A fateful flight : conspicious gallantry off Algeria
Collection, Collection Highlights, Personal Stories, Conspicious Gallantry Medal, Navigator, Lockheed Hudson, Royal Australian Air Force, No.500 Squadron RAF, Coastal Command, Maritime patrol operations, U-boat, Gibraltar, Algeria
Lockheed Hudson U-boat attack RAAF recruitment poster. Source : Australian War Memorial collection ARTV03905.
On the night of 23 April 1943, a lone Royal Air Force (RAF) Lockheed Hudson multi-role aircraft was patroling off the Algerian coast. The crew of six had a single mission, to seek and destroy any German or Italian submarines that they found to prevent them from attacking Allied shipping in the western Mediterranean. To combat this threat, No.500 Squadron RAF forward deployed some of their aircraft from the British base of Gibraltar, to a much simpler and spartan forward landing field at Tafaraoui in Algeria. It was from this airfield that this fateful flight began and ended.
Map of Tafaraoui airfield, Algeria (marked 'A') relative to Gibraltar and the western Mediteranean Sea. Source : Google maps.
Amongst the experienced Hudson crew of six was an 24 year old Australian, Arthur Frederick Blackwell, a pre-war architectural draughtsman from Sydney. He had worked closely with his pilot, Englishman Warrant Officer Ronald Obee for several months on dozens of patrol and escort operations over both the North Sea and Mediteranean including the long and dangerous ferry flight from the UK to Gibraltar. They were obviously a good combination with Obee's flying and Blackwell's navigational abilities safely bringing them and their crew home every time, in all manner of weather and operational conditions.
Studio protrait of the recently enlisted Arthur Frederick Blackwell. Australian War Memorial image P06270.004
Extract from his flying logbook which indicates some of the flying that Obee, Blackwell and their crew were conducting in late 1942. "A/S" is the abbreviation of Anti-Submarine. Note that they shot down a German Junkers Ju-52 transport plane over the Mediteranean Sea on Rememberance Day 1942. Source : Australian War Memorial collection PR03882.
On 23 April 1943 Blackwell was the navigator of a Lockheed Hudson that was conducting a night time anti-submarine patrol in the western Mediterranean. Using airborne radar on the aircraft, the crew detected a German U-boat running on the surface charging its batteries. They dropped a parachute flare to illuminate the area then they immediately proceeded to attack it from low altitude. As the aircraft passed very close to the submarine a burst of anti-aircraft cannon fire from the submarine hit killing the pilot and damaging the aircraft cockpit.
This image illustrates the close proximity of the seated Hudson pilot with his instrumentation and flight control systems. When trying to extricate a wounded or dead pilot one small bump or catching of the control column (joystick), throttle quadrant or rudder pedals could result in fatal crash, stall or turn. This image is from an Australian Hudson unit also based in North Africa in 1943. Source : AWM image MEA1059.
Quickly working with other another member of the crew Blackwell helped remove the pilot from this harness, communications gear and pilot seat whilst maintaining control of the aircraft. Within the tight confines of a blacked out cockpit, flying just over the sea he then occupied the pilot’s seat and he took control of the aircraft. Whilst in the pilot seat he was able to calculate a navigational bearing back to his airfield, gradually climb the aircraft without causing a fatal stall and he safely flew the aircraft back to base. Arriving over his airfield at approximately midnight the remaining aircrew successfully bailed out of the Hudson. Once all his crew were safely out of the aircraft, Sergeant Blackwell then brought the aircraft down successfully when he belly landed the Hudson near the airfield. The resultant forced landing wrote off the aircraft, the body of his friend Ronald Obee was able to be recovered for burial. Ronald Obee is buried near the airfield at the Le Petite Lac Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Oran, http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2242506/OBEE,%20RONALD.
For his actions that night, and his 'displayed exceptional leadership and captaincy which inspired his comrades in trying circumstances' Blackwell was immediately awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM), another member of the crew, Flight Sergeant A S Kempster of the Royal Air Force, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
The gallantry and service medals of Flight Lieutenant A F Blackwell CGM, Australian War Memorial collection REL37731.001-.007.
Second only to the Victoria Cross for naval and air personnel, his was the first CGM awarded to a member of the Royal Australian Air Force. Another ten CGM were afterwards awarded to members of the RAAF. This newspaper cutting is from the Army Newspaper published on 23 May 1943. Source : Trove website, National Library of Australia.
Extract from his flying logbook with his succinct entry for his deeds on the night of 23 April 1943. Source : Australian War Memorial collection PR03882.
After flying 443 combat hours with No.500 Squadron, his active tour with the unit ended in August 1943. He returned to the United Kingdom for several instructional postings, he was promoted to Flying Officer in December 1943. Until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 he instructed navigators and flew within a diverse range of aircraft such as the Avro Anson, Fairey Battle, Blackburn Botha, Horsa glider and the Whitley, Stirling, Albemarle bombers.
In March 1945 Flying Officer Blackwell was presented his CGM by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. In June he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant before returning to Australia. He was demobilised on 22 October 1945 and returned to civilian life.
After the war Arthur went onto a successful career as an architect, being instrumental in several significant projects including the design of several hospitals in Sydney and New South Wales. He retired to the Southern Highlands of NSW in the mid 1970's, enjoying the rural life. One of his grandsons, Stuart continued the family tradition of military service by graduating from the Australian Defence Force Academy and then going onto serve on operations in East Timor, Bougainville and Iraq. Arthur Frederick Blackwell died on 3 February 2006.
The Blackwell collection is a tremendously significant addition to the National Collection. They are a tangible reminder of one Australian's experiences in a theatre of the war where the our contribution is not nearly as well known or recognized such as other theatres of war at the time such as the Siege of Malta or the Battle of the Atlantic. His quick thinking, initiative and cool performance after losing his pilot during an attack run on an enemy submarine and then being able to safely bring his crew back safe at night from over the open ocean is representative of the individual and collective professionalism and flexibility that members of the RAAF were renowned for during the Second World War.