Australia’s latest tennis champion Ash Barty added another record to her already incredible list of achievements: at the end of the 2021 season she became just the fifth player to be world women’s number one for three years in a row.
To cap off her remarkable year, in November back at home from a gruelling year on the tour, she announced here engagement to long-time partner Garry Kissick, a pro golfer.
On court, she won the Wimbledon championship and titles in Melbourne, Miami, Stuttgart and Cincinnati.
At season’s end Ash joined Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert as the only women to achieve three consecutive years at No. 1.
As the year-end WTA finals series wrapped up in Mexico (missing the Australian) Ash posted her 95th week in a row atop the WTA ratings and her 102nd week as No 1 overall.
In December, she was named the Women’s Tennis Association’s Player of the Year, for the second time in her career. Then came the International Tennis Federation who named her as champion player of the year for 2021, going back-to-back on her 2019 honour (there was no award in 2020).
That wasn’t the end of it. She was also awarded her fourth Newcombe Medal for Australian tennis player of the year, an award she shared with wheelchair ace Dylan Alcott.
2022 – the new season
Ash claimed two WTA titles in her first tournament for the year – The Adelaide International in January.
She swept aside French Open champion Iga Swiatek in the semi-final and did the same to Elena Ryabakina (Kazakastan) in the women’s singles final on January 9.
Just a few hours later, she joined fellow Australian and her Olympic doubles partner Storm Sanders to take the women’s doubles final, defeating Andreja Klepac (Serbia) and Darija Jurak (Croatia) 6-1, 6-4).
Ash defeated Rybakina 6-3, 6-2 to win the title that was also hers in 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic threw the world tennis calendar into chaos.
The 2022 victory took the world number one’s record against top-20 rivals to 17-1 since the beginning of 2021.
As well as Swiatek, Ash defeated Coco Gauff and Sophie Kenin (her conqueror in Melbourne in 2021) in preliminary rounds.
The Adelaide titles meant Ash was in good form as she set herself for a tilt at a title she would dearly love to have, the Australian Open.
THE AUSSIE ICONS
Ash certainly has joined elite company in world tennis, alongside other Australians who made their mark on the world’s courts.
Margaret Court (nee Smith) and Evonne Goolagong Cawley have long been icons of Australian women’s tennis.
Margaret Court won her first significant tennis title in 1960. She went on to win 24 Grand Slam women’s singles titles in her career, 19 Grand Slam doubles titles, and 21 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. Some would argue that women’s tennis back then wasn’t as competitive as it is now.
But Margaret Court’s record speaks for itself. She has won more Grand Slam titles than any other player in history and is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
She retired in 1977 and later became a minister of the church, her views on some aspects of lifestyle dividing the community, even tennis players. Regardless, her tennis record is what it is.
By the time Margaret Court retired, Evonne Goolagong had established herself as an outstanding player on the women’s tennis circuit, with four Australian Open championships – in 1974, 75, 76 and 77. She collected two Wimbledon championships.
At the age of 19, she won the French Open singles and the Australian Open doubles championships (the latter with Margaret Court). She won the women’s’ singles tournament at Wimbledon in 1971. In 1980, she became the first mother to win Wimbledon in 66 years. Goolagong went on to win 14 Grand Slam tournament titles: seven in singles (four at the Australian Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the French Open), six in women’s doubles, and one in mixed doubles. She represented Australia in three Fed Cup competitions, winning the title in 1971, 1973 and 1974, and was Fed Cup captain for three consecutive years.
She retired from the professional tennis tour as a player in 1983.
There was a dearth of victories in tennis singles Slams for Australians in the decades that followed.
It was not until 2019 that another Australian name was etched on a women’s singles Slam trophy when young Queenslander Ashleigh Barty, by then a recognised champion in the making, claimed the French Open championship.
She was revealed to the world as an unassuming young woman with one heck of a tennis game. She first came to notice on the big stages in 2011 when she won the Junior Girls Wimbledon championship after collecting junior titles in Thailand, Malaysia and Belgium. She had only turned professional just a year earlier, after her 14th birthday.
She could be anything, the pundits said. By 2012 Ash was ranked among the top 200 female players in the world.
Injury in 2014 curtailed her rise somewhat and in 2015 the rigour of the women’s tennis tour was taking its toll. Very much a family-oriented person, being away from home for so long was a problem. She decided to take a break.
But she didn’t abandon sport altogether and turned up in the Queensland women’s cricket team, playing for the Brisbane Heat in the Australian Women’s Big Bash team. But cricket at the top level proved to be a one-year wonder for Ash and in 2016 she reappeared on the world’s tennis courts.
Just a year later she claimed her first Women’s Tennis Association title, in Malaysia.
The Ashleigh Barty story from then on becomes one of fulfilled dreams and outstanding success. She took the French Open title in 2019 on her way to becoming world No 1 in women’s tennis.
Who’s to say what would have followed had the world-wide Covid pandemic not intervened.
Nevertheless, Ash retained her No 1. ranking through the lost year before bouncing back to win the most prestigious title of them all in 2021, the Wimbledon championship.
Tennis, and many other sports at all levels, took a big hit from the pandemic. Schedules were hurriedly revised, some tournaments were cancelled. But still Ash was Number One.
By the end of the 2021 season she had been world number one for more than 100 weeks. Securing the spot at the top of the ladder at season’s-end for the third year in a row, she emulated the feats of women’s tennis legends Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Serena Williams.
Ash had won titles on all playing surfaces, collected two Grand Slam titles and amassed more than $US 21 million in career prizemoney. Her career win/loss record at the end of her 2021 season was 294/102. Her career record included 13 singles titles, five in 2021.
Her 2021 earnings were almost $US 4 million and she had a win loss record of 42/8. In her bag also was a bronze medal from the Tokyo Olympics that had been postponed from 2020.
The year done, Ash retreated home to Australia in October 2021, quarantine requirements meaning travelling to further overseas tournaments would impact on her preparations for 2022. On her agenda for that year would be her home championship, the Australian Open, where she was yet to reach a final.
The Ashleigh Barty story is captured in a tribute book by Ron Reed and Chris Mcleod, Barty. Much more than Tennis, published by Wilkinson Publishing in November 2021. It is also available as an eBook from Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/3ybp9vxm and Apple: https://tinyurl.com/33aje264
Trivia question: Who performed the first controlled flight over Australian soil?
Answer: Ehrich Weiss, at Diggers Rest, Victoria, on 18 March 1910. You may know of him as escapologist Harry Houdini.
That is what the record shows, but some conjecture remains about who really was the first to fly in Australia.
The credit that went to Houdini was largely due to his ability to get publicity for his stunts, whether he was being thrust into the Yarra River fully bound only to surface free of his chains, or flying over a paddock at Diggers Rest in a primitive biplane.
To be fair, there was probably a technicality about what constituted “controlled” flight. Lack of witnesses to some attempts also cast a shadow over claims.
That apparently is why self-taught flier and Melbourne Motor Garage owner Ralph Banks was not credited with the feat of the first flight in Australia.
The Argus newspaper noted: “Banks made his flights without any fuss and although he was entirely inexperienced in flying he kept to his task persistently for months, takings his Wilbur Wright machine out at daybreak. Despite crash after crash eventually he succeeded in making many flights before Houdini was in Australian waters.”
This is the record as its stands: “At dawn on 18 March 1910 famous American escapologist Harry Houdini made the first Australian powered, controlled, sustained flight of an aircraft in Australia at Plumpton Dam, Diggers Rest.”
UP, UP AND AWAY
The first “heavier than air flight” (unpowered) in Australia was made by George S. Taylor in a glider at Narrabeen on 5 December 1909.
Before that, Lawrence Hargrave was the first person in Australia to be lifted from the ground in flight.
From 1893 Hargrave worked on box kites. On 12 November 1894, after several trials, Hargrave lifted from the beach at Stanwell Park near Sydney on a four-kite contraption tethered to the ground by piano wire.
Hargrave sought to find or make an engine that would be light and powerful enough to get flying machines into the air, keep them there and send them in a horizontal direction. From February to August 1892, he built 17 steam engines— all unsuccessful for the purpose of flight. He gave that idea away, returning later to study flying engines when he heard of the Wright brothers’ history-making venture. His work went virtually unrecognised by Australian authorities and his models eventually went to the Deutsches Museum at Munich, courtesy of the Bavarian Government.
In 1910 several powered aircraft were imported when the Commonwealth Government offered a 5000 pounds prize for development of the first Australian flying machine suitable for military purposes.
Colin Defries claimed to have flown a Wright Flyer at Victoria Park racecourse in Sydney on 9 December 1909. He tried several times – mostly unsuccessfully – to get airborne using an imported Wright biplane and a Bleriot. He didn’t get the acknowledgement that was afforded Houdini; perhaps it was the absence of “control”.
Fred Custance, a 19-year-old mechanic from South Australia, supposedly flew a Bleriot machine at Bolivar, near Adelaide, on 17 March 1910, the day before Houdini flew at Diggers Rest. But the claims of Defries and Custance were not backed by signed witness statements or photos and were rejected by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
One report years later said there was only one witness to Custance’s flight, his sponsor, who afterwards admitted the flight was “mythic”.
Enter Harry Houdini, inveterate showman, who made sure he had witnesses. He invited a film cameraman, press photographers and officials from the Aerial League of Australia to Diggers Rest where he was to try to become the first person to fly a plane in Australia.
He did not fly far in his Voisin biplane, just “a few hundred yards”. It was a small advancement on the Wright brothers’ effort six years earlier for 120 feet (36.5 m).
The aircraft was designed by Gabriel Voisin, a French aviation pioneer and the creator of Europe’s first manned, engine-powered, heavier-than-air aircraft capable of a sustained (1 km), circular, controlled flight that was made by Henry Farman on 13 January 1908 near Paris, France. About 60 Voisins were built.
Significantly, Houdini’s flight in his Voisin flight in Victoria just over a year after Farman’s, signalled the start of an aviation boom in Australia.
CHAINS COULDN’T HOLD HOUDINI
Houdini – dubbed “the Handcuff King” – built fame around the world as an escapologist by getting out of impossible situations, sometimes with the help of magic and trickery. He was signed to visit Australia by entrepreneur Harry Rickards. Rickards was born in England and gained some fame as a baritone, comedian and theatre owner, active in vaudeville and on stage. He emigrated to Australia in 1871.
According to The Secret Life of Houdini, Houdini’s Australian tour was encouraged by a British friend, Lord Northcliffe, who was eager to alert his country and her allies to the military potential of air power.
Be that as it may, it was reported Houdini was paid 200 pounds a week (some reports said the figure was 1,000 pounds a week) touring Melbourne and Sydney for three months with his famous magic act, escaping from handcuffs, chains and straitjackets. Winning the prize for flight would be a bonus.
Houdini’s first attempts to fly his 60-hp Voisin emblazoned with his “theatrical” name were hampered by weather conditions and mechanical problems. Worse was the appearance of a rival aviator Ralph C. Banks, who set up his new Wright Flyer on the same field. Houdini was accompanied by his full-time French mechanic, Antonio Brassac, who slept in a tent at night with the plane, such was his devotion.
READY, SET …
Said Houdini of his mechanic: “No mother could tend her child more tenderly than does Brassac my machine.”
The two aviators camped beside a dam on a farm in Plumpton Road, Diggers Rest, about 25 km northwest of Melbourne, in the hope of becoming the first to get airborne when the wind permitted.
Ralph Conningsby Banks was first to take to the air, on 1 March, in an imported Wright Model A Flyer. He covered about 320 yds (300 m) just less than 16 ft (5 m) above the ground when a wind gust sent the flimsy plane into a dive into the ground. Banks was thrown clear and suffered only minor injuries. He was badly shaken and damage to the plane two weeks to repair.
Next up was Hungarian-born Houdini in his imported Voisin biplane, bought in Germany. His first attempts at flight were thwarted by strong wind.
But just after 8 am on Friday 18 March He became airborne and flew a full circle of the paddock before landing safely almost a minute later. Two further flights followed the same day lasting up to 3¼ minutes at heights up to almost 100 ft (30 m).
Back to Banks, still acknowledged by some as Australia’s first aviator.
The Argus newspaper (C. J. Johnston) reported in 1939: “Banks took his lead from Defries. He had been mechanic for the unsuccessful attempts in Sydney by Defries.
“After Defries had made many unsuccessful attempts to fly the machine Banks became eager to try. Defries agreed. The machine was of the type built by the Wright brothers, who made the first successful flight in the world in December 1903. It was a four-cycle water-cooled engine with a 4½ in. bore and 4 in. stroke. The output of power was 30 to 35 hp at 1,200 revolutions, and the total weight 180lb. A vertical radiator was placed to the right of the pilot’s seat—a Vienna chair with the legs sawn off.
“Ralph Banks made his first attempt at the Moonee Valley racecourse. He started the machine up the straight. As it gathered speed a hurdle suddenly came into view. Back went the joystick and the machine lifted its wheels from the ground. But it was too late. The flight came to a sudden stop on the top of the hurdle. The course was inadequate for flying, so Banks set out to find a suitable ground. Eventually he found an ideal spot at Digger’s Rest, where he set up a workshop on a floor area of 50 square feet. As it was then impossible to try to fly when there was wind blowing, the tests had to be made in the early hours of the morning. The machine was wheeled out at 5 or 6 o’clock every morning.
“Banks soon proved himself to be a worthy pioneer. Knowing nothing whatever about the flying of an aeroplane, but with considerable mechanical knowledge, he began to teach himself to fly. His attempts to take the machine up resulted in many crashes, from which he emerged with hundreds of cuts and bruises. Inexperience made him employ his elevator too soon; over would heel the machine and hit the hard ground. So frequent were these smashes that two carpenters were kept continually on the job repairing the damage.
“One day when Banks was taxiing the machine across the field Mr. Donald McKellar and several other excited spectators rushed across to tell him that the wheels had left the ground for a short distance. Banks had not noticed that he had taken to the air for the first time. Many more attempts were made, but his difficulty was to keep the machine on the even keel. After persevering and patiently waiting for favourable weather this difficulty was overcome. Soon Banks began to make straight flights across the countryside, sometimes reaching a height of 50ft. and covering a mile of airway.
“One day came the news that Houdini was on his way to Australia with an aeroplane. Banks wrote to him at once and invited him to bring his machine to Diggers’ Rest which he described as an ideal aerodrome. Houdini arrived with his plane, a pusher type Voisin, which became to be called affectionately ‘the old box kite’ and a mechanic named Brassac. He set up his flying quarters at Diggers’ Rest”
Only a few witnesses were on hand when Houdini made history, but enough to record the event for posterity and earn the accolades that went with the achievement.
The Age newspaper (Melbourne) reported: ”In his first attempt, Houdini sent his machine tearing across the paddock at a tremendous speed, the biplane rising in less than a hundred yards. Just as it rose the machine swerved straight for a solid gum tree, and the hearts of the onlookers beat fast as they saw disaster – perhaps death – right in the track. Mechanically the aviator moved the elevating lever, and the biplane skimmed over the tree just like a bird.”
Houdini went on to make 18 flights while in Australia before having the Voisin shipped back to England where he intended to use it in stunts as he toured the country. But he didn’t fly the plane again, and despite thorough searches, nothing is known of what happened to the Voisin.
Houdini packed out theatres wherever he went on his tour. In Melbourne on 17 February 1909, he jumped from Queens Bridge into the Yarra River, manacled, and was able to wriggle free within a matter of a few minutes. This was his forte, flying was a hobby and its is said that he never bragged about his aerial feats.
Houdini died from complications from appendicitis on 31 October (Halloween) 1926, at Detroit in the US, aged 62. He was buried in a metal coffin that he had used in his escape acts.
The Houdini proclamation entered into the record books by the Australian Aerial League:
DIGGERS REST March 21, 1910.
