dangerous moments, especially when guns were fired accidentally while the planes were being serviced or the bombs were dropped as they were being mounted under the wings of the Beaufort planes.

Tony was at Milne Bay in New Guinea with 100 Squadron RAAF, when he got his 'own' plane to look after.

"A plane would be allocated generally to two men, a mechanic and a rigger, but quite often only to a mechanic," Tony wrote in his book The Dry Gullies I have Crossed.

"It was then your responsibility to see it was in 100% order at all times and the aim of the serviceability was to ensure that as many as possible would be available in the shortest possible time.

"First thing every morning we would do our daily inspection, which was a very thorough visual inspection to see nothing was broken or displaced. We would then 'pull the motor through' which involved turning the airscrews (propellers) over a few times, drain the petrol tanks via the drain cocks under each tank, letting the petrol run into your hand to see if any water that had got in by overnight condensation, had got into the petrol.

"We did 40-hourly and 80-hourly inspections on the aircraft and if an inspection was due on an aircraft it would be taken to an inspection bay which had a camouflage net stretched over it. This was our workshop in the open."

It was during one of these inspections that Tony had a scare.

"I was working on an engine on an 80-hourly inspection and just beside me was Neil Phelan, taking an oil cooler out of the leading edge of a mainplane (wing).

"All of a sudden two machine guns (one in each wing) let go a burst of fire. I froze for a few seconds and so did Neil as he was closer to the gun than I was. It appears that a rigger was up in the cockpit and pressed the firing button on the pilot's joy stick and it was not on 'safe', or so the man said."

Tony had another 'thrilling' few minutes one day at Milne Bay. Tony was working on his plane and in the dispersal bay opposite was a new armourer being shown over a plane and getting some practice.

"The next moment I heard 'Clatter! Clatter!' and looked out of the corner of my eye to see the last of the bombs hitting the metal stripping across the road," he recalled. "I instinctively 'hugged the ground', as we used to term a quick fall to the ground in an emergency. I did not have time to feel how my heart pounded. I just listened and, of course, nothing happened."

The armourer had apparently told the new armourer never to press the jettison button but as he did so, he had mechanically pressed the button and the bombs had fallen out of their mountings. They had not exploded because, even though they were fused, they had fallen on their side and had not landed on their point to activate the detonator.

"I know I knew this at the time but you never take risks and in the few feet the bombs had to fall, they were kept safe and fell onto their sides," Tony wrote. "Some time later I was in the vicinity when another wing bomb fell to the ground accidentally and it remained intact also."

During the wet season it was not unusual for planes to get bogged.

"A couple of times we got hauled out of bed at sunrise to get a plane out of a bog," Tony said. "It was too wet to get a tractor in so what we would do was to get as many 'bodies' as possible to get a purchase on the plane and to push.

"The pilot would start up and 'gun' the engines and we would push. We had the slip-stream to push against as well as an unsure footing underneath and a bit of flying soft mud, but we would get them out onto firmer ground."

One night Tony was woken by a loud crash, followed by a burst of ack-ack fire.

"We could not make it out at this time in the morning but at breakfast we found out all about it," he said. "Our planes had gone out on a 'bash' and a Japanese aircraft followed the last one in to avoid being detected by radar. It let some bombs drop and had got one aircraft in its dispersal bay just as it taxied in and the anti-aircraft fire was more or less a token shot in the dark."

Tony said the ground staff duty crew had been lucky that night as it was part of their duty to be at the dispersal bay to check the crew and plane on parking but their truck had broken down and they were delayed getting there.

When they did arrive, they found the pilot sitting in front of the plane in a dazed condition, one of the crew was lying near the aircraft with shrapnel in his leg and another was taking 'a nervous leak'. The observer was found to be dead when they opened the underneath hatch to look for him.

"I had a particular interest in this plane as it was 'mine' and it presented quite a desolate sight next morning," Tony said. "The bomb was a 'daisy-cutter' that landed alongside the plane, puncturing all the tyres, rupturing the oil tank, and even though there was oil everywhere, there was no fire and the self-sealing petrol tanks did their job to perfection."

On another occasion, Tony had completed an aircraft inspection and went on the inspection flight with the crew.

"We took off and after a while I looked out the side and saw the starboard airscrew was in the fully feathered position," Tony recalled. "This was normally done only in case of emergency. It made the airscrew parallel to the plane and the air going past it would not let it turn and would thus stop any further damage to an engine," he said.

"I nearly collapsed when I saw it and the WAG [Wireless/Air Gunner] in the crew saw my apprehension when I thought 'What has gone wrong in the inspection?' It was something every mechanic dreaded, on his plane at any rate."

Tony was given a big 'thumbs up' so then knew all was in order but he became concerned again when the pilot banked sharply, flew over the airstrip and 'shot it up' then came in and landed, all on one engine.

"When we landed and parked in our bay the pilot said there was nothing wrong with the plane," Tony said.

He was to learn later that the pilot had been showing off how efficient a Beaufort was even on one engine. After another pilot had pulled a similar stunt, the commanding officer called a halt to the business because of the danger to crews and ground staff.

Tony had another 'narrow escape' when bullets from a Kittyhawk of 75 Squadron came flying through the air. The plane was having its guns synchronised so the bullets crossed at a certain distance in front of the plane when the electric firing mechanism jammed. And did not stop until both magazines were empty.

"We were pleased to hear the silence again but it was a bit frightening to see tracer bullets as momentarily you see them at a distance before you hear the guns," he said. "I did not think it was a the best place to be with bullets flying past at only chest height and once more sought refuge on the ground till the firing finished."

After some home leave Tony did another course to become an engine fitter and this brought a rise in pay. He was posted to Rathmines working on Catalinas and then on to DC3s taking supplies up to New Guinea.

"This part of my service was a breeze, especially after my previous time 'up there' of nearly 15 months," he said.

The material for this article was supplied by Henry Elton 'Tony' Booth of Queensland
8/01/2002 10:25:29 AM


Last updated: 16 November 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Living through "friendly fire" in New Guinea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 30 January 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/living-through-friendly-fire-new-guinea
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