Australian Flying: Mosquito Pilot - Col Griffin
Mosquito Pilot - Col Griffin
15 Apr 2010
Flightpath Volume 21 Number 3
WWII RAAF Mosquito pilot Col Griffin - still flying today - shares some of his memories with Kathy Mexted and tells how a wartime recruitment poster set his life on a dramatic and exciting new course.
An Adelaide railway station poster headlined: I’m going to join the RAAF. Are you coming? caught the eye of a 21 year old Col Griffin. Quickly sold on the idea, Col says it took him a while to “make up the academic stage”, but once enlisted he commenced initial training locally at Victor Harbour. “I walked through that, and then went to learn flying at Parafield, soloing in 8 hours 25 minutes. There were some bright arses that went solo in 6:20, but often that was because they had good weather. Others had worse weather and never soloed at all. The system couldn’t wait for them.
“We got through, and while most of the blokes went off to Canada, half a dozen of us went over to Geraldton in WA to fly Avro Ansons. I loved Geraldton, it was such a beautiful place. I was commissioned off course as a ‘Pilot Officer’ (he says, waving his arms in self mockery). “I came from Strathalbyn in South Australia, where I was nothing but a lad in a dusty country town. Within twelve months I was a ‘Pilot Officer’ and I had a uniform, and I had a cap, and boy - was I up myself!” says Col, laughing at the memory of his transformation.
“Within 12 weeks, I was aboard TSS Ceramic bound for England with about 105 flying hours under my belt. We crossed the Pacific, through the Panama Canal, Newport News, New York City and then Halifax where we waited for a convoy before sailing off across the Atlantic. Boy, was I glad to get to England. The U Boats were sinking ships everywhere, and by the time we got there I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to survive this bloody war.’ (On December 6, 1942, the liner was sunk by U 515 en route to Australia from Britain. She was carrying 656 people as well as a cargo which, because it was war-time, included bombs and ammunition. Only one passenger survived.)
“We were entrained at Liverpool then sat around for five weeks at Bournemouth until they could decide what to do with us. We were interviewed as to what role we wanted to play in the war. They said to me ‘you’re too tall to be a gunner, and you’re not smart enough to be a navigator, how would you like to be a pilot?’ and I said ‘well that’s what I joined for.’ Well everybody wanted to be a ‘Fighter Pilot’ and nobody wanted to be a bomber pilot because the rumour was that it was a pretty dangerous job.
“I was keen to fly the Beaufighter but they told me ‘We don’t know if we can do that, but we’ve got lots of vacancies on Lancasters,’ and I said ‘well if that’s the case then, OK. I don’t mind.’ - So Lancasters it was.”
The next move was to Spitalgate in Grantham where Col learnt to fly Airspeed Oxfords before moving on to Charter Hall in Scotland to fly the Blenheim Mk.I, Mk.IV and the Mk.V or Bisley, and he recalls: “God it was cold in Scotland. I reckon the Bisley was one of the few aeroplanes that would get bird strike from behind. Then they introduced me to the Beaufighters. They were built with radial engines but there was a shortage of these, so they put Merlin engines in them and it became a dog. Once you got it flying, it was nice plane, but it was a dog on the ground. I lost it one day on landing. Went across the middle of the airfield and came out the other side. I went clean through all the vege gardens, and it took me all day to wash the mud off. I was so glad to get out of there.”
Col’s next posting was to 456 RAAF Squadron at Valley on Isle of Anglesey, Wales, where there were Beaufighters. There was also two Mosquitos being re-equipped and Col recalls: “…so I got an endorsement on the Mosquito. It was fast and smooth - the latest and popular. I was one of the lucky few. Here we were posted to Middle Wallop, based between Salisbury and Andover in Hampshire for three or four months, then back to Colerne in Somerset, Fairwood Common, Wales, then RAF Ford.
“By then the allies were grooming themselves for the Second Front, the Americans were flying over Germany, and the Lancaster force was becoming immense. This is when the Germans realised they had been foolish in not developing a heavy bomber force. Compared to Lancasters the Mosquito was like an eagle to fly. Lancasters were being built in the hundreds and the US were flying massive B-17 daylight raids. Being an intruder Squadron it wasn’t just night fighting, as Germans were getting a bit sparse with heavy bombing on Canterbury and destroying cities and people, it was all coming to an end.