“This document certifies that Harry Houdini, at 7 o’clock this morning, performed the record Australian flight in a Voisin biplane, remaining in the air for 7 minutes 27 seconds, in the presence of 30 witnessed, including the undersigned. Houdini’s movements were plainly hampered by a cross current of winds, which was pronounced by experience spectators to be distinctly dangerous. He reached a eight from 90ft to 100ft.”
The signatories included several prominent people; solicitors, doctors, yachtsmen, Ralph C. Banks from the Melbourne Motor Garage, and D. W. McCay, a reporter from The Argus.
SOURCES: Museums Victoria, Trove newspaper articles, press interview with Melton historian Graeme Minns, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Museum Australia, State Library Victoria.
REFERENCES: Flight, 29 Jan 1910, “First Flight in Australia”. The Argus, 16 Mar 1910, p.13 “Fledgling Aviators Trying Their Wings”; 19 Mar 1910, p.18 “Houdini Flies – Trials At Digger’s Rest”; 21 Mar 1910, p.9 “In Full Flight – Houdini’s Success – Three And A Half Miles”; 22 Mar 1910, p.8 “The “Bird” Man – Houdini’s Latest Success”. The Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 Mar 1910, p.17 “Aerial Flights – Handcuff King’s Performance.”
Parnell, Neville & Boughton, Trevor, Flypast – A Record of Aviation in Australia Australian Governemnt Publishing Service, Canberra, for the Civil Aviation Authority, 1988
Johnston, Capt E.C., “8. Air Transport in Victoria – One Hundred Years of Engineering in Victoria”, Journal of the Institution of Engineers Australia, Oct 1934, pp.377-378.
FOOTNOTE 1: Melton Shire held a Festival of Flight in 2010 to celebrate the events of 1910 at Diggers Rest. There is a Houdini Drive in Diggers Rest and some local businesses have used the Houdini name.
FOOTNOTE 2: The first Australian-made aircraft was designed and built by John Duigan, who completed a 7 m “hop” at Mia Mia, Victoria on 16 July 1910. Aspiring Sydney aviator L.J.R. (Jack) Jones built a series of aircraft from 1909 but none achieved flight until June 1911. He later built Australia’s first metal plane, the Wonga, in 1930.
On 23 February 1911, Frank Coles became Australia’s first aircraft passenger when aviator Joseph Hammond took his mechanic aloft while demonstrating Bristol Boxkites in Victoria. A Melbourne businessman, M. H. Baillieu, became Australia’s first paying passenger one month later, when he made a 19 km flight with Hammond. After purchasing one of Hammond’s Boxkites, Parramatta dentist William Hart became Australia’s first qualified pilot in November 1911.
In 1914, Frenchman Maurice Guillaux carried the first airmail from Melbourne to Sydney, then the longest airmail delivery in the world. When Captain Harry Butler returned from World War 1, he flew airmail from Adelaide to his hometown in South Australia and was quoted as saying:
‘The plane was great in War but it will be greater in Peace. This…is the beginning of a new era in mail and passenger transport’
Milestones of early Australian aviation:
12 Nov 1894 – Lawrence Hargrave, inventor, astronomer, explorer and historian is lifted 16 ft (4.87 m) off the ground by four tethered box kites he designed at Stanwell Park, New South Wales. Adding a seat, he flew with the kites 16 feet (4.8 m) off the ground, thus proving to the world that it was possible to build a safe, heavier-than-air flying machine.
5 Dec 1909 – George Taylor makes the first free flight in a glider at Narrabeen Beach, New South Wales.
9 Dec 1909 – Englishman Colin Defries makes a brief flight of about 345 ft (105 m) in a modified Wright biplane at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney.
1 Mar 1910 – The first attempted powered flight in Victoria by Ralph Conningsby Banks in the same Wright biplane at Digger’s Rest, results in a crashed landing after an uncontrolled flight of around 300 yds (274 m).
18 Mar 1910 – Hungarian-born American Ehrich Weiss (Harry Houdini) completes the first extended circling flight in a Voisin biplane at Diggers Rest, Victoria. This flight was recognised by the Aerial League of Australia as the first official flight in Australia.
16 Jul 1910 – John Duigan makes a short first flight of the first Australian-built aeroplane at Mia Mia, Victoria. Duigan himself considered his later flight of 7 October 1910 to be his first truly controlled flight.
1910-1911 – Azor D. Robbins & Aubrey Keith Lock, built a 50 hp (37 kW) 4-cylinder horizontally-opposed aero engine for a biplane designed by Lawrence Marshall, to compete for a 5,000 pounds Commonwealth Government prize for a military aircraft. The engine failed its initial tests and was rejected by Marshall but was successfully used in a 1913 flight at Albury, New South Wales.
20 Feb 1911 – New Zealander Joseph Hammond makes the first cross-country flight in Australia from Altona Bay to Geelong in Victoria in a Bristol Boxkite biplane.
JOHN DUIGAN AIRBORNE AT BENDIGO
3 May 1911 – John Duigan makes the first public flights with an Australian designed and built aircraft before a crowd of spectators at Bendigo’s Epsom Racecourse, Victoria.
5 Dec 1911 – First Australian pilot’s licence awarded to William Hart of Sydney, NSW.
When Orville and Wilbur Wright were still in short pants, an Englishman living in Australia was dreaming about how man could fly.
History shows the Wrights are credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated aeroplane. They made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with their Wright Flyer on 17 December 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.
THE WRIGHT STUFF – Wilbur and Orville
Lawrence Hargrave was born in Greenwich, England, on 29 January 1 850. He came to Australia at age 16 to join his father who had become a judge in NSW.
He failed his high school matriculation and signed up as an apprentice in an engineering workshop learning design and practical skills that were to be of great use to him later. After about five years he set off exploring after accepting a place on the Ellesmere. The ship circumnavigated Australia. starting around the Gulf of Carpentaria.
In 1872 he sailed on the Maria on a voyage to New Guinea, but the ship was wrecked. In 1875, he sailed as an engineer on William John Macleay’s expedition to the Gulf of Papua. From October 1875 to January 1876 he explored the hinterland of Port Moresby under Octavius Stone, and in April 1876 went on another expedition, under Luigi D’Albertis, for 400 mi (640 km) up the Fly River on the SS Ellengowan. In 1877 he visited the developing pearling industry for Parbury Lamb and Co.
He was elected to the Royal Society of NSW in 1877, then spent five years at the Sydney Astronomical Observatory.
With the financial support of his father, he was able to develop interests in land, leasing property at Coalcliff for coalmining. This provided him with the means to become a “gentleman inventor.”
He spent about 30 years overall studying aspects of aeronautics, then a fledgling science but one which was to change the world as it was known by having people flying around high above solid earth.
Hargrave invented many devices, but never applied for a patent for any of them. He wasn’t wealthy and probably needed money but he believed strongly in scientific communication as a key to furthering progress.
He wrote in 1893: “Workers must root out the idea [that] by keeping the results of their labours to themselves a fortune will be assured to them. Patent fees are much wasted money. The flying machine of the future will not be born fully fledged and capable of a flight for 1,000 miles or so. Like everything else it must be evolved gradually. The first difficulty is to get a thing that will fly at all. When this is made, a full description should be published as an aid to others. Excellence of design and workmanship will always defy competition.”
Three of Hargrave’s many inventions were significant to the development of aviation: curved aerofoils, particularly designs with a thicker leading edge; the box kite (1893), which greatly improved the lift to drag ratio of early gliders; and the rotary engine that powered many early flying machines, up to about 1920.
In other words, he helped set the world on the path to flight.
Hargrave began by studying birds; how they used their wings and muscles to achieve flight. He began with a flapper, like that of Leonardo Davinci, but it didn’t get off the ground. A report noted “it was heavier than air and failed to fly, though it would run like a New Zealand kiwi.”
Replicating the muscle movement and the three motions of birds he had observed could not be done. Hargrave turned to worms for inspiration, observing how the earthworm lifted its body forward laterally and horizontally. He made an artificial worm and was able to successfully replicate the movement of live ones. He kept working on these concepts to see how they could be applied to flight.
Success came in August 1884 when he made the first inanimate object that flew under its own power. It was a small monoplane with a propeller at the front. The Wright brothers were still in their teens at this time.
In a paper he read to the Royal Society on 6 August 1884, he gave particulars of his discoveries: “I have strung together my thoughts, experiments and deductions that refer in any way to tiletrochoidal plane, pointing out where I see Nature working with it, and how it can be used by man for the transmission of force; and I think that if other members have heard of or made similar observations they will bring them forward, so that my mistakes may be corrected by comparison with the ideas of others, and also that the truth may be elicited about a matter that does not seem to get its fair share of investigation.
“The trochoidal action of five muscles and legs seemed so plain that I could not help being led to theorise on the action of wings in flight. I say theorise simply because I have not a flying machine to show you, but the chain of evidence seems so complete that I have no doubt it will soon be accomplished, without the aid of the screw or gas bag. These are my views, and if you think there is any novel truth embodied in them, this society is welcome to any of the laboratory models that aided me in finding it out.”
Another “Eureka moment” was coming.
Hargrave began his experiments with kites in 1893. His wanted to build a kite so efficient that it would fly into the wind. His efforts then may have been relatively unsuccessful, but he did get off the ground.
Getting ready at Stanwell Park
On 12 November 1894 Hargrave rose into the air at Stanwell Park beach under a string of four box kites of his own design and construction. It was a short flight, only 5 m (16 ft) up and his string of kites was tethered to the ground for the sake of safety.
The experiment would have international ramifications. Hargrave’s box kite configuration had an influence on the development of flight in Europe and America.
Full recognition to Hargrave was a long time coming as he continued his studies of flight and power.
In 1889 Hargrave produced a rotary engine. He noted: “The idea was conceived that a three-cylinder screw engine could be made by turning the boss of a propeller into an engine, thus allowing the cylinders to revolve around the crankshaft, the shank and craft pin being stationary and the thrust coming from the face of the valve.”
He made a small model that weighed only 7.5 ounces, producing 456 revolutions a minute.
Orville and Wilbur Wright had heard of Hargrave’s work. Wilbur wrote to Hargrave in 1900, asking whether he and his brother could use Hargrave’s patents.
Hargrave replied that he didn’t have any patents, only models, and despatched some of them to the Wright brothers, saying only that his work was “for all and at the disposal of all”.
As they say in the classics, the rest is history.
The Wrights did acknowledge Hargrave’s work after their record-breaking flight in 1903, saying his developments had made it possible for them to fly in a full-size powered aeroplane.
Hargrave’s cellular-kite designs provided solid demonstrations of the superiority of cambered, or curved, wing surfaces, and contributed to the understanding of stability in flying machines. His engine made powered flight possible.
HARGRAVE AND BELL
Hargrave’s work attracted interest from other inventors. Alexander Graham Bell. credited with inventing and patenting the first practical telephone, travelled to Australia to meet Hargrave. Bell also did ground-breaking work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils, and aeronautics.
Many of Lawrence’s Hargrave’s models and diagrams eventually were returned to Australia and held by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (the Powerhouse Museum) in Sydney.
HONOURED IN CURRENCY
The Hargrave family had quite an influence in the colony of NSW.
Richard Hargrave, uncle of Lawrence, was a prominent pastoralist and politician in NSW.
He was born on 1 February 1817 at Greenwich, England. His father Joshua was a hardware merchant. Richard arrived in Sydney in 1838 on board the Argyle and found work on Combelong Station at Monaro for Messrs Hughes and Hosking. A year later he became a partner of the Callendoon Station and the Goondiwindi Stations on the Macintyre River in northern NSW. He founded Beeboo and Whylm on the Severn River. Today, Inverell and Glen Innes are the main towns along the McIntyre and Severn Rivers system.
He and his partners lost everything in the financial collapse of the New South Wales economy and the failure of the Bank of Australia in 1843.
His merchant father refinanced him so he could buy 21,000 acres (85 sq km) just out of Armidale, naming it “Hillgrove Station,” as well as other properties in New England.
Richard married Mary Williams (sister of John Williams, Crown Solicitor), on 16 February 1847 in Sydney and settled on Hillgrove Station. They had six sons and a daughter.
Richard Hargrave entered politics and was the Member for New England from 17 April 1856 to 19 December 1857 in the first New South Wales Legislative Assembly.
His great great grandson, Richard (Rick) Colless, a former mayor of Inverell, spoke of his Hargrave ancestors in his maiden speech to the NSW Legislative Council in 2000.
He said that four years after arriving in Australia Richard Hargrave was engaged to move 5,00 head of cattle from Delegate close to the NSW-Victoria border to the new runs on the McIntyre and Severn Rivers near the Queensland border.
“In 143, only one year after they arrived in the northern districts the fledgling colony suffered a financial disaster, with Richard Hargrave losing everything except then clothes he was wearing, his horse and his saddle,” Mr Colless said.
“Richard Hargrave was fortunate that his father refinanced him, and he was able to take up a grant of 21,000 acres known as Hillgrove Station, east of Armidale and a 50-acre block adjacent to where the City of Armidale now stands. At this time there was but a single shepherd’s hut in the vicinity.”
Mr Colless said Richard and Mary lived on Hillgrove Station for about 40 years, even though they had property interests elsewhere, including Broadmeadows Station and Kangaroos Creek on the Clarence River and held leases for Bostobrick and Tyringham. They also owned Hernani in New England.
Richard Hargrave, the first Member for New England in the NSW Legislative Assembly, held many committee positions in government before retiring to the Armidale property that he named Harewood. Selling it in 1899. Richard and Mary moved into a cottage near the railway station in Armidale. The street was later named Hargrave Street. Richard and Mary died in 1905.
Richard Hargrave’s older brother John Fletcher Hargrave arrived in NSW in 1856 and he, too, entered politics, serving in the Legislative Council from 1859 to 1861. He served as Solicitor-General and Attorney-General until 1865 and was also a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
Lawrence Hargrave was a son of John Fletcher Hargrave and thus a nephew of Richard.
John Fletcher Hargrave (1815-1885) was born on 28 December 1815 at Greenwich, England, son of Joshua Hargrave, hardware merchant, and his wife Sarah, née Lee. On 20 September 1843 he married his cousin Ann Hargrave of Leeds. In 1849, despite strong testimonials, he failed to gain office as a police magistrate. in 1851 with a legacy from his father he retired from the Bar. According to the Dictionary of Biography (J. M. Bennett) J. F. Hargrave “dabbled in railway and other public matters until his wife committed him to the new asylum at Colney Hatch, Middlesex. Gradually recovering, he was advised to leave England.
In 1856 J. F. Hargrave, leaving his wife and three younger children, sailed for NSW with his eldest son Ralph and brother Edward, to join another brother Richard, arriving in February 1857.
Ann Hargrave, with her children Lawrence, Alice and Gilbert, moved to Keston, Kent. Lawrence went to Queen Elizabeth’s School at Kirkby Lonsdale, Westmoreland. When he was 15, his father sent Ralph back to England to take him to Australia.
They reached Sydney in the La Hogue on 5 November 1865; Lawrence moved into Rushcutters Bay House which his father had had built. Destined for the law, he was put to a tutor, but when he was offered a trip on the schooner Ellesmere to the Gulf of Carpentaria, his father consented.
John F. Hargrave was admitted to the NSW Bar and became a foundation judge of the District Court.
The Dictionary of Biography: “Hargrave resigned from the bench in February 1859 to become Premier Charles Cowper’s solicitor-general and from March to October represented in turn East Camden and Illawarra in the Legislative Assembly. From November until June 1865 he was a member of the Legislative Council. He was solicitor-general under William Forster (Premier) and Attorney-General and government representative in the council under John Robertson (Premier) and twice again under Cowper. Using politics for his own advancement Hargrave secured silk in 1863, though he had practised little in the colony, and a place on the Supreme Court bench on 22 June 1865. His swearing-in was boycotted by the Bar.”
Hargrave’s greatest contribution is said to have been promoting legal education.
He died on 23 February 1885 from an “effusion on the brain” having lapsed into mental illness. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and three sons, of whom the second, Lawrence, became the noted aeronautical inventor.
