Not everyone in the RAAF was a dashing ace in World War Two. For every pilot there were ten or more ground crew who kept the aircraft running. Cooks, engineers, drivers and armourers all contributed to the war effort.
My grandfather, Graham Coleman, was a greengrocer by trade, and had owned his own ‘motor lorry’ as they were called then, for some years. He’d done all the mechanical work himself, and this, according to the RAAF when he applied to enlist at Woolloomooloo in April 1942, made him perfectly suited for service as an aircraft hand.
After training, he was assigned to 452 Squadron, then 457 Squadron, based in the Northern Territory. The main role in both cases was to help protect Darwin. Both squadrons flew the famous Supermarine Spitfire, and my grandfather worked on the superb Rolls Royce Merlin engines that kept the planes in the air. The Merlin was a supercharged V12 with a capacity of 27 litres that developed around 1000 horsepower. Its only weakness was the float-type carburetor that starved the engine of fuel during a steep dive. (A problem the Germans had cracked a few years earlier with their direct-injected Me-109s.)
Life at Livingstone Airfield (pictured from when I visited the site just last week), where my grandfather spent much of his war, was a combination of boredom, intense hard work, and sheer terror when the Japanese bombed the city of Darwin and surrounding air fields. Men like my grandfather had to endure air raids, yet were only able to fight back through the aircraft they lovingly kept flying, armed, and coddled through the harshest of conditions.
Extended leave was impossible in those dark days, and my grandfather kept in contact with his family by mail. He and my grandmother had three children at that stage, though he didn’t get to know his son, the youngest, until after the war.
When the Japanese air attacks on Darwin slowed, my grandfather’s squadron was moved by sea north to Morotai in the Dutch East Indies, where the Spitfires were tasked with harassing Japanese ground forces, strafing troops, attacking barracks and supply depots.
The last months of my grandfather’s war were spent in supporting the invasion of Borneo, specifically maintaining aircraft involved in the attack on Balikpapan, where they remained until the end of the war.
My grandfather fixed Spitfires, but he was never the man he could have been without those war years. He died relatively young, like so many of his generation.
I used to sit at his feet and listen to his stories. They were always funny, but sad too. Sometimes he’d get his medals out and show me. He promised that when I was sixteen he’d take me to all the places he went in the war, but he didn’t live long enough. He left me his medals in his will, and that will have to do.
Greg Barron 2015