Col recalls; “The Germans were building up a night fighter force and they had thousands of night fighters based in Western Europe to oppose British bombers. My Squadron was involved in intruder work. Our duty was to fly over their fields and make a nuisance of ourselves. Drop flares and bombs or shoot up planes on the ground. Our mere presence didn’t terrorise them, but it did scare them. They knew we had hundreds of Mosquitoes and we could put them out any time.”
“It was dangerous, because you never knew how high above the ground you were. We’d fly over at about 10,000 ft and come down to around 1,000 ft. The German airfields were defended with multiple guns. Some of the intruders would bomb runways as well. This continued until the end of the war. By that time I was based at Bradwell Bay near Chelmsford.
“I have nothing but praise for the Mosquito. It had two engines, which made a single engine landing tricky, because it was so streamlined. With one operational engine, when the undercarriage was lowered, you needed a lot of power. Recovery took 1,000 ft, so if you were below that, then you were committed to the landing.
“I only had one single engine landing and it was due to a radiator coolant failure. Coolant leaked out, the temp went up and I shut the engine down. It was in daylight and a piece of cake, because at the time I had experience and been trained for such an event, so I knew exactly what to do.
“I flew 650 hours in the Mosquito. That included Squadron work and training other pilots. About 250 were combat hours. The first time I departed for combat I was frightened as hell. The thought of it was a bit worrying because you had to make a flight plan, and navigational instruments were rudimentary, also we relied heavily on dead reckoning. My navigator, HP ‘Hoppy’ Williams, would plan it on the table. It would always be a black night, and I’d fly the flight plan that he gave me, and he’d map read as much as possible. He was very good, and once we got going, all fear was gone.”
Col then adds “Between 1939 and 1945, fully trained and operational aircrew deaths totalled approximately 75,000. Sixty percent were bomber command personnel. One’s demise came rather cleanly and relatively in the final sense, permanently. No horror, no drama, in most cases they simply did not return from operations to their billets.
“On one occasion I was shot at, the aircraft was damaged, and the radar operator wounded by flak in his buttocks. It came up through the bottom of the aeroplane and through the parachute on which he was sitting.
“We were based at Arundel, in Sussex, at RAF Station Ford. It was right on the coast where many shot-up aircraft landed with wounded on board, often including the poor rear airgunner shot dead and frozen stiff with the winter wind whistling through his busted turret. What a hell of a job getting his body out for identification and recording by our Squadron Doctor! The Americans suffered no less on their daily forays before the Mustang fighter could accompany them and mix with the enemy defenders.
“While I was stationed at Ford, I witnessed an incredible event. A damaged B-17 crash landed there one afternoon. Coming in at speed with one gear leg dangling, the pilot pushed his machine onto the ground, creating a spectacular cartwheel, followed by a thump and instant fire. The ground rescue services were on the spot in an instant, rescuing crew. Some were limping, some were OK, but one bloke who was on fire ran back into his blazing aircraft and died. Why? Who knows who could give a reason? For days, I wished that I’d not witnessed that moment. It was one of the most upsetting, inexplicable, graphic scenes I’ve ever witnessed. No wonder the horrors of W.W.I affected our Diggers well into the thirties. Poor buggers.”
As if war doesn’t provide enough drama and danger, Col managed to have one of his most memorable events occur on a day off. One morning he was approached by a young RAF flying officer who wanted to go to Liverpool to meet his girlfriend and Col recounts the event; “‘Will you fly me up?’ the young bloke asked. I said, ‘If they’ve got an aeroplane I will.’ As it was about a two-hour flight each way, we went over to the flying school and I said, ‘Can I have a Mosquito to fly this bloke to see his girlfriend? I’d love to have a bit of a fly alone on the return trip.’
“The WAAF said; ‘All the Mosquitos are occupied but we’ve got a Beaufort over there in the grass. We’ll drag it out and you can take it for a run.’ So we hauled it out of the long grass and got the old thing going. When we got to altitude, there was one hell of a crash from the starboard engine and all the cowling flew off, the prop went into fine pitch and the engine caught alight, so I shut it down to put the fire out. It shed three cylinders and I thought I’d die in the backside.