From an obituary
Sources: Trove newspaper archives; Australian Dictionary of Biography (Amirah Inglis, J. M. Bennett); The Lawrence Hargrave Society; Hansard; Powerhouse Museum (Ian Debenham OAM), NSW Legislative Council.
FOOTNOTE: The Hargraves are not to be confused with another famous Australian, Edward Hammond Hargraves, to whom the Australian gold rush of the 1800s has been attributed. That’s another story.
A brave sailor fought to the
end trying to save his mates
on the HMAS Armidale
Many partygoers, mostly men, have broken into song or poem during a session on the singing syrup.
There’s a rhyme that will be known to many of those party-goers; it begins: “The boy stood on the burning deck”. Perhaps needless to say, some rude version of the rest of the verse have been added.
The rhyme was initiated for use at singalongs, but not necessarily to those alluded to above. It comes from the poem, Casabianca, written by Felicia Hermans in 1829.
The original verse reads:
“The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled.
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.”
The poem is significant just as much in the 2sth century as it was almost a couple of centuries ago.
As related by Dr Kevin Smith OAM to members of the Naval Historical Society of Australia in Sydney in April 2017, the original verse relates to the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
The French flagship L’Orient had seriously disabled HMS Bellerophon. In response, a pack of other British vessels moved in to attack L’Orient.
Dr Smith noted: “Amid the wreck and carnage of battle the French admiral’s thirteen-year-old son stood bravely to his post awaiting his father’s permission to leave. The boy, Louis de Casabianca, died at his post when L’Orient’s magazine exploded.”
Dr Smith recalled that piece of history in his paper about the sinking of an Australian warship, the HMAS Armidale, on 1 December 1942.
He said: “Every Australian schoolboy growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, a century later still, heard about or occasionally even read that poem. Young Edward Sheean growing up amid the green farmlands and forests of Barrington, south of Ulverstone in Tasmania, was one of those who almost certainly would have known the first line of this poem.”
Edward (Teddy) Sheean (above), was still in the minds of many Australians for many years after the war into into the 21st Century.
Teddy, just a teenager, was serving on the HMAS Armidale as it undertook escort duties along the eastern Australian coast and around New Guinea. Both he and the Armidale were lost at the hands of the Japanese.
According to The Australian Defence Force Journal in 2002, the loss of the Armidale was one of the most painful and bitter episodes in the history of Australia’s navy, the RAN.
HMAS Armidale was attempting to evacuate Australian and Dutch soldiers and deliver a relief contingent to Portuguese Timor (now East Timor).
Spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft as they left Darwin, Armidale and sister ship Castlemaine survived repeated air attacks but reached Betano too late to rendezvous with HMAS Kuru, which had already picked up Portuguese refugees and moved off.
The two corvettes found Kuru 110 km off Timor and the refugees were transferred to HMAS Castlemaine, which then returned to Darwin. Kuru and Armidale were ordered to continue the operation.
Two Japanese torpedoes hit their target, the Armidale, sending her to the bottom. The crew was ordered to abandon ship where they came under further attack.
The survivors, having been strafed by the attacking aircraft, made a makeshift raft.The wounded were put on a small motor boat that had survived the sinking. The rescue they hoped for didn’t happen and the captain and 21 other men (two of whom died) headed for Australian waters in the motor boat, rowing much of the way because the engine was damaged. Two days later, another 29 survivors began the same precarious journey in a salvaged but damaged whaler that had to be baled regularly.
Some of the crew of HMAS Armidale
The remaining survivors clung to the raft and awaited rescue. The men in the motor boat and whaler were picked up, but the men left on the raft disappeared without trace.
The last sighting of the raft.
AGAINST THE ODDS
The story of Teddy Sheean is one of heroism and a long battle to secure for him a greatly deserved honour for his actions against the odds in the aftermath of the sinking of HMAS Armidale.
Teddy Sheean was given a Mention in Despatches — a badge — for refusing to abandon his gun while Japanese aircraft attacked the ship in December 1942. But supporters believed his bravery warranted a higher award, even the highest.
Classified as an Ordinary Seaman, he was far from that.
Right on 78 years after his death, Teddy Sheean finally got the award, posthumously, that so many had fought hard for him to be given .
On Tuesday 1 December 2020 he became the first Navy sailor to receive a Victoria Cross.
The short story is that Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean helped launch multiple life rafts, before returning to fire at enemy aircraft despite orders to abandon ship. He kept firing until the Armidale sank, giving others time to escape.
He was killed during the assault.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the VC presentation that Sheean’s story challenged Australians to live a life of meaning and selflessness.
“To say Teddy Sheean gave his life for his country really doesn’t quite capture the fearless grip he had on it until the very end,” he said.
“Everything he did was deliberate; he was determined to save his ship mates from being stranded in the sea.”
It had appeared the authorities would not buckle to demands for Teddy Sheean to be honoured, even up to just a year before his award was approved. But his supporters fought on and in August 2020, the Queen gave her assent for him to be made Australia’s 101st recipient of the Victoria Cross.
Teddy Sheean was 18 years old, the youngest member of the crew of HMAS Armidale on patrol off the coast of East Timor when the ship came under heavy attack from 13 Japanese planes.
The Armidale was struck by two torpedoes. The order to abandon ship was given; rafts were cut loose and a motor boat freed.
Up stepped Teddy Sheean. He helped launch a life raft, then disobeyed orders and returned to his gun, strapped himself in and began firing at the Japanese fighter planes – The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled.
As survivors leapt into the sea, they were machine-gunned by the enemy aircraft.
A survivor, Leading Seaman Leigh Bool recalled: Ratings were trying to get out lifesaving appliances as Jap planes roared just above us, blazing away with cannon and machine guns. Seven or eight of us were on the quarterdeck when we saw another bomber coming from the starboard quarter. It hit us with another torpedo and we were thrown in a heap among the depth charges and racks. We could feel Armidale going beneath us, so we dived over the side and swam about 50 yards astern as fast as we could. Then we stopped swimming and looked back at our old ship. She was sliding under, the stern high in the air, the propellers still turning.
Navy records show that, despite being wounded in the chest and back, Teddy Sheean managed to shoot down one bomber and keep other planes away from his mates in the water.
The last sighting of Teddy was of him still firing his gun as HMAS Armidale slipped below the waves.
A painting by Dale March depicting Teddy Sheean’s historic last stand hangs in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The loss of Armidale resulted in a change to RAN policy, preventing minimally armed vessels like the Bathurst-class corvettes travelling into areas of heavy enemy presence while attempting tasks similar to Armidale’s.
Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean was born on 28 December 1923 at Barrington, Tasmania. He was the 14th child of James and Mary Jane (nee Broomhall).
Teddy was educated at the local Catholic school. He took casual work on farms between Latrobe and Merseylea. In Hobart on 21 April 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve as an ordinary seaman, following in the steps of five of his brothers who had joined the armed forces (four of them were in the army and one in the navy). After initial training, he was sent to Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria, in February 1942.
In May Teddy Sheean was posted to Sydney where he was billeted at Garden Island in the requisitioned ferry Kuttabul, before joining his first ship as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun-loader.
Commissioning of HMAS Armidale
On home leave, he was not on board Kuttabul when Japanese midget submarines raided the harbour and sank her on 31 May. Eleven days later he returned to Sydney for assignment and the commissioning of his ship, the new corvette HMAS.Armidale, which was assigned to escort duties along the eastern Australian coast and in New Guinea waters. Ordered to sail for Darwin in October, Armidale arrived there early in November. The Armidale and Teddy with her were lost sixth months later.
Teddy Sheean was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. In 2020 he became Australia’s 101st recipient of the Victoria Cross, the first to be awarded to a member of the RAN. A Collins-class submarine, launched in 1999, was named after him—the only ship in the RAN. to bear the name of an ordinary seaman.
The town of Latrobe, where Teddy Sheean grew up after moving there as a youngster, installed a memorial plaque in his honour. There is also a plaque in Launceston.
HMAS Armidale (J240), named for the city of Armidale, northern NSW, was one of 60 Bathurst-class corvettes built during World War II, and one of 36 manned and commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).
Launched in early 1942, and initially assigned to convoy escort duties, Armidale was transferred to Darwin in October 1942 under the captain, Lieutenant Commander David Richards.
The corvette was attacked and sunk off Betano Bay on the south coast of Portuguese Timor just two months later.
Of the complement of 149, 49 were saved.
In 1938, the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) had called for a general purpose ‘local defence vessel’ capable of both anti-submarine and mine-warfare duties. The Board first preferred a displacement of about 500 tons, a speed of at least 10 knots (19 km/h) and a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km).
Operational needs changed and the Board opted for a 680-ton vessel, with a 15.5 knots (28.7 km/h) top speed, and a range of 2,850 nautical miles (5,280 km), armed with a 4-inch gun, and able to be fitted with either depth charges or minesweeping equipment depending on the planned operations.
Construction of a prototype, HMAS Kangaroo, did not go ahead, but the need for locally built utility vessels for World War II saw the “Australian Minesweepers” (so designated to hide anti-submarine capability, but generally referred to as “corvettes”) approved in September 1939, with 60 constructed during the war: 36 (including Armidale) ordered by the RAN, 20 ordered by the British Admiralty but manned and commissioned as RAN vessels, and 4 for the Royal Indian Navy.
Armidale was laid down by Morts Dock & Engineering Co in Sydney on 1 September 1941. She was floated on 24 January 1942 and commissioned on 11 June 1942.
The Armidale eventually became a class of its own, with a new HMAS Armidale as the flagship.
The RAN said at he time “HMAS Armidale and her 12 sister Armidale Class Patrol Boats and two Cape Class Patrol Boats are Navy’s principal contribution to the nation’s fisheries protection, immigration, customs and drug law enforcement operations. The vessels work hand-in-hand with other Government agencies as part of the Australian Border Force. In the event of war they would be tasked to control the waters close to the Australian mainland.
“Armidale Class Patrol Boats are highly capable and versatile warships which are able to conduct a wide variety of missions and tasks.”
The latest HMAS Armidale, with an aluminium hull, was built by Austal Ships in Fremantle and commissioned in 2005.
With the first of a new class of offshore patrol boats – the Arafura class OPVs – due to join the RAN from late 2021, the Armidale class were being retired progressively.
Though it appears there were no sailors from the city of Armidale aboard the original HMAS Armidale, some of its crew felt an affinity with the town.
One of the survivors wrote to the Armidale council in January 1943, as recorded in a local newspaper:
“The Armidale Town Clerk, Mr F. W. Milner, has received a letter from Mr S.D. Davies, a survivor of HMAS Armidale addressed from Gloucester. He writes: ‘I was in the second batch of 26 picked up on the ninth day after the sinking of the ship and at present am enjoying several days leave at home. It was a pleasure to serve in the Armidale. We had a good captain, officers and crew and we were sorry to leave the little ship – but not before we gave the Japs a taste of what we were made of. I want to thank you for the comforts we received on the ship and wish you and the people of Armidale a merry Christmas and a bright and happy New Year’.”
HMAS Armidale bore the crest of the Armidale City Council (above). Ald. E. M. K. Wilson told a council meeting: “The town should be very gratified at the compliment to Armidale. The best thanks of the council should be given to the commander. Local patriotic bodies would be pleased to help with comforts needed by the men of the ship. If he writes to the local branch of the Patriotic Fund we would be pleased to co-operate.”
Sources and references: Australian War Memorial; TROVE archive of newspapers and publicly available reports; N. Watson, “Sheean, Edward (Teddy) (1923–1942)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; and as acknowledged through the text, including Dr Kevin Smith’s paper.
Operation Postmaster was a British operation on the Spanish island of Bioko, known then as Fernando Po. The objective was to board Axis Italian and German ships in the harbor and sail them to Lagos, destabilising the Axis Forces. British authorities refused to support the raid, considering it a breach of Spanish neutrality. It was left up to the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to carry out the mission.
Baker Street Irregulars and
a daring plot in Spain
Operation Postmaster was dicey. The plan was to board Italian and German ships in the harbour at the Spanish port of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa, in 1941 and sail them to Lagos.
The British military suspected that the fuel being pumped into German submarines was being transported to Spanish ports by disguised civilian cargo ships.
The British encountered three suspicious vessels, believed to be using radios to secretly navigate for German submarines. All three ships were in Spanish territory.
The problem with the British plan: such a raid by Britain could breach Spain’s neutrality in World War II and even drive the Spanish to join the Axis Powers (The “Axis of Evil”), a coalition of Germany, Italy, and Japan fighting the Allied Powers in World War II.
The go-ahead was given by the British Foreign Office against the advice of British officials in the region who believed the operation constituted an act of piracy.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain put his name to the paper to establish the SOE: “A new organisation shall be formed forthwith to co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas.”
After Cabinet approval SOE officially came into being on 22 July 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, in Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers and to assist local resistance movements.
SOE was sometimes referred to as “the Baker Street Irregulars”, after its London HQ. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.
Its various divisions were concealed for security purposes behind names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office.
SOE employed or controlled around 13,000 people, including about 3,200 women.
The Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) was set up in the early 1940s to carry out raids on the coast of Northern France and the Channel Islands. It was to gather information and take prisoners to be interrogated.
Winston Churchill initiated the “pinprick” raids, believing they would demoralise the German troops stationed along the Channel coast of occupied France.
The SSRF was founded by Major Gus March-Phillipps (above), Major Geoffrey Appleyard and Captain Graham Hayes.
They chose small boats for inshore operations. Members of the force were drawn from The Special Boat Service (SBS), the SOE and nationals from countries including France, Poland, The Netherlands and Czechoslovakia.
An SSRF force
The SSRF raid was carried out by 11 of its men under the command of Major March-Phillipps, with four men from SOE and 17 local volunteers.
The SSRF left home for the Spanish colony in August 1941 aboard the trawler Maid Honour, from Brixham, for the daring raid on the ships at Fernando Po. In Nigeria, Governo, Sir Bernard Bourdillon provided the raiders with two tugs.
The aim was to take over an Italian merchant vessel Duchessa d’Aosta (above), a German tug and a barge that had been impounded by the Spanish Government. Britain feared the ships could be used to supply U-boats operating off West Africa.
Reaching the port late at night on 14 January 1942 the commandos used plastic explosives to break the anchor chains.
They overpowered the crews on the three ships and sailed off with them and 29 prisoners to Lagos.
The mission took just 30 minutes from the time the tugs entered the harbour to leaving with the three ships under tow. There was no loss to the raiding party.
The tugs experienced motor problems on the way and a ship was sent from Lagos to complete the mission.
It was reported that to lure the officers away from the ships, SOE agent Richard Lippett who had taken a job with a British shipping company with an office on the island, and Spanish “friends” threw a party and invited officers from the impounded ships. It was also reported that the officers were offered free use of the island’s brothel.
The operation was a triumph for SOE. The Spanish were furious. Foreign Minister Serrano Suner said of the operation: “It was an intolerable attack on our sovereignty; no Spaniard can fail to be roused by this at of piracy committed in defiance of every right and within water under our jurisdiction. Do not be surprised if we return the answer which the case demands – that of arms.” There was no action.
March-Phillips, Hayes, Appleyard, Lippett and other participants all received honours for their parts in the raid.
British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden denied all knowledge of Operation Postmaster, attributing it to the Free French.
But the truth came to light almost 70 years later. Solicitor Brian Lett, whose father served with the SOE, gained access to documents relating to the top secret raid.
He discovered that the Naval Liaison Officer for Operation Postmaster was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007.
Lett believes the SSRF team was the basis for the creation of the James Bond character: “Before his death, Fleming said 90 per cent of the plots came from his personal experience,” Lett said in an interview.
In 2012 Brian Letts published the book, Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster – the untold top secret story (Pen and Sword Books). Letts argues (probably reasonably that the people involved in the operation were the inspiration for Fleming’s series of nine James Bond books.
