Piloting a butcher’s shop

On 6 February 1942, Flight Lieutenant David Campbell, newly arrived at 32 Squadron, had a job to do and it all came down to cloud cover.

Flying a lone Hudson from Port Moresby, he was to repeat a reconnaissance he had made two days previously of Rabaul Harbour, freshly occupied by the Japanese and teeming with ships, the object being to observe targets for 20 Squadron’s Catalinas.

Flying the 800 kilometres to Rabaul, Campbell was nervous. Not because he was new to flying – he had been a pilot since training with the Cambridge University Air Squadron in 1936; and not because he hadn’t flown operationally before – over January he had wangled the position of navigator on three Catalina missions to Truk Island and Rabaul.

But this was only his second flight commanding his own aircraft, and Campbell was nervous precisely because he knew of the danger that lay ahead for him and his crew. Having been advised to return if there was no cloud cover over Rabaul, he equally did not want to return empty handed.

There was cloud cover on the way to the target, but Rabaul was clear when they arrived at 10.15 am. Campbell determined to complete the reconnaissance anyway. Ominously, no anti-aircraft fire appeared.

The Japanese were ready. As Pilot Officer Harry Lauder stood in the fuselage operating the camera and Sergeant Gordon “Jock” Thomson sat in the nose marking in shipping positions, Campbell watched anxiously as two Zero fighters took off from Lakunai drome and climbed toward them.

Dave Campbell reckoned on a four-minute window before being attacked – enough for one more circuit. Three minutes later, as he turned sharply towards a thick cloud bank for cover, he was surprised to see his instrument panel disintegrate in front of him and his left hand and wrist start flapping around. In the background, he heard Sergeant Geoff O’Hea firing from the rear turret.

In a three-second burst of gunfire, the Zero had peppered the Hudson, detaching part of the tail unit, holing O’Hea’s right leg and smashing Lauder’s right hand, bicep and calf. A hole replaced Campbell’s wristwatch, the bullet also removing a chunk of the control wheel before slicing off his little finger.

Instinctively, Campbell took evasive action as the Zero made a second pass while O’Hea continued firing. More damage. Then they lost their attacker.

In thirty seconds, the aircraft (in Campbell’s words) had been turned from an orderly unit into a butcher’s shop. On seeing Lauder’s gaping wounds, Jock Thomson vomited. And a surreal cloud of silver dust coated everything – one of the aluminium powder sea-markers had shattered.

As Thomson appled a tourniquet to his left wrist using an oxygen tube and then tried to help O’Hea and Lauder, Campbell struggled with the Hudson. Most of his instruments were gone. Both engines operated, but their fuel tanks had been holed. They had 800 kilometres to fly.

Somehow, against pain, blood loss and drifting consciousness, Campbell managed to haul the Hudson up to the 3,900-metre ceiling required to cross the Owen Stanley Mountain Range, despite icing which almost brought the plane down. And somehow, when they spotted Port Moresby ringed in storm clouds, there was still 150 litres of fuel left.

Campbell flew a straight approach – there was no time for a circuit. At 150 metres above the strip, the fuel gave out. Thomson, sitting next to Campbell, grasped the fuel pump and “pumped like hell”. It was enough to catch the port engine and allow a landing, but then the starboard tyre burst. Thomson again saved them by grabbing the brake and applying it. The Hudson bounced to a halt.

Campbell rose and exited the plane, covered in silver powder and splashed with dried blood, his left arm hanging uselessly. He refused any assistance and reported to the intelligence officer, giving a detailed and accurate account of the ships occupying Rabaul Harbour.

For this action, David Campbell was awarded the DFC and Gordon Thomson the DFM. (Campbell later won a bar to the DFC when he successfully resurrected 1 Squadron in late 1943 and had it operational within four months.) His account of this action, Recco Over Rabaul, featured in Norman Bartlett’s “Australia at Arms”. But the most laconic comment appears in his logbook.

It simply states: “Attacked by 2 Zeros. 268 holes in aircraft.”

Author

Chris Goddard, Australian War Memorial