“I thought to myself ‘What am I doing here? Flying a bloke up to Liverpool and all he wants to do is meet his girlfriend and have a bit of a cuddle, and now we’re in fine pitch and losing altitude rapidly. Someone is either going to get hurt, or die, and that could be me!’ That’s when you wonder, ‘what is my mother going to think?’ and not panic. There was a cleared patch in the trees, so I put it down there but forgot to put the landing gear down. We came to rest in a field of sugar beet and, me with an engine cylinder in my lap. It had come through the side of the aircraft.
“We were out of that plane in a nano-second because the engine was red hot, and I thought it was going to go ‘whoosh’, and I’d have been onions. Anyway, we survived that and the beet farmer came and found us. My mate had a cut forehead and the farmers wife was a nurse. She only had a needle and cotton, so she dipped it in Dettol and stitched him up and washed the blood off his tunic before announcing to the ambulance ‘send him on his way to see his girlfriend’.”
We asked if the mate got to see the girl? Col replied with a great laugh: “Oh did he what! Wounded and all! Somebody from Cranfield came and retrieved me. I had the shimmy shakes.”
Recalling D Day, Col says “I was over the beach head at Omaha on the night of 5 June, 1944 – in preparation for the landings. We knew the allies were about to attempt to fight their way onto French shores. We had noticed a build up of forces - there was scarcely a leafy lane that didn’t have an article of war ready in it. We had also noticed the huge floating concrete caissons that were going to be towed to the invasion point and then scuttled to make a wharf.
“We found out about the invasion the night before, after the ships had already left. They were so thick; you could have stepped from one ship to another. It was a vast armada and the night flying squadrons were flying out over the channel looking for German bombers, but there were none. That was an anti-climax.
“Around that time it was fairly humdrum, except when we received the shot-up planes in desperate to land, including American Mitchells, Marauders and B-17s. A Mosquito landed short one night. He was using the rudimentary flying beam and got too low, hit the ground and the plane exploded. The wheel came off, jumped the roadway and killed an engineer. It was pretty wild.
After the War
“I flew over Germany about 3 weeks after the war ended and there wasn’t a factory or city that hadn’t been raped by air power. I came home with a total of 1,007 hours as a man who had willingly served his country right to the end.
“Our replacement Commanding Officer (after the preceding one was killed in a flying accident) Bob Cowper is still alive and living in Adelaide. There are very few of our squadron left. I think there is only about six aircrew.
“The journey home was very unpleasant. The ship was crowded with POW’s and only a few women. I landed back in Sydney and caught the train to Melbourne, then the beautiful Adelaide Express home to see mum and dad. That boat trip had knocked a lot out of me. I lost a lot of weight and learnt to smoke. I went through about a three-month period of depression, as I knew I would. After all that excitement, it’s one hell of a let down when you are demobbed. All that excitement, and all of a sudden ‘plonk’, back to Civvy Street – but you pick up the pieces. I loved England and its people. I think all servicemen probably suffered the same problems.”
Following his retirement from the RAAF in 1945, Col worked for Australian National Airlines (ANA), later Ansett ANA, and upon retirement spent ten years at a flying school in Melton. He says he found his old service flying jacket in an army disposal store in Adelaide once, but: “it was oil stained and dirty and held no appeal for me at the time. It was a time when everybody was fed up with the war, and the jacket didn’t seem to have any value, even sentimental value. I realise now I should have just told them I’d lost it and never handed it back.” His service boots have been worn out and long gone, and the only part of his kit to survive are his log books and tunic.
Col still flies upwards of 50 hours per year in his amateur-built high performance RV6, based at Kyneton in Central Victoria. He is an active member of the Kyneton Aero Club, and flies away for lunch on average every second weekend. Having lost touch with his sweetheart Doreen, during the war, they were only reunited in 1997 and have been married for ten years. Walking away from the hangar after doing some air-to-air photography in his RV6, Col was in high spirits and confided with a big smile, “I’m having the time of my life”. On 1 September, 2009 Col celebrated his 90th birthday by flying himself and his wife to Adelaide in their RV6.
I helped another chap, our company E & I engineer, Ed Groot, build the RV-6 and did the test flying on the aircraft. Ed subsequently sold it to Col.