March-Phillipps was killed during Operation Aquaint in September 1942, Hayes was captured on the same operation and a German firing squad eventually executed him in 1943. Appleyard joined the SAS and on the same day Hayes was executed, he was reported missing in his plane while on an aerial mission.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was approved by Cabinet and officially formed by Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton on 22 July 1940, to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe (and later, also in occupied Southeast Asia) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.
It was formed from a merger of Department – MI R, the Ministry of War Section D (sabotage), the secret service SIS/MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) and the team of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Propaganda.
SOE’s first headquarters were three floors of the Victorian St Ermin’s hotel in central London, close to St James Park Tube Station and also close to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.
Later, the headquarters were established at 64 Baker Street, under the contracted name Union Trading Company. It had facilities in the main cities of Europe and Africa, including Stockholm, Lisbon, Madrid, Bari, Algiers. SOE agents were trained in England and on the west coast of Scotland.
Those who were part of SOEor who had contact with it were sometimes referred to as the “Baker Street Irregulars”, after London HQ location. It was also known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.
Many of its activities were disguised by names such as the “Joint Technical Board” or the “Inter-Service Research Bureau”, or fictitious branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty or War Office. As well as Ian Fleming, another notable member included actor Sir Christopher Lee.
The organisation was officially dissolved on 15 January 1946. The memorial to all those who served in the SOE during the Second World War was unveiled on 13 February 1996 on the wall of the west cloister of Westminster Abbey. Another memorial to SOE’s agents was unveiled in October 2009 on the Albert Embankment by Lambeth Palace in London. A Valençay SOE Memorial honours 104 SOE agents who lost their lives while working in France.
There were more than 40 female secret agents operating for the SOE overseas during its lifetime.
The Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) was created in 1942 by the Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, a maternal uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
He believed in the use of specialist soldiers trained in sabotage. The SSRF was to be an amphibious force of no more than 50 men. It was placed under Mountbatten’s command.
The force in essence already existed as the Special Operation Executive’s Maid Honour Force named after the converted trawler it used. Though Mountbatten had control over the SSRF, it remained on the SOE’s role as Station 62. The SSRF was commanded by Major Gus March-Phillipps (sometimes spelled Phillips).
The unit undertook raids on German targets. Members worked only in small groups, in the belief that such groups would be far more detect. However, on the night of September 12 1942, the SSRF attacked St Honorine in Normandy but most in the raiding force were killed, including March-Phillipps. The command of the force passed to Major Geoffrey Appleyard, previously its second in command.
The SSRF raids buoyed Allied spirits and helped undermined the morale of the Germans troops.
The SSRF was disbanded in April 1943; other commando units were getting larger and there were divisions arising between the roles of SSRF and SOE.
Ian Lancaster Fleming was born on 28 May 1908 in Mayfair, London.
His parents were well off and he spent his school years at top British schools Eton and Sandhurst military academy. He took up writing while schooling in Kitzbuhel, Austria. He failed entrance requirements for the Foreign Service and joined the news agency Reuters as a journalist.
He worked in the financial sector for the family bank, but just before World War II and was recruited into British Naval Intelligence where he excelled. He rose to the rank of Commander, which later became his nickname.
After the war Fleming retired to Jamaica where he built a house called “Goldeneye,” took up writing full-time and created the character that made him famous – British Secret Service agent James Bond, in a novel called “Casino Royale,” the first of nine in his 007 series.
Fleming spent the rest of his life writing and traveling as his Bond character reached new heights of popularity on movie screens.
He also wrote the novel “Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car” which was released in three volumes from October 1964, after his death. The main character was Commander Caractacus Pott.
It became a successful musical-fantasy film in 1968, starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Adrian Hall, Heather Ripley, Lionel Jeffries, Benny Hill, James Robertson Justice, Robert Helpmann, Barbara Windsor and Gert Fröbe.
Roald Dahl was a co-writer of the screenplay.
Fleming’s health began to fail and he died of a heart attack (his second) in England in August 1964 at the age of 56.
This article is an extension of a chapter in Elite Special Forces, 75 Years of Covert Action, Chris McLeod, Wilkinson Publishing.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” “The Innocents Abroad” By Mark Twain
Travels and travails
Mention Mark Twain and you probably think of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Adventure was something of a theme in Twain’s life. He brought those adventures to life through his writing and his lecturer tours.
Best known for two books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain himself was an avid world traveller, some of his trips brought about by necessity after he went broke.
Often his transport of choice was a train. In the US, a train was named for him. More on that later.
Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on 30 November 1835, in Florida, Missouri, the sixth of seven children of Jane and John Marshall Clemens. Only three children survived childhood.
Twain’s family moved to the port town of Hannibal, Missouri, when he was four. Slavery was legal in Missouri at the time and became a theme in his most famous books.
His father was an attorney and judge, who died of pneumonia in 1847, when Twain was 11. The following year, Twain left school after the fifth grade to become a printer’s apprentice. In 1851, he began work as a typesetter, producing articles and humorous drawings for the Hannibal Journal newspaper .When he was 18, he left Hannibal and worked as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.
He educated himself in public libraries in the evenings, noting that he learned more there than at a formal school.
But like some of his young friends, the lure of good money for marine work was a long-held ambition.
He had his eyes on the job of a boatman. He noted: “Pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary – from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.”
It took him more than two years to get his pilot’s license. Piloting also gave him his pen name from “mark twain”, from the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe water for a steamboat.
Twain eventually gave away life on the water to head to Nevada with his brother Orion, where he set himself up as a miner. He failed at mining, so he went back to something with which he was familiar and a job at the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise,
It was his experiences in the “west” that led to him into writing and his humorous musings brought him some notice. In 1864 Twain moved to San Francisco, still as a journalist.
His first real success as a writer came with the humorous tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published on 18 November, 1865, in the New York weekly The Saturday Press, gaining him national attention.
In 1867, a local newspaper funded his trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East. He wrote a collection of travel letters which were later compiled as The Innocents Abroad (1869).
Twain married Olivia Langdon (the sister of a man he met on the Quaker City) in Elmira, New York in February 1870,
They lived in Buffalo, New York, until 1872. Twain took a stake in the Buffalo Express newspaper and worked as an editor and writer. While they were living in Buffalo, their son Langdon died of diphtheria at the age of 19 months. They had three daughters: Susy (1872–1896), Clara (1874–1962),and Jean (1880–1909).
In November 1872, Twain was a passenger on the Cunard Line steamship Batavia which rescued the nine surviving crew of the British barque Charles Ward. Twain wrote to the Royal Humane Society recommending and honour for Batavia‘s captain and the crew.
Twain moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, from 1873.
Twain wrote many of his classic novels during his 17 years in Hartford (1874–1891) and over 20 summers at Quarry Farm, Elmira, where they spent many summers and where Twain did much writing.
His works included The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of HuckleberryFinn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Twain has been referred to as “The Father of American Literature.”
The couple were married for 34 years; Olivia died in 1904. All the Clemens family are buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
Twain is said to have been fascinated with science and scientific inquiry. He developed a close friendship with inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. Twain spent considerable time in Tesla’s laboratory.
He patented three inventions, including an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments” (to replace suspenders) and a history trivia game. Most commercially successful was a self-pasting scrapbook; a dried adhesive on the pages needed only to be moistened before use (more than 25,000 were sold).
Twain was an early proponent of fingerprinting as a forensic technique, featuring it in Life on the Mississippi (1883) and as a central plot element in the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
Twain made considerable money from his writing, but he lost much of it through investments. He invested mostly in inventions and technology, particularly the Paige typesetting machine. Though it was an exceptional machine when it worked, it was prone to breakdowns and eventually lost out to the invention of the Linotype.
That cost him most of his book profits, as well as much of his wife’s inheritance.
Twain also lost money by way of his publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Company, which failed to produce a top-seller..
By 1895, Mark Twain, was broke.
In July 1895, Twain – recovering from financial ruin – undertook a year-long, around-the-world lecture tour (150 lectures were scheduled) to pay off his creditors in full, although he was not under any legal obligation to do so.
The 13-month lecture tour would take him (accompanied by wife Olivia and daughter Clara) from America to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India and finally England.
In September 1895, he arrived in Watsons Bay in Sydney aboard the RMS Warrimoo, to give “at home” talks in a number of cities.
Described by Melbourne advertising posters as “the funniest man in the world”, Twain packed the house wherever he spoke. He made good money.
BREAK OF GAUGE
Mark Twain visited Australia and New Zealand fromSeptember of 1895 to January of 1896.
In Australia, he travelled mostly by train, from Sydney to Melbourne and even ventured out to Geelong, Castlemaine, Hobart, Maryborough, the Blue Mountains, the Hawkesbury River, Stawell, Newcastle and Scone.
It is hard to know if he was an avid train and railway enthusiast. He wrote a lot about trains though.
His reaction to having to change trains overnight at the break-of-gauge on the NSW-Victoria border is well-documented.
He noted: “Now comes a singular thing: the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show. At the frontier between New South Wales and Victoria our multitude of passengers were routed out of their snug beds by lantern light in the morning in the biting cold of a high altitude to change cars on a road that has no break in it from Sydney to Melbourne! Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth; imagine the boulder it emerged from on some petrified legislator’s shoulders. It is a narrow-gauge road (he meant to say ‘standard’) to the frontier, and a broader gauge thence to Melbourne. The two governments are the builders of the road and are the owners of it. One or two reasons are given for this curious state of things. One is that it represents the jealousy between the colonies, the two most important colonies of Australasia.”
He recorded some of his travels in More Tramps Abroad (1897).
Twain made it out to Maryborough in central Victoria where he found an impressive bit of infrastructure that prompted him to write: “Don’t you overlook that Maryborough station, if you take an interest in governmental curiosities. Why, you can put the whole population of Maryborough into it, and give them a sofa apiece, and have room for more.”
Twain had also travelled by train in India, in 1925.
“Inside the great station, tides upon tides of rainbow-costumed natives swept along, this way and that, in massed and bewildering confusion, eager, anxious, belated, distressed; and washed up to the long trains and flowed into them with their packs and bundles, and disappeared, followed at once by the next wash, the next wave. And here and there, in the midst of this hurly-burly, and seemingly undisturbed by it, sat great groups of natives on the bare stone floor, young, slender brown women, old, gray wrinkled women, little soft brown babies, old men, young men, boys; all poor people, but all the females among them, both big and little, bejewelled with cheap and showy nose-rings, toe-rings, leglets, and armlets, these things constituting all their wealth, no doubt. These silent crowds sat there with their humble bundles and baskets and small household gear about them, and patiently waited–for what? A train that was to start at some time or other during the day or night! They hadn’t timed themselves well, but that was no matter–the thing had been so ordered from on high, therefore why worry? There was plenty of time, hours and hours of it, and the thing that was to happen would happen – there was no hurrying it.”
A railroad is like a lie — you have to keep building to it to make it stand. A railroad is a ravenous destroyer of towns, unless those towns are put at the end of it and a sea beyond, so that you can’t go further and find another terminus. And it is shaky trusting them, even then, for there is no telling what may be done with trestle-work. – Letter to the San Francisco Alta California, printed May 26, 1867
Back home in the US, the traveller, author and raconteur was honoured with his name on a train – the Mark Twain Zephyr. Unfortunately it suffered an inglorious demise.
The train was one of nine self-propelled sets built for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and was designed for regular service between St. Louis and Burlington, Iowa.
The train’s name came courtesy of one of the stops — Hannibal, Mo., home of Mark Twain. In fact, the year the route began was the 100th anniversary of Twain’s birth.
Built in 1935 — a year after the Pioneer Zephyr, the first of the class — the Mark Twain was the fourth Zephyr built.
The Mark Twain Zephyr was sent out on to the tracks in 1935, christened by Nina Clemens Gabilowitsch who was the granddaughter and ultimately last descendant of Mark Twain. It comprised some of the earliest streamlined passenger cars.
It set a top speed of 188 km/h in trials, which puts many of today’s modern American passenger services to shame. Its normal operating speed was from 64-95 km/h.
The train was built to operate the 711 km St Louis and Burlington round trip, carrying 92 passengers. One of its stops was Hannibal, home of Mark Twain.
Most of its service history was carrying passengers and mail on a route that followed the Mississippi River along Iowa and Missouri until 1958.
Each of the four cars was named after a character from one of Twain’s books. Injun Joe carried the power unit and mail compartment; Beck Thatcher was the baggage car; Huckleberry Finnwas the kitchen and dining car and Tom Sawyer was a passenger car with a rear observation lounge.
The train also was air-conditioned, believed to be among the first American passenger trains to be so equipped.
The service began on what would have been Twain’s 100th birthday; he died of a heart attack on 21 April 1910, aged 74.
The train was built from stainless steel by the Budd company and was powered by a 660 hp, 8-cylinder, 2-cycle diesel engine designed by General Motors, and built by the Electro Motive Corporation.
High speeds were achieved by way of an unusual design. By articulating the 85 m long train, three trucks and 34 wheels were eliminated from what a conventional train with a steam locomotive and three cars would have, resulting in significant weight reduction. The front part of one car and the rear of the preceding one rested upon the same truck, held together by a sleeve joint, allowing it to round curves efficiently. Roller bearings were applied to all axles reducing friction, and maintenance.
When the railroad retired the Mark Twain train in May 1963 after first switching it back and forth to various Zephyr routes, it passed through several hands where with good intentions restoration was planned. But the train ended up sitting pretty much abandoned as a shell of its former glorious self, awaiting an investor willing to fund its restoration, apparently an unlikely outcome due to the extensive cost.
But when it seemed there was little hope of the Mark Twain Zephyr plying the rails again, up stepped the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in 2020 with a dozen full-time employees and some willing volunteers in Trego, Wisconsin, setting about refurbishing the engine, three passenger cars and a baggage car. Restoration was expected to be completed in 2021.
Wit and Wisdom
“′Classic′ – a book which people praise and don’t read.”
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
“Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.”
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Doris Jessie Carter was a high achiever, in athletics and military service. She jumped and she flew.
Doris Carter, WAAAF.
Doris was an Olympic high jumper – the first Australian woman to compete in field events at an Olympic Games when she represented Australia in the women’s high jump at Berlin in 1936. There, she became the first female Australian track and field athlete to reach an Olympic final.
Though she finished equal sixth, later reports note she was credited fifth after the competitor who finished fourth was disqualified. It was also revealed she competed in the final with an ankle injury.
After a sporting career that included representing Australia in hockey, Doris Carter went on to a distinguished career in the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force, becoming a director.
She was the first woman to fly in a Canberra bomber and a Vampire jet. Her proudest moment was in 1996 when she co-led the Melbourne ANZAC Day parade.
Doris Carter was born in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg on 5 January 1912, the eldest child of Edmund and Jessie Carter.
She attended Ivanhoe primary and high schools before opting for a career as a teacher and going to Melbourne Teachers College.
After graduating, she taught at Melville Forest in the Western District of Victoria and then at South Preston and Moreland Girls Central schools in Melbourne.
At school she became involved in athletics, showing talent in several events but particularly the high jump.
She held the Australian women’s high jump record for 20 years and was not beaten in that time. The pinnacle of her achievements was selection for Australia at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and then Empire Games in Sydney two years later.
She was at one time the Victorian 90 yards hurdles champion and finished third in that event at the Australian championships In January 1936. She won five national championships at high jump (1933, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1940) and two at discus throw (1936, 1940).
At the women’s athletic championships in Brisbane in 1935, Doris Carter set the national high jump record, clearing 5ft 3in. She retained the title in 1936 with a leap of 5ft 3.8 ins.
The world record for the women’s high jump at the time was 5ft 5in, set by American Jean Shirley at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
In April 1936 after Doris Carter became Australian female high jump champion the was much speculation she would be selected in the Australian Olympic team to got to Berlin in August. The speculation was right.
A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 April 1936 described the “unassuming” Doris Carter as “one of the most popular women athletes In Victoria.”
