Qantas in Java
In February 1942 a Qantas operational base was established at Broome in Western Australia so that urgent war supplies could be ferried across to Tjilatjap to help in the defence of Java. On their return trips to Australia, the flying boats carried Dutch and Australians who were escaping from the Japanese. It soon became obvious that the base in Java could not be held for much longer and the flights from Tjilatjap were scheduled to finish at the end of February.
Before the war, Empire flying boats carried mail from Australia to the UK and usually only carried five crew members and 15 passengers. The Qantas Empire flying boats carried passengers and mail as far as Singapore, where they were transferred to British aircraft, with the overall journey from Sydney to Southampton taking nine and a half days. The passengers were disembarked at each night stop and taken to hotels to sleep. The fare to the UK was approximately 200 pounds sterling. The flying boats cruised at 135 mph (217 kilometres) and flew over water at 4000 feet (approximately 1300 metres). After the outbreak of war, several of the Empire flying boats were transferred to the RAAF, while others remained with Qantas flying mail and passengers – including high ranking military officers – overseas.
The disappearance of the 'Circe'
Early in the morning of 28 February 1942, the last two Qantas Empire flying boats on the regular service between Java and Australia taxied from their moorings at Tjilatjap. The two pilots, Captain Stephen Howard in 'Corinthian' and Captain William Purton in 'Circe' had received instructions from Qantas Airways that they were to evacuate as many persons as possible from Tjilatjap to Broome in Western Australia. 'Corinthian' flew off first at 8.38 am AEST (Australian Eastern Standard Time) and Howard observed 'Circe' leaving its moorings for take-off, just two minutes later.
On board 'Circe' were 16 Dutch nationals and the four crew members:
Captain William Bloxham Purton
First Officer Mervyn William Bateman
Radio Operator Herbert George Anzac Oates
Purser James Lionel Hogan.
All were employees of Qantas, engaged in the business of civil aviation, on duties connected with the operation of aircraft for a purpose relating to the prosecution of the war.
Purton and Bateman were also members of the RAAF Reserve.
At 10.00 am (AEST) Howard heard Purton transmit a radio message to Broome concerning his aircraft's loading and he instructed his radio operator to contact 'Circe'. However despite trying them at half-hourly intervals, they had been unable to contact the other aircraft by the time they landed in Broome at 5.28 pm that evening.
According to Howard, the weather on the day of the flight was quite clear apart from a slight haze near the island of Java and the 'Corinthian' did not encounter any enemy aircraft during their flight. However, it was possible that the crew of 'Circe' had not been so lucky, as enemy aircraft were known to be operating over Java.
Qantas alerted Allied aircraft flying over the area to keep a look out for the 'Circe' and also conducted an extensive search for the missing aircraft. No wreckage or bodies have ever been recovered and the mystery of the disappearance of the 'Circe' has never been solved.