The report referred to the many difficulties she faced to become an Australian champion: “For six years she taught at the Melville Forest school, on the South Australian border, and whenever possible came to Melbourne In her small car for track meetings as a member of the Melbourne Women’s Amateur Athletic Club”
She was one of four women named in the Australian Olympic team that set sail for Berlin on the SS Mongolia from Sydney on May 13. The team comprised 33 athletes and officials. And support crew.
Australia’s 1936 Olympic team
Australia contested the same five sports as in the two previous Olympics: swimming/diving, athletics, cycling, rowing and wrestling. It would be the last time Australia sent a team of fewer than 50 athletes to an Olympics.
1932 cycling gold medallist Edgar ‘Dunc’ Gray carried the flag in the Opening Ceremony.
There would only be one medal for Australia in Berlin: John ‘Jack’ Metcalfe won a bronze medal in the triple jump.
Doris Carter carried an ankle injury into the high-jump final. The gold medal-winning height of Hungary’s Ibolya Csák was lower than Doris Carter’s Australian record.
Other strong Australian performances came from 800m runner Gerald Backhouse (8th), rowers William Dixon and Herbert Turner (6th in the double sculls), and swimmer Percy Oliver (7th in the 100m backstroke).
Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics, 1936
Doris Carter recalled later her sense of unease during the Games: “’There were so many people in uniform and there was the Hitler Youth and they were all very enthusiastic. It was pretty obvious that they were preparing for war, but they led us to believe that it was their fear of the Russians,”’ she said.
“Beautiful facilities, but I remember vaguely how we went from the dressing room to the ground, it was through a long tunnel. I was fortunate enough to go back to Berlin in 1946 when I went over to the victory parade, and it was very obvious then that all these tunnels and these underground entrances to get into the ground were really all air raid shelters ready for the war that was to come.”
After the Berlin Games, Doris Carter competed in the 1938 Empire Games (later to become the Commonwealth Games) in Sydney. She was fifth with a jump of 5ft 1 in.
The star of the Empire Games was Australian athlete Decima Norman, who won five gold medals in track and field. Margaret Dovey, the future wife of Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, finished sixth in the 220 yards breaststroke.
Doris Carter still held athletic aspirations after her track and field career. She represented Australia in hockey and later played golf and took on sports administration roles.
The Melbourne Herald reported: “Miss Carter is a keen student of athletics, and her knowledge of the technical side of the sport and her winter training classes for girl athletes at Royal Park arc proof of her sincere efforts to further the development of women’s athletics in Victoria.”
She was involved in the administration of women’s athletics both at State and National levels; she was President of the Victorian Women’s Amateur Athletic Association from 1945 to 1948 and twice served as President of the Australian Women’s Amateur Athletic Union, firstly in 1948 and again between 1952 and 1962.
She was one of the two female members of the Organising Committee for the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 where she also took on the role of Assistant Manager to the Australian Olympic Team.
After her success as an athletic competitor, Doris Carter joined the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force(WAAAF), serving from January 1942 to October 1945. She led the WAAAF contingent in the Victory March in London.
Members of the Australian Victory Contingent in Berlin, 1946. Squadron Leader Doris Carter is at left.
The Old Colonists Association of Victoria website takes up the Doris Carter story: “Doris was with the Department of Post-War Reconstruction from 1946-48 and at the time of her appointment was in charge of the Child and Youth Migration Section of the Department of Immigration. Before returning to Australia, Doris spent a month studying WRAF organisation and establishments in Britain.
“On 11 April 1951 Doris was appointed Director of the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) with the rank of Wing Officer. In 1957 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The Citation was as follows: ‘Wing Officer Carter served with the WAAAF during the 1939-45 War and was later recalled to represent the WAAAF in the Victory Contingent which visited the United Kingdom in 1946. During the war years this officer showed outstanding ability as an organiser and leader and when it was decided to reconstitute the Women’s Branch of the RAAF, she was again recalled and appointed Director of WRAAF in April 1951. In the appointment Wing Officer Carter, by outstanding leadership and tireless effort, has moulded the WRAAF into a most effective force.
Flight Officer Doris Carter shows WAAAF officer trainees how to make rissoles from military food supplies over an open fire during a bivouac at Launching Place, near Melbourne in 1943.
Her ability to establish and maintain a perfect balance between womanly aspects and service requirements, and her genuine interest in the welfare of all airwomen have won for her the confidence and respect of all members of the Service. Her organising abilities and outstanding personal qualities were recognised by her appointment as Manager of the Australian Women’s Olympic Team in the recent Olympic Games and the manner in which she performed this task brought international recognition and added prestige to the WRAAF, and the RAAF as a whole.”
American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to WAAAF women on a visit to Melbourne in 1943. Second from right is Flight Officer Doris Carter, officer in charge of the guard of honour.
Doris Carter moved to Rushall Park (retirement village, Fitzroy, Victoria) in 1986 and lived there until her death on 28 July 1999.
SUMMARY OF DORIS CARTER’S CAREER (from Australian Women’s Register)
Teacher with the Victorian Education Department
Participated at the Berlin Olympic Games – Track and Field Athletics – placed sixth in the high jump
Played interstate hockey
Represented Australia at the Empire Games, Sydney
Member of the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)
Officer-in-charge of the WAAAF Victory Contingent to London
Department of Post-War Reconstruction
Officer-in-charge of the Child and Youth Migration with the Department of Immigration, London
Director of the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force
President of the Australian Women’s Amateur Athletic Union
Manager of the Australian Women’s Team at the Olympic Games, Melbourne
Appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire
General secretary of the YWCA, Melbourne
Member of the Board of Trustees at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Member of the National Fitness Council, Victoria
FOOTNOTE: The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was formed in March 1941. There was considerable pressure form women keen to serve and the Chief of the Air Staff wanted to free male personnel serving in Australia for service overseas. The WAAAF was the first and largest of the wartime Australian women’s services. It was disbanded in December 1947.
QUOTE: “Those who don’t jump never fly” – Leena Ahmad Almashat, Harmony Letters, 2011.
PICTURES: Australian War Memorial; TROVE newspaper articles.
Amy Johnson is probably best known as the first women to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1930.
She broke new aerial solo records with other flights: England to Tokyo via Siberia and England to New York.
Her breakthrough achievements brought her worldwide fame.
Yet her disappearance at age 37 remains one of the great unsolved mysteries.
Or is it?
Amy Johnson died in 1941 when her plane crashed in the Thames Estuary. Her body was never recovered. But she did not perish in the crash itself.
Amy flew in World War II as a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary, but details of her fatal ferry flight on 5 January 1941 remain a government secret.
Reports at the time said she flew off course in bad weather, her plane ran out of fuel and she had to bail out. The plane crashed into the Thames Estuary, and witnesses saw Amy fall into the water but her body was never found.
Shockingly, more than 60 years later it was claimed she was shot down by gunners from her own country because she did not respond with the correct codes when challenged. And a further shock; it was claimed she died in a botched rescue attempt.
What then is the Amy Johnson story?
Amy Johnson was born in Hull, East Yorkshire in 1903, the eldest of four girls. Her father was a Danish fish merchant who met her mother Amy Hodge from Yorkshire when sailing to Hull.
When Amy was 14 she lost her two front teeth after being hit with a cricket ball. She recalled that she became “introspective and withdrew farther and farther into a protective shell of my own making.” Amy went to school in Hull before studying at Sheffield University where she majored in economics and graduated in 1923 with Bachelor of Arts degree.
She took office jobs in Hull before moving to London where she worked in a law firm from 1925 to 1929.
Bored with an office job, she decided to learn to fly, still a new hobby for most people – and rare for women.
Amy joined the London Aeroplane Club at the de Havilland Aerodrome, Stag Lane. One of her instructors was Captain Valentine Henry Baker, a World War I fighter pilot. She trained in a de Havilland DH.60 Cirrus II Moth, and on 9 June 1929, after 15 hours, 45 minutes of dual instruction, made her first solo flight.
She gained an aviation certificate and then a Pilot’s Certificate and License from the Air Ministry of Great Britain on 6 July 1929; it was an “A” Flying Certificate, for private pilots. She was also awarded a Certificate for Navigators, and in December 1929 she became the first woman to be certified as an Engineer (aircraft mechanic). She was also a member of the Yorkshire Gliding Club in Yorkshire.
Amy recalled the difficulty of learning to fly, admitting it was a scary experience as her first instructor was not very sympathetic: “When I was up in the air I could only hear a confused sound in my neck instead of what should have been lucid instructions . . . I was scared stiff of my instructor who never seemed to lose his first idea that I was a born idiot,” she said.
Her first major achievement, after flying solo, was to qualify as the first British-trained female ground engineer, and first woman in the world to do so.
With the financial backing of her father and Baron Charles Cheers Wakefield, founder of the Wakefield Oil Company (Castrol was the familiar brand name), she bought a year-old de Havilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth biplane, c/n 804, registered G-AAAH. It had been owned by Air Taxis Ltd, first registered 30 August 1928. Johnson named her airplane Jason, which was the name of her father’s business.
Early in 1930 Amy set herself the objective of flying solo to Australia and beating Queenslander Bert Hinkler’s record of 16 days. She set off from Croydon aerodrome on 5 May 1930 and landed in Darwin on 24 May, a flight distance of 17,7000 km (11,000 miles). She didn’t get the time record but became the first woman to do the trip solo.
Four days into her a tour of Australia that followed a rest in Darwin for a few days, disaster struck as she attempted to land at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm aerodrome with 20,000 people looking on as they waited to greet her.
Stops on the way to Brisbane included Cloncurry, Longreach, Quilpie and Charleville, where she landed after dark with the aid of headlights from 20 cars.
Landings were said not to have been her strong suit and Amy misjudged the descent into Eagle Farm and overshot the runway. The plane was flipped when it hit a fence, coming to rest in a neighbouring farm paddock, upside down, with Amy still strapped in.
She freed herself and though shaken was pretty much unscathed. Jason, however was badly damaged.
Amy recovered her composure and addressed the crowd as scheduled, albeit with her jumper torn and “a gash in one boot”.
The Brisbane Courier newspaper reported: “The aviatrix scrambled out, unscathed. The wings of the plane were badly damaged but nothing could wipe the smile from the sunburnt young woman, her bobbed brown hair tousled by the wind.’’
After several days in Brisbane, including a visit to the racetrack for the annual Stradbroke Handicap, she flew on a commercial flight to Sydney to continue her tour.
Her plane was retrieved and returned to England. A replica was constructed and put on display in Hull.
Replica on display in Hull
Amy Johnson had received worldwide acclaim for her feat and returned home to the UK to a hero’s welcome. She was awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) honour.
She also collected a £10,000 prize offered by London newspaper, the Daily Mail. The Australian Air Ministry issued her its Pilot Certificate and License Number 1. The International League of Aviators awarded her The Harmon International Aviatrix Trophy for 1930.
Amy set several long-distance flight records, solo and with other pilots, one of whom was Scottish pilot James Allan Mollison.
They married in July 1932. Soon after, she set a record for a solo flight from London, England, to Cape Town, South Africa, flying a de Havilland DH.80 Puss Moth (named Desert Cloud) there in 4 days, 6 hours, 54 minutes, 14–18 November 1932. She broke the previous record which had been set by Jim Mollison. For this flight, she was awarded the Segrave Trophy of the Royal Automobile Club, for “the most outstanding demonstration of transport on land, sea or air.”
Her next flights were as a duo, flying with Mollison. In 1933, she and Mollison flew a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon, named Seafarer, in a record-setting bid nonstop from Pendine Sands, South Wales, to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the US. But near Connecticut they began to run low on fuel and, in the dark, had to make an emergency landing at Bridgeport Municipal Airport. They missed the runway and crash-landed in a ditch. They escaped with cuts and bruises and were honoured with a ticker-tape parade and reception in Wall Street, New York.
The couple competed in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race from England to Australia in a de Havilland DH.88 Comet. Although they achieved a record time to India they were forced to retire with engine trouble beforte they could complete the flight.
In 1936 Amy made her last record-breaking flight, regaining her Britain to South Africa record in a Percival Gull Six. She divorced in 1938 and reverted to her maiden name.
In May 1937, Johnson, who was already a rated navigator, travelled to Annapolis, Maryland, in the US, where she studied advanced navigation .
She then turned to business ventures, journalism and fashion. She modelled clothes for Elsa Schiaparelli and created her own travelling bag, until the outbreak of the war in 1939.
At the outbreak of World War II, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a pool of experienced pilots who were ineligible for RAF service. She held the civilian rank of Flight Officer, equivalent to an RAF Flight Lieutenant. Her duties involved ferrying aircraft from factory airfields to RAF bases.
On 4 January 1941, Flight Officer Johnson was assigned to take an Airspeed AS.10 Oxford Mk.II, registration V3540, from Prestwick, Scotland, to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire. She landed at RAF Squires Gate, Lancashire, and remained there overnight, visiting her sister.
The next morning, although weather was poor and visibility limited, she left Squires Gate at 10:30 a.m. Reportedly advised not to go, she insisted, saying that she would “smell her way” to Kidlington.
About 3:30 p.m., Amy Johnson parachuted into the Thames Estuary. The plane crashed into the river a short distance away and sank.
A convoy of wartime vessels spotted Amy’s parachute and crew members saw her alive in the water. Conditions were too poor to attempt a rescue; there was a strong tide, and falling snow hindered visibility.
Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher, who was the captain of the HMS Haslemere, dived into the water to rescue Johnson but he died in the attempt. Some documents related to her flight and personal belongings were found but Johnson’s body was never recovered.
Then in 1999, it was reported that Tom Mitchell from Crowborough, Surrey, claimed to have shot down Amy’s plane.
He claimed that Johnson failed to give the right identification code, which was changed every day for all British forces so troops on the ground would know they were British. Apparently, she failed to give the code twice and was shot down, under orders, as an enemy aircraft. Mitchell said: “Sixteen rounds of shells were fired and the plane dived into the Thames Estuary. We all thought it was an enemy plane until the next day when we read the papers and discovered it was Amy. The officers told us never to tell anyone what happened.” There has been no official verification of the claim.
A further claim has been made that Amy Johnson’s death was the subject of a cover-up; that she survived the crash but was killed as a rescue was attempted.
Dr Alec Gill, a historian from Hull, claims Amy’s death was deliberately covered up after she died in an unsuccessful rescue mission.
A report in the Independent newspaper in 2016 said a witness on board HMS Haslemere, a converted ferry attempting to rescue her, remembered the ship’s engines being reversed, perhaps resulting in Amy being pulled into the propellers.
“This ship should have gone down in history as the vessel that saved her life,” said Dr Gill. “Instead, historians are now beginning to conclude that the propellers of the Haslemere killed her.”
Dr Gill told the Independent he believed the details of her death were deliberately covered up: “The Royal Navy did not want to admit to the Royal Air Force – or indeed a nation at war – that they had killed Britain’s favourite female pilot.”
As her body was never found, there was no inquest.
First woman to fly solo from England to Australia.
In July, she and co-pilot Jack Humphreys became the first people to fly from London to Moscow in one day, completing the 1,760 miles (2,830 km) journey in approximately 21 hours.
Married Scottish pilot Jim Mollison, who had proposed to her during a flight together some eight hours after they had first met.
In July she and Mollison flew the G-ACCV, named “Seafarer,” a de Havilland DH.84 Dragon I nonstop from Pendine Sands, South Wales, heading to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York.
In September (under her married name of Mollison) became the youngest President of the Women’s Engineering Society, having been vice-president since 1934.
Sources: thisdayinaviation.com, the famousepople.com, TROVE newspaper articles, britishheritage.com, biographyonline.net, “Amy Johnson, Queen of the Air” by Midge Gillies, and aeorflight.co.uk, wikipedia.org.
In 2019 the Amy Johnson Arts Trust website issued a series of podcasts to recall Amy Johnson’s daily experiences, based on her diary notes, on the record-making flight to Australia.
A version of this article first appeared in VANISHED, Chris McLeod (Wilkinson Publishing) 2014.
And what became of Amelia Earhart
and Fred Noonan?
Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan
For 80 years the world has been speculating on whatever became of pioneer flyer Amelia Earhart.
She was last heard of with her navigator Fred Noonan on the second last leg of an around-the-world flight in their twin-engine Lockheed Electra plane, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean approaching a scheduled refuelling stop at tiny Howland Island.
There have been countless theories, many of them involving conspiracies. They just keep coming.
Two of the latest run along these lines:
A family tale from William Sablan, a man who lives on the Mariana Islands, says that Earhart was captured by the Japanese, taken to Saipan and spent several days in prison before being executed.
Just a little more odd is a claim that the two aviators crashed and were killed, their bones eventually eaten by giant coconut crabs.
Early in 2017 there was the discovery of an old blurry photograph that “experts” said showed showed Amelia and Fred on an atoll in the Marshall Islands, being held by the Japanese.
That did little to validate the coconut crab theory but it could fit with the capture and execution story. The photograph became a focal point for a television documentary and was seized on many news outlets and experts that gave it credibility – because the picture was sourced from the US National Archives, lending support to the theory that the US knew she had been executed but kept it secret.
As with many conspiracy theories, there was a hitch. A Japanese military history buff and blogger unearthed evidence that the photo was first published in a 1935 Japanese travelogue — two years before Earhart and Noonan set off on their doomed effort to circumnavigate the globe. The two westerners in the photo could not have been Amelia and Fred.
The United States officially is running with the theory that the plane just ran out of fuel and crash-landed close to Howland Island. The pair would have died when their food and water ran out. The plane is thought to be many metres down at the bottom of the ocean.
One organisation that isn’t buying the popular – and probably most credible explanation – is The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Its executive director, Ric Gillespie, believes Amelia and Fred missed Howland Island and continued on for another 350 nautical miles (km) and landed on a coral reef around Gardner Island (now known as Nikumaroro Island).
For the next several nights, distress radio calls were heard from near the island, but US search planes were unable to find anything.
Gillespie thinks Amelia and Fred were alive on the island for several weeks before they died. Maybe this is where the giant coconut crabs theory might gain some traction.
Items recovered by TIGHAR have strengthened its view that it is looking in the right place.
Among the items was a small cosmetics jar, identified as probably a jar of Dr Berry’s Freckle Ointment, used to fade freckles. TIGHAR placed significance on this find as it was documented that Amelia Earhart disliked having freckles.
Other more substantial items recovered included a woman’s shoe and a sextant box with serial numbers believed to be consistent with a type carried by Noonan.
Also recovered more than 20 years ago was a small piece of an aluminium panel which TIGHA says has been identified in forensic tests as most likely coming from a repaired window on the Electra’s fuselage. The repair had not been noticed in pictures of the plane until 2014 when a photo taken before she took off for Puerto Rico on 1 June 1937 was examined more closely.
TIGHAR also says sonar readings of the ocean in the area are consistent with a large object on the ocean floor.
A human skeleton was found on the island in 1940, but British officials said the skull belonged to a short, European male. That hasn’t swayed Gillespie. He is still on the trail.
He says anthropologist Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee reexamined the measurement and believes they are of a female of European origins.
A team comprising TIGHAR and the National Geographic Society launched an expedition to Nikumaroro in 2017, complete with sniffer dogs trained to find human remains in the hope (said to be remote) of finding something that would enable DNA linking to the aviators. Digging didn’t turn up any remains. But searching will continue..
In the vacuum of immediate knowledge of what happened to Earhart and Noonan rumours and conspiracy theories abounded.
So in summary, these are some of the theories that emerged over 80 years:
Landed on Saipan only to be executed by the Japanese. The US eventually exhumed her body but kept their action secret.
Flight was an elaborate scheme to spy on the Japanese, who captured her after she crashed.
Survived a Pacific Ocean plane crash, was secretly repatriated to New Jersey and lived out her life under an assumed name.
Survived and somehow made her way to Guadalcanal.
Crashed on New Britain Island.
Captured by the Japanese and became “Tokyo Rose.”
Captured by the Japanese and taken to Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea.
In a highly publicised July 1949 interview, Amelia’s mother, Amy Otis Earhart, who died in 1962 at age 93, told the Los Angeles Times, “I am sure there was a Government mission involved in the flight, because Amelia explained there were some things she could not tell me. I am equally sure she did not make a forced landing in the sea. She landed on a tiny atoll—one of many in that general area of the Pacific—and was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat that took her to the Marshall Islands, under Japanese control.”
How did it come to this?
It was a sunny morning on Friday 2 July 1937 when the Electra took off from Lae in what is now Papua New Guinea.
They were on their way to the tiny Pacific Island of Howland, the last scheduled stop (for fuel) before completing the last leg that would take them to their starting point in California, completing a record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe.
Amelia Earhart had chosen the longest route, 29,000 miles around the Equator. For the attempt, Lockheed Aircraft Company had built an Electra 10E to Earhart’s specifications. It was the first all-metal plane and was modified for long distance with the 10 passenger seats replaced by 12 fuel tanks. The refitted plane had a theoretical range of 4,000 miles. It was an advanced aircraft for the time, with variable pitch propellers and retractable landing gear.
The Electra left Miami on 1 June 1937 with stops scheduled in South America, Africa, India and South-East Asia. It arrived in Lae on 29 June 1937.
By then the Electra had travelled 22,000 miles, leaving about 7,000 miles to go over the Pacific Ocean.
The flight from Lae to a refuelling stopover on Howland Island was to take 18 hours. The risks were high: Howland Island was only a mile wide, 2 miles long and 20 feet above sea level, a speck of land in the vast Pacific.
Bad weather, even cloud cover, would make the tiny island particularly hard to find.
So, it was arranged that the American Coast Guard cutter Itasca would be on station at Howland to maintain radio contact and set off flares.
The US Navy auxiliary tug Ontario was stationed about halfway between Lae and Howland to keep lookout for the Electra.
Flying at 134.5 mph ground speed, the Electra reported in from Nukumanu Islands, formerly Tasman Islands, a medium sized atoll in the south-western Pacific Ocean, south of the equator and about one-third of the way to Howland and about 6.5 hours into the flight. Everything was in order.
The fuel load on take-off at Lae had overloaded the Electra as Earhart ensured a sufficient supply to make it to Howland. Strong headwinds may have increased consumption greater than expected, but by the half-way mark no alarm had been raised.
During the night Amelia reported seeing the lights of a ship below. It turned out to be the SS Myrtlebank on its way from Auckland, New Zealand, to Nauru. At that point, she still had around 1,140 miles to go.
She was still sending positional messages as she passed by the Gilbert Islands. At one point, Itasca heard her report that conditions were partly cloudy as she came to within 4 hours of Howland.
The Electra descended below the clouds and headed for where the aviators believed Howland Island would be.
A radio message to Itasca said “we must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low, been unable reach you by radio we are flying at altitude 100 feet.”
But the ship didn’t respond.
A clue to the communications problem came later: photos and home movies at Lae appeared to show a radio antenna on the bottom of the plane breaking away as it taxied along the runway.
While the Electra should have been close to Howland Island neither Amelia or Fred saw the Itasca and the ship never saw the plane.
It follows that those on the plane also never saw smoke put up to help them find the island.
Amelia’s last transmission was “we are running north and south.”
The Electra had missed Howland Island and with no other significant land within 1,000 miles (160 km), logically it would have fallen in to the sea after running out of fuel.
According to records, the official air and sea search by the US Navy and Coast Guard lasted until 19 July 1937.
Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead on 5 January 1939.
Amelia Earhart’s record:
Woman’s world altitude record: 14,000 ft (1922)
First woman to fly the Atlantic (1928)
Speed records for 100 km – and with cargo (1931)
First woman to fly an autogyro (1931)
Altitude record for autogyros: 15,000 ft (1931)
First person to cross the US in an autogyro (1932)
First woman to fly the Atlantic solo (1932)
First person to fly the Atlantic twice (1932)
First woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross (1932)
First woman to fly nonstop, coast-to-coast across the U.S. (1933)
Woman’s speed transcontinental record (1933)
First person to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California (1935)
First person to fly solo from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico (1935)
First person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City, Mexico to Newark, New Jersey (1935)
An internal combustion tractor built in 1912 by the first Australian tractor makers, A.H McDonald, sold in the US at auction in June 2020 for $US 283,500 ($A 400,000) and may be returning home.
The McDonald EB 140 Imperial, then and now
The tractor, An EB Imperial, probably should not have been in the US at all, thought by some to have been shipped there in breach of the Moveable Cultural Heritage Act 1986.
The tractor was sold at auction on 13 June by Aumann Auctions of Illinois. The buyer was not identified but confirmed by the auctioneers to be Australian which would be good news for those who campaigned for its return, including pleas for intervention by the Australian Government.
This is how Aumann Auctions listed the tractor:
“A. H. McDonald & Co. built this tractor and was Australia’s first tractor manufacturer. The company was founded in 1903 after Alfred Henry McDonald went into partnership with his brother, Ernest, to make electrical appliances in a small workshop in Melbourne. In 1905 they introduced a line of “Imperial” gasoline/kerosene stationary engines. In 1908 the company fitted its D-Type twin-cylinder engine into a four-wheel chassis, and the first McDonald “Imperial Oil Tractor” was born. Two years later, McDonald relocated to a new factory at Burnley, near Melbourne, which gave the company the space to increase production and continue experimenting with tractors. McDonald’s early tractors were inspired by British and American designs, particularly those produced by Saunderson, Hart-Parr and Big Four. Its second design of tractor, the Model EB of 1910, was influenced by the British Saunderson and was again powered by the “Imperial” D-Type twin-cylinder engine mounted transversely in the center of the frame. This tractor is an “Imperial” Model EB, one of just four known survivors. It was supplied new in 1912 to a farmer from Phillip Island (sic – actually Flinders Island), off Australia’s southern coast. This 1912 tractor has a two-cylinder vertical gasoline/kerosene engine with a 6.25 inch bore rated at 20 horsepower. It has 3 forward speeds and one reverse speed, weighing in at 10,080 pounds.”
There were more than 130 tractors and engines in the sale that was billed as a “Pre ’30 Auction of Tractors and Implements”.
The price paid for the Australian tractor was the second highest of the sale; the top price of $US 309,750 was for an International Harvester 12 hp Type A tractor (pictured below), believed to be the only one surviving.
The auction was held on-line under coronovirus guidelines.
There were 61 bids for the Australian tractor. Including 16 from the eventual successful buyer whose opening bid was $US 76,000.
It remains unclear exactly how the EB Imperial found its way to the US.
Fewer than 20 EB tractors were made in Australia and the one sold in the US in June 2020, was built for the Chilcot family on French Island in Bass Strait off Victoria.
It was the first tractor made in Australia with an internal combustion engine, said to be “very crude, very basic” and was sold new in 1912. It left Australia for England in 2008, and it isn’t clear how it got to the US.
The Federal Department of Communications and Arts which administers heritage issues, is said to have acknowledged to a collector in Australia that it should not have been sent to the US. An error was made when the tractor was included by accident in an inventory compiled for other agricultural machinery for export.
Replying to assertions by an Australian person interested in bidding for the tractor at the US auction, Kurt Aumann of the auctioneers said: “It comes with a valid export certificate from 2008 when it went to your friends in England. We have recently been shown a letter from your government’s Department for Heritage that contradicts your statements. That letter stated the export was legal and that there is no intent to repatriate the tractor now or in the future. We have made all information available at all times. Our contact information, as you know, was given to the Department for Heritage so they could contact us personally. The only parties that have been critical of the sale of this tractor are a few collectors like yourself that interpret the law and/or actions taken differently … Your argument should be with the person that sold it in Australia or your government agency that approved the export.”
A.H. McDonald was Australia’s first tractor manufacturer, starting production in 1908. The first tractor was powered by a McDonald D type twin cylinder petrol engine producing 20 HP. It had three forward gears and one reverse.
The original tractor was supplied in 1909 to J.H. Dardel, Batesford near Geelong. It was overhauled for him in McDonald’s workshop in 1912.
Another dozen models were produced to 1910.
Alfred Henry McDonald was born in 1883. His father was a baker and the family lived behind the shop in Glenferrie Rd Hawthorn.
A. H. McDonald
He left school aged 14, his father wanting him to work in the bakery. But Alf wanted to be an engineer.
In 1898 he got an apprenticeship with Henri Galopin, “Scientific instrument maker to the Observatory,” in Chancery Lane, Melbourne, for a four year term.
He left Galopin to work for J.A. Newton, Electrical Engineers, for about a year where his spare time saw him at work in a shed behind his father’s bakery.
At first he made motors for dental drills, to replace the treadle.
A.H. McDonald & Co. was registered in 1903 and, he and younger brother Earnest set up a workshop in a rented room in Flinders St. Melbourne where they built their first petrol engine and generator set.
Alf McDonald planned to go into production with a range of engines as soon as possible.
Just a year later, in July 1904, the company moved into a corrugated iron workshop at 221 Burwood Road, Hawthorn, and named it the Imperial Engine Works. A year later the first McDonald engine was built and was followed by about another 30 4 HP per engines by year’s end, including two, three and four cylinder versions.
In 1907, the D type 10 HP engine went into production. It also was built in two, three and four cylinder versions.
A twin cylinder engine was chosen for the company’s first tractor in 1908. Tractors of various kinds were rolled out up to 1923.
In 1930 the larger models featured a new range of two-stroke engines from 10 HP to 75 HP.
In 1910 the company bought a large block of land in Stawell St, Richmond, and built a new, larger factory with a foundry capable of pouring castings weighing up to three tons.
Tractor production continued along with a line of road rollers for which the Company became famous.
An early McDonald road roller
The first “Super Diesel” horizontal engine appeared in 1918, and soon the range extended from 2 HP to 25 HP. They were successful for stationary use and road rollers, but too heavy to be suitable for tractors.
During the 1920’s, McDonalds imported tractors, firstly the Emmerson – Brantingham (E-B) from U.S.A, later the Avance from Sweden. They starting building McDonald Imperial tractors again in 1930 with the TWB model, and from 1946 to 1955 the T6 series.
The company merged with Jaques Bros Ltd. (now Jaques Ltd, makers of quarry equipment) in 1969. Remaining McDonald products, mainly road rollers, continued to be made in their factory and sold by the McDonald Division.
The familiar McDonald three-point roller
The Division was later renamed Jaques McDonald and specialised in the distribution and hire of Road Construction Equipment, including McDonald road rollers.
FOOTNOTE: The first internal combustion tractors in Australia were English Ivels imported in 1903.
The McDonalds also were involving in creating the biggest Australian-made tractor, contributing the massive gearing and bearing components.
Big Lizzie was going to be the first roadtrain when she was rolled out in 1916, destined to haul trailers laden with wool from outlaying stations to Broken Hill in the far west of NSW, Australia. Instead, she became famous as the biggest tractor built in Australia, and probably the biggest in the world at that time.
Big Lizzie clearing land (above) and on display (below).
Lizzie was the brain-child of blacksmith Frank Bottrill. While working in the Broken Hill area he thought that something other than camels might be more adept at hauling the wool packs across sandhills, bogs and creek beds. Steam tractors couldn’t do the job; it needed a fresh approach. Big Lizzie was Bottrill’s answer, built over a year in the yards of A.H. McDonald & Co’s works in Melbourne.
She was a 34 ft (10.3 m) long, 11 ft (3.3 m) wide, weighed 45 tonnes and was powered by a 60 hp (44 kW) single cylinder crude oil engine. Lizzie would never set any speed records; 2 mph (3.2 km/h) was her best.
Bottrill set out for Broken Hill on a 550 km journey but never got there. Mechanical problems so delayed him that he reached Mildura in late 1917 only to find he couldn’t get across the Murray River and on to Broken Hill. So he set about carting wheat and other goods in the Mildura area.
Bottrill’s big break came in 1920 when he was awarded a contract to clear a large area of scrub near Redcliffs for a soldier settlement scheme.
According to Red Cliffs Historical Society notes, Lizzie arrived in July 1920 and went to work for World War 1 soldier settlers clearing new blocks.
Big Lizzie had a number of failings, including a maximum speed of one mile per hour, a huge turning circle and inadequate steering gear. Despite these problems, she was found to be very effective for the land clearing in the Mallee in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1920 the Victorian Government, through the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, contracted Bottrill to carry out a large scale clearing operation at Red Cliffs to create irrigation blocks for soldier settlement. Clearing in the area was previously largely carried out with small grubbing machines. Big Lizzie was equipped with a number of steel cables for pulling out trees and stumps, and a gang of up to sixteen men worked in a supporting role on the ground.
Lizzie’s operation was unique, laying her own track as she went about tearing out the bush to make way for the new farmers.
Lizzie laid her own track
Lizzie was abandoned sometime after 1826. In 1969, former Mildura shire president and historian Ern Wolfe went looking for. He was tipped off that Lizzie was rusting away on Glendenning Station in western Victoria.
Wolfe and some friends retrieved Big Lizzie and took her back to Red Cliffs where she was restored in time for Red Cliffs Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1971.
Wolfe said: “I had to borrow $1250 from the Red Cliffs Club, that was the cost of the machine, which was a bargain.”
The Big Lizzie Preservation Committee settled her on display in Barclay Square, Red Cliffs, near Mildura.
She is the only preserved example of the innovative Dreadnaught wheel developed by Frank Bottrill and applied to tractors for land clearing and hauling. The caterpillar track eventually proved the most successful design, but the dreadnaught wheel was reliable and effective for its purpose and was used in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.
New Holland Agriculture introduced its first hydrogen-powered tractor in 2011. The co-injection of hydrogen with diesel is in use in some agricultural machines, though this method is not considered as efficient as hydrogen fuel cells.
The National Institute of Agro-machinery Innovation and Creation (CHIAIC) in Luoyang in the central province of Henan launched China’s first hydrogen fuel cell electric tractor in 2020.
Now, Australia is ready to join the hydrogen-power revolution in agriculture.
Limited availability of hydrogen fuel in Australia meant it had not been commercially viable, but developments in 2020 mean dreams can become reality.
Infinite Blue Energy’s Arrowsmith Hydrogen Project, planned for near Dongara in Western Australia, is expected to produce 25 tonnes of green hydrogen a day.
The first phase of construction at a cost of $300 million was likely to begin operations by 2023.
An Australian-made hydrogen-powered tractor was on the drawing board.
The H2X vision
Australian company H2X said it planned to manufacture hydrogen-powered vehicles, including tractors, at Port Kembla New South Wales by 2025.
The company’s main line of production will be passenger vehicles and it already has produced prototypes of cars as well as a tractor.
H2X is also working on other hydrogen related projects in railways, the marine industry, and stationary energy storage systems. It is also developing a range of heavy electric vehicles for mining sectors.
H2X aims to produce 20,000 hybrid vehicles from a plant at Port Kembla south of Sydney by 2025. The first car on the drawing board is a small SUV named the Snowy.
Company CEO Brendan Norman said the company planned to go into “aggressive production” from 2022 The venture was expected to create around 5,000 direct jobs.
Mr Norman has held executive positions with VW in Saudi Arabia, Shanghai and Singapore, Audi in Japan and South Korea, and has worked with Grove Hydrogen and Wales-based hydrogen car maker Riversimple.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Early tractors were known as traction engines, steam powered machines adapted from trail on rails to use roads.
They were huge and heavy, impractical for working soft farmland. Initially they were stationary engines, towed to where they were needed to provide power. Belts linked them to threshers and other stationary machines.
When used as moving machines, the traction engines were slow and inefficient. The name was derived from the Latin tractus, meaning ‘drawn’.
At the time of the steam engine, the traction engine took over the heavy work from draught horses.
From around 1850, self-propelled portable steam engines were developed for agricultural use and production continued into the early 20th century.
An early hint to their life span came in 1892 when John Froelich invented and built the first petrol-powered tractor in Clayton County, Iowa, US.
He mounted a single-cylinder petrol engine on a chassis, controlled and propelled by Froelich’s gear box.
He patented his invention, but by 1895 he had lost all his capital and went out of business.
The first commercially successful light-weight petrol-powered general purpose tractor was built by British inventor Dan Albone, in 1901. He filed for a patent on 15 February 1902 for his tractor design and formed Ivel Agricultural Motors Limited.
About 500 were built, and many were exported.
Development of petrol power continued in the US and in 1904 Holt Manufacturing Co. produced its first petrol-powered tractor.
The first successful American tractor was built by Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr who developed a two-cylinder gasoline engine. They built 15 farm tractors in Iowa in 1903.The two-cylinder engine had a unique “hit-and-miss” firing cycle that produced 30 HP at the belt and 18 HP at the drawbar.
Innovation picked up pace in the US when in 1910 Holt registered Caterpillar as the trademark for its tractors and two years later, Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. made from 30 to 60 tractors for J. I. Case Threshing Machine Co. In 1914 Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co. made its first tractor.
By 1920 Henry Ford and John Deere also were making petrol-powered tractors.
In 1926, Briton Harry Ferguson set the template for farm tractors that’s still used worldwide today when he applied for a patent for his three-point hitch. This led to a boon in tractor use, particularly when a rear power shaft was added, allowing the power take-off from the tractor to drive other machinery.
The Ferguson-Brown Company produced the Model A Ferguson-Brown tractor with a Ferguson-designed hydraulic hitch. In 1938 Ferguson joined h Henry Ford to produce the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor.
In the US International Harvester and Massey Harris entered the tractor market.
More than a century later these names remain at the forefront of tractor manufacturing, particularly in the US, though with some variations to brands.
BIG UNITS AND BIG NAMES
Still credited as the biggest farm tractor ever built, the custom-made Big Bud 747 was a one-off order filled in Havre, Montana, US, in 1977 by Ron Harmon’s Northern Manufacturing Company for the Rossi Brothers , cotton farmers, of Old River, California, at a cost of $US300,000 and boasting 760 HP later boosted to 1100 HP.
It was used for 11 years for ripping fields and changed hands a few times before going on display at the Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence, Iowa.
Big Bud was a powered by a massive Detroit Diesel engine and in its working life made a meal of hauling a 350,000 lbs (158,757kg) 80 ft (24m) wide cultivator at 8 mph (12.8 kph).
It could be set up as an 8-wheel or 12-wheel unit.
With its 16-cylinder Detroit Diesel (16V92T) engine, Big Bud could keep up a fast pace, working more than one acre (half a hectare) per minute.
It was 27 ft (8.2 m) long, 20 ft (6.1 m) wide, 14 ft (4.3 m) tall and carried 1,000 litres (220 gallons) of fuel.
After ripping cotton fields in California for the Rossi brothers, followed by more ripping work in Florida, Big Bud returned to Montana after it was bought by the Williams brothers, and was put on display at the Heartland Museum.
In July 2020 Big Bud was on the move again, heading back to Montana in September for the Williams brothers.
But first, it was time for some new rubber; Big Bud had not had new tyres since it was built in 1977 so 13,000 hours of work later it was time for new “boots.”
The original tyres, supplied by a Canada company were now out of stock. So the woners went for the Titan/Goodyear and the LSW 1400/30R46 model, the world’s largest ag tyres.
They were in stock but modifications would be needed: new wheels rims and spacers.
Each tyre weighed just over 680 kg and each wheel weighed just over 360 kgs.
The changeover operation took around four hours and Big Bud came up sparkling (below).
Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers which special in heavy equipment, rate Big Bud as the biggest of all time, with Versatile’s Big Roy 8-WD Model 1080 second, ahead of the AGCO Challenger MT975B, Case IH Steiger Quadtrac 62 and Upton HT14/350 2WD.
A web site has been dedicated to Big Bud, featuring videos of the massive machine in action.
At about the same time Big Bud went to work, Versatile Manufacturing Ltd was working on a massive tractor of its own; an 8WD Model 1080 tractor named “Big Roy” after Versatile company president Roy Robinson.
Big Roy was built in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, apparently with broadcare farming in Australia in mind. Unfortunately Big Roy never made it Down Under.
The unit was 30 ft (9.1 m) long, 22 ft (6.7 m) wide, 11 ft (3.3 m) high and powered by a 600 hp (447.6 kW) V-12 Cummins engine.
A design fault meant rear-vision was obscured by the engine sitting behind the cabin, so a closed circuit television was installed with a 120-degree camera relaying images of the drawbar to the TV monitor on the cab’s dashboard.
Big Roy was put on display at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum.
Versatile was the first company to mass-produce articulated 4WD tractors from 1966 and in 1977 launched the world’s first bi-directional tractor, the Versatile 150. It made a range of 4WD tractors in the 1980s, some of which found their way to Australia.
Hard times belted the company in the 1980s and it stopped making tractors in 1986. Two years later it was taken over by Ford-New Holland. Buhler Industries acquired the Winnipeg factory and the rights to the Versatile name when Case IH and New Holland merged and from 2000 badged the tractors as Buhler Versatile. In 2008, Buhler decided to again badge the tractors as Versatile.
As with the motor car, American engineer and businessman Henry Ford saw market potential for a mass-produced tractor.
From 1917 to 1920 Henry Ford and Son (Edsel) made a range of mass-produced general purpose tractors at their Dearborn, Michigan, factory under the Fordson brand. The Fordson was merged into the Ford Motor Company but the brand name remained until 1963.
The Fordson F and Fordson N
The Model F tractor, which succeeded the Model B, did for the country what the Model T car had done – made a machine affordable to ordinary people; in this case, farmers.
Fordson tractors were exported to Britain and Canada and progressively turned up in other countries. By 1925 Ford had built 500,000 Fordsons.
Fordson production in America ended 1928, replaced on the market by imported Irish and English models. The Fordson name was dropped altogether after 1964 and all the company’s tractors were simply branded Fords, still in predominantly blue livery. The Major and the Dexta were among the biggest selling Fordson models. In 1991 Ford sold its tractor business to Fiat and the Ford name disappeared, the blue tractors re-badged as New Holland.
Farmall was the brand name used by International Harvester (formed by Cyrus McCormick in 1902) for its tractor range.
The first MorCormick Farmall tractor appeared in 1919. By 1936 Farmall tractors were painted red for safety reasons, replacing grey and marking the beginning of the “Big Red” era. Farmall was initially a specialist row-crop tractor, its wheels arranged in a triangular pattern allowing the front wheels to pass between the rows of crops.
1927 Farmall and the McCormack Farmall
The Farmall name was later dropped in favour of McCormick International.
The demise of the Big Red Internationals began in the 1960s when the drive lines on their new powerful 60 series tractors failed because they weren’t strong enough for the new engines. The competition heated up around this time with John Deere’s Power Farming line gaining great traction in the market.
Through the 70s and into the 80s IH increased the power through a variety of new lines, including the 50 Series that included the 136 hp (101 kW) 5088, the 162 hp (121 kW) 5288 and the 187 hp (139 kW) 5488. IH was among the first manufacturers to add a computer to a tractor.
The last IH tractor was produced in 1985. IH also sold other farm equipment, including balers, cultivators, combines, corn shellers, cotton pickers, manure spreaders, hay rakes, crop dusters, disk harrows, disc and ploughs.
By 1991 the IH farming business had passed into the hands of J.I. Case, and branded Case International .
The Case IH range today includes Steiger, Magnum, Puma, Maxxum, JXU, Quantum, Farmall and JX Straddle.
John Deere remains a name synonymous with tractors and harvesters in their distinctive green livery.
John Deere, blacksmith and inventor, began his foray into farming in 1837 with a polished-steel plough produced at his Grand Detour, Illinois, workshop.
By 1848 the plough business was booming and John Deere moved operations to Moline, Illinois.
The company branched into tractors in 1948 with the takeover of Waterloo Boy tractors which were being outsold almost 70 to 1 by Fordsons.
The early John Deere look
Production of the R model, Deer’s first diesel tractor, began in 1947 starting a boom in tractor production to the point in 1963 when John Deere surpassed International Harvester as the world’s largest producer and seller of farm and industrial tractors and equipment.
By 2011 Deere was listed among the 50 most-admired companies by Fortune magazine and ranked as one of the 100 best global brands.
The company established factories for tractor and equipment production in India, Brazil, Argentina, Russia and China. Products also included excavation, road building and harvesting equipment.
In 2012 John Deere released the 9R and 9RT Series tractors, its most powerful 4WD tractor and including 410 hp (261.5 kW) to 560 hp (411.7 kW) models.
The Deere name is also seen on other farming and earthmoving equipment.
Before the development of the modern 4WD tractor, some manufacturers created massive tractors with two engines and two driving axles by joining two regular tractors together.
In the 1950s most farm tractors were in the 20-40 hp (14.7-29.4 kW) range, not strong enough for some applications, particularly on the larger farms of the United Kingdom.
Enter Essex farmer George Pryor with a solution. He bought two Fordson tractors, removing the front wheels and axles and linking the two by a turntable that provided the hydraulic steering action. The result: a double-engine 4WD tractor that could outperform the conventional tractors on the market.
Essex Fordson dealers Ernest Doe & Sons built an improved version in 1958, calling it the Doe Dual Power, later changed to Doe Dual Drive. The unit produced 100 hp (73.5 kW) and a later project using two Ford 5000 tractors produced a unit of 130 hp (95.6 kW).
By the late 1960s mainstream tractor manufacturers had developed single-engine tractors capable of 100 hp (70 kW) and upwards, ending Doe production after more than 300 had been built.
Doubling up was also tried in Australia, using locally made Chamberlain tractors.
One innovator joined two Chamberlain Super 70 diesels similarly to the Fordson arrangement as a 4WD unit. Another was a heavily modified unit of 12 wheels (three axles with double wheels) powered by twin 671 Detroit engines that punched out 669 hp (492 kW).
Stating a case
Today, there are almost 200 production tractor brands world-wide. According to Ranker.com the top 10 makers are Deere, New Holland, Massey Ferguson, Case IH, Claas, Deutz-Fahr, Caterpillar, Ford, Kubota and Mahindra.
And the most powerful farm tractors are likely to have tracks rather than wheels.
The Case IH Steiger Quadtrac when turbocharged can output 680 hp (500 kW). The Case IH 620 eight-wheel tractor also comes with 680 hp (500kW). Five Quadtrack models rate above 500 hp (367.8 kW).
Up there with the best of them over the 600 hp (441.3 kW) mark is the New Holland T9.670 with 608 hp (447.2 kW).
Big wheels monster
Laying claim to being the biggest production 4WD articulated tractor is AGCO’s Challenger MT975B from the Challenger 900 series. It weighs in at more than 26 tonnes and comes with a fuel tank that can hold 330 gallons (1,500 litres).
It was supplied with a choice of tyres, from single to duals, even triples (12 wheels in total). It is not as big as Big Bud or Big Roy and was in production until 2010. Challenger still produces 900 series tractors, including special application versions up to 600HP.
The articulated Challenger MT975B by AGCO, boasted 585 hp (430 kW) power output that increases to 632 hp (474 kW) from its Caterpillar engine.
AGCO was established in 1990 when executives at Deutz-Allis bought out Deutz-Allis North American operations from the parent corporation KHD which had purchased parts of the Allis-Chalmers agricultural equipment business five years earlier.
The company was first called Gleaner-Allis Corporation, then re-arranged to be Allis-Gleaner Corporation, or AGCO
AGCO today produces four core brands: Challenger, Fendt, Massey Ferguson and Valtra.
These massive tractors can be operated 24 hours a day and just one of them could replace a fleet of smaller tractors (and operators) that would be needed to cover the same ground in the same time.
Seven Ferguson TE 20s (four petrol, three diesel) were used on the 1955–58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Some were converted to half-tracks with front skis and others were converted to full tracks and taken to the South Pole by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first vehicles to be driven to the Pole.
Sir Edmund bound for the Pole
The legendary Kiwi mountaineer, explorer and philanthropist, caught a lift back home by trading one of the tractors for a ride aboard an American airplane leaving a U.S. research station at the Pole.
Sixty years later, a new modern Ferguson followed suit, driven from Europe in a nine-year odyssey by Dutch actress and adventurer Manon Ossevoort (referred to in the media as Tractor Girl).
A far cry from the little grey Fergie, the intrepid tractor this time was a modified big red Massey Ferguson MF 5610 Dyna-4, MFs most powerful three-cylinder diesel tractor at the time.
Hillary’s expedition travelled with Ferguson TE20s, outfitted with tractor treads, on a course south from New Zealand. The Oosevoort expedition (Antarctica2) set out from a point south of Africa, at the Russian Novo Airbase.
Ms Oosevoport, then a mother of a 10-month-old baby, said the 6-day, 2,500 km trip across the largest mass of ice on earth from Russia’s Novo base to the Pole had been tough.
Ms Ossevoort (above) began her trip in 2005, taking four years to drive from her home village in Holland to Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa.
She told Australia’s ABC Radio that she missed the boat that was due to take her to Antarctica. She spent the next four years back in Holland where she began writing a book, worked as a motivational speaker and desperately tried to get back on a tractor to resume her Antarctic mission.
Massey-Ferguson and other companies came to the party and she eventually made the trip. Special trucks were included in the expedition.
Ms Ossevoort travelled alone through Africa. French mechanic Nicolas Bachelet shared the driving in Antarctica as the tractor needed to creep forward day and night without stopping. The final leg across Antarctica was in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees C.
In one eight-hour shift the tractor faced soft, sinking conditions every few hundred metres but the MF 5610 and its drivers proved they were up to the challenge. By engaging the lowest gear and the diff lock, the tractor would climb out slowly and resume its progress, reaching the Pole on 9 December 2014.
Unlike Hilary, the Antarctic2 crew returned the way they came and once home Ms Ossevoort started writing a children’s book and planning a movie documenting her journey.
“I think this is the best adventure on a tractor that one can come up with,” she said.
Robbing trains was once a lucrative enterprise for criminals.
Trains were the vehicle of choice for transporting valuables when rail took over from the stagecoach; trains carrying money became “soft” target for robbers.
There was nowhere for a train to hide if under attack and attacked they were, frequently, in the 20th century.
Ledburn 1963 Ronald Biggs
The height of audacity was the Great Train Robbery in England when a gang of 15 robbers snatched 2.6 million pounds from a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London on the West Coast Main Line on 8 August 1963, at Ledburn in Buckinghamshire.
That robbery put the name Ronald Biggs in the spotlight for decades.
Robbing trains was not a new thing at that time.
Notorious outlaw Jesse James is best remembered as a bank robber, but he was also one of the first bandits to hold up a moving train. His James-Young gang first struck on the evening of July 21, 1873, near Adair, Iowa, getting away with $US 3,000.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid seemed proficient at robbing trains; their Wild Bunch gang gained notoriety in 1899 when they robbed a mail train on the Union Pacific Railroad, taking $US 50,000.
Australia didn’t escape the train robbery phenomenon.
Robbers struck in Central NSW, fanning out from Sydney
There were at least three significant train robberies in NSW in the early 1900s; two involving mail trains and the other a railways pay car. One robbery turned particularly nasty when it claimed the lives of three railway men.
Amid an intricate series of arrests, charges and court cases, it was revealed that the three NSW cases were linked, the common denominator being George Arthur Morris, who, having admitted involvement, turned Crown witness in exchange for indemnity, only to be murdered by unknown assailants.
The first was the holdup of the Mudgee Mail train in the Blue Mountains in 1930. The next year the Canberra Mail was robbed. Ten years later, a railways pay car was blown up between Bargo and Moss Vale leaving three men dead. Morris was the common link.
He gave evidence against the three accused men in the two mail train cases.
In the trial of Joseph Harold Ryan over the Mudgee Mail robbery, this exchange occurred in the Sydney Quarter Sessions Court in October 1935:
Counsel for Ryan to Morris: You were a postal official at the time of the Canberra mail robbery? Morris: Yes. Counsel: Of your own free will you took part in the plans preceding the Mudgee Mail robbery and the carrying out of the robbery itself? Morris: Yes.
Detectives told a newspaper they thought Morris, of Alexandria, Sydney, knew about most of the crimes in NSW committed since the Mudgee Mail robbery, including the fatal attack on a pay van.
Morris and other participants “lagged” on each other, money was never found, charges were dropped, people acquitted. Morris was shot dead and another suspect facing charges skipped bail. Rewards went unclaimed.
Police investigations led to very few convictions. Even in the case of Morris’s murder in 1944, no one went to jail, even though any number of suspects would have had a motive after he had implicated them in crimes when he turned Crown witness.
Three killed in pay car heist
A NSW Government Railways pay car (above) was blown up near Yanderra between Bargo and Moss Vale in 1941 on the main southern line, about 100 km from Sydney.
The car left Sydney carrying a payroll of 9,000 pounds (almost $700,000 in today’s dollar terms) for workers, mostly gangers along the line, starting at Campbelltown and heading for Goulburn.
Most of the money was in the safe which remained intact but to this day around a quarter of the money has not been accounted for, believed to have been taken by the bandits. It is also thought people nearby may have picked up some of the money that was blown about in the explosion. Bank notes and coins were scattered over a wide area.
No one has faced court. There were suspicions and accusations.
A newspaper noted: “Many aliens and discharged prisoners were questioned by police, soldiers on leave or absent without leave were interviewed and the movements of railways employees on leave and away from work were checked. The search for the bandits was extended all over Australia.”
The pay car was blown up just after midday on Monday, 8 December, on its regular fortnightly run along the line.
Two men were killed instantly in the explosion: George Sydney Randall (driver, of Marrickville aged 50) and Alfred Thomas Philpott (guard, of Ashbury, 52). A third, Frederick Walker (paymaster, of Elizabeth Bay, 53) died early the next day from his injuries.
The explosion was massive; the wrecked petrol-powered car was blown 12 metres down an embankment, two large holes were torn in the permanent way and the heavy rails lay twisted.
A driver of a goods train travelling from Goulburn to Sydney was the first to see the wreckage. As he stopped his train, he saw two men in shorts running from the wrecked pay car.
He left the fireman and guard to render first-aid and rushed to Bargo to get help.
Police were joined by other railway workers in the search for the bandits or clues, but to no avail.
The robbers (the number was not confirmed but there were at least two) placed explosives under the track, covered by metal discs. The explosives were detonated from a distance, according to reports to an inquest in October 1942.
It was thought dynamite was buried in the tracks and attached by an insulated wire to a battery that was discovered about 100m from where the explosion occurred.
The inquest was told a loaded troop train passed over the tracks not long before the pay car but was not the target of the attack.
The goods train driver who was first on the scene told the inquest one of the two men he saw running away appeared to be a foreigner: “He was very sun-tanned and looked like a foreigner. He wore khaki shorts, a dark singlet and was about 5ft 9in tall and of medium build. Both men were approximately the same age. They both had a good deal of hair.”
Berrima District Coroner, Mr. W. Terry, returned an open verdict after hearing the evidence. He said the outrage was the most wicked thing he had ever heard of. There was no doubt that whoever blew up the car had no value for human life. He paid a tribute to the detectives and police connected with the case.
The world by this time was in the grip of World War2, a number of reports noting that the train was blown up the same day as bombs rained down in Asia.
A reward of 1,500 pounds was offered over the pay car attack, to no avail.
A breakthrough in the Yanderra case appeared possible seven years after the explosion when bloodstained clothing, detonators and mailbags were found in a cave near Picton on the Melbourne-Sydney railway line.
A Sydney bushwalker discovered the items while walking with his dog in November 1948. However, two weeks later police discounted the discovery as being related to the robbery. They believed the articles were placed there recently by a practical joker.
The items had been subject to scientific examination and had not been in the cave for more than “a week or so.”
In the following years, police homed in a man they thought was a prime suspect, Lionel Charles Thomas.
It isn’t clear exactly how Thomas, described as a “gunman, swindler and convicted murderer,” came to be linked to the pay car robbery; he had form though.
Anything he did know about the case went to the grave with him. He took his own life in Long Bay Jail in September 1951 while serving a life sentence for the murder at Eden in February 1950 of Mrs Mary Phyllis Page. The body of Mrs Page, from Blacktown, west of Sydney, was never found.
After the robbery of the Mudgee Mail and Canberra Mail police also believed known criminal George Morris knew something about the Yanderra case. They expected him to eventually “spill the beans”, but he, like Thomas, didn’t live long enough to do so.
Lionel Charles Thomas – questions remain
Lionel Charles Thomas was arrested in Perth on 22 July 1950 and charged with the murder of Mrs Mary Phyllis Page, 50, a Blacktown (Sydney) widow.
He was apparently due to marry another woman, 19-year-old Dorothy May Truslove, in Perth the day after he was arrested. They had planned to have their honeymoon in New Guinea.
Mrs Page’s body was never found but a jury took only an hour to find Thomas guilty, based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment.
The Crown alleged Thomas had promised to marry Mrs Page and had persuaded her to transfer to him all her possessions. About the same time he had been “courting” Sydney woman Pearl Jackson, according to some reports. At the time he met Mrs Page he was using the name Fred Stephens.
Thomas was alleged to have murdered Mrs Page while on a trip to Eden on the NSW South Coast, after she had transferred the proceeds of the sale of her house to him.
Police evidence was that Lionel Thomas told them he shot and killed Mrs Page and disposed of her body. In his unsworn statement in court, Thomas denied it.
His appeal in 1951 was rejected.
Before he could be interviewed about where he disposed of Mrs Page’s body, he took his own life in Long Bay jail in Sydney on 11 September 1951. He was 45.
In a suicide note he said he was taking his life because he could not work at his trade as baker while in jail. He had at various times described himself as a baker, mechanic, bread cart driver and labourer. He was a convicted criminal with an extensive record.
Although police were yet to question him about several other offences, the one that stood out was the death of three railway employees when a pay van was blown up near Yanderra in 1941.
A Mirror newspaper report in August 1954 was in no doubt about the involvement of Thomas in that case.
Selby Burt wrote that while in prison serving a four-year sentence for the robbery of an elderly Kings Cross identity, Thomas hatched a plan to rob the pay van.
Burt wrote: “In prison he made plans, recruited assistants for the robbery which was to become an Australian classic. From a fellow convict, Thomas learned that a pay-car loaded with bullion passed along the main Sydney- Goulburn railway line early each Sunday morning. He learned also that the pay car was armoured and guarded by 3 armed men who had been Instructed to shoot to kill if ever attacked. The criminal did not like the idea of anyone shooting back at him, so he determined to destroy the guards before they could draw their guns. A tradesman hoodlum made a gelignite bomb for him; instructed him how to use an electric detonator. On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941 (morning on which there was another Infamous bombing— by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor) Thomas and an accomplice planted the bomb on a deserted section of the line near Yanderra. Hiding in the bush beside the line, they waited for the pay-car. When the car was over the bomb, Thomas pushed the plunger on the electric detonator. Bomb exploded, completely wrecking the pay-car and Killing the 3 guards riding with it. Two criminals then ran from the bush to gather the 12,000 pounds which they knew was in a safe In the car. Force of the bomb had scattered the money, however, and Thomas was able to find only 2,500 pounds before railway men from Yanderra, attracted by the noise of the explosion, arrived at the scene. With his companion, he made his escape and hurried back to Sydney, to vanish “in smoke” while the police of 3 States hunted him, 24 hours a day. Detectives were completely certain that Thomas had “master-minded” the triple murder and robbery, but they could find no evidence which would enable them to make an arrest.”
While the accuracy of that scenario has never been tested, there is no doubt Thomas was not a nice type.
His career of crime began in Melbourne in 1931 when he and a sister were arrested in raids that recovered stolen goods. Thomas and his sister’s husband were convicted of several house and shop break-ins.
From there his record included: Tried for murder four times; served six years’ jail for housebreaking; served four years for blinding a man in Kings Cross and robbing him; and dishonourably discharged from the Army for robbing a canteen (he joined the Army, ironically as a military police officer, using the alias Fred Stevens).
Police had wanted to question him about other matters as well as the Yanderra pay van attack.
Did he murder Pearl Jackson? Did he intentionally kill the stationmaster (Tom Norwood) at Carnegie railway station (Victoria) during an attempted hold-up in October 1934 when he was known as Thomas Croft?
In 1945, eleven years after the Carnegie shooting, Croft (Thomas) was arrested at Red Cliffs, Victoria, where he was working as a mechanic. He was charged with the murder of Tom Norwood.
Thomas said he took the gun to the railway station to bluff anyone who might come along. It got caught in the wire grill of the ticket office and went off several times. He said did not know that he had shot Norwood until he read it in the papers the next day.
After three trials where juries could not agree on a decision, Croft returned to NSW where he reverted to his original name, Lionel Charles Thomas, and continued his criminal career that led eventually to his arrest in Perth after he was known to have been in Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney again.
Whether Thomas was involved in the Yanderra blast remains uncertain.
The Mudgee Mail – an inside job
The robbery of the Mudgee mail train on 8 April 1930 probably set in motion the chain of events that culminated in the killing of George Morris 14 years later.
The robbery was said to be an inside job, the plan allegedly hatched in Sydney by Roy Wilkinson, a 22-year-old railway worker who had been a porter on the Mudgee Mail.
The haul by the thieves when they robbed the train as it passed through the Blue Mountains west of Sydney on the way to Mudgee was put at 17,000 pounds in cash and cheques.
The money included pay for workers on the Mudgee and Coonabarabran railway line.
On April 17 the State Government Gazette advised: “Whereas shortly after 11pm on April 8, 1930, two armed men entered the guard’s van on the Mudgee Mail train which had just left the Emu Plains Railway Station, they bailed up the escorting porter and the guard, deprived the former of his revolver and forced open a steel chest. From the steel chest they stole two boxes and an attaché case containing the sum of 4,702 pounds in cash, and cheques to the value of 13,500 pounds, together with pay sheets and envelopes.”
Wilkinson knew about the fortnightly rail employees pay that was carried on the train.
In later court proceedings where Morris turned “King’s witness”, it was alleged Wilkinson told Joseph Harold Ryan, “a known gangster”, that the train could easily be robbed. Ryan, it was claimed, brought two other criminal associates, Arthur Collins and George Morris, into the plot.
The robbery was planned for the night of Tuesday, 8 April 1930, but Wilkinson was not rostered for escort work on that night. In his place were two other railway guards, Kenneth Allen and Albert Squires.
KENNETH ALLEN ALBERT SQUIRES
The robbers boarded the train at Emu Plains and struck on the first upgrade between Emu Plains and Glenbrook.
Wearing disguises, they bashed and bound the train’s guard, Squires, and took the weapon from the armed guard, Allen. The robbers slid the box across the floor and pushed it out of the door just before the train reached the Glenbrook tunnel. The two men followed it out.
THE GLENBROOK TUNNEL
It was later alleged the two robbers took the haul to a getaway-car driven by George Morris who was waiting a little further down the track. The money was hidden on Morris’s property at Mulgoa, near Penrith at the foot of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
The guard pulled the emergency alarm to stop the train. There was no sign of the robbers and the train continued to Glenbrook station.
Police searched the area for the robbers, only finding two “swaggies” who were camped by the Nepean River. The men were charged on minor offences but were considered not to have played any part in robbing the train.
Police found no trace of the robbers.
Collins found his way back to Sydney where he was later found to have taken part in a jewellery robbery. Ryan and Morris were linked to another train robbery; the Canberra Mail train was the target.
Collins was arrested over the jewellery theft and probably to save his bacon did a deal to inform on the other Mudgee Mail robbery participants, as well as the Canberra Mail robbery. He was given a suspended sentence and went into hiding as he’d already been bashed by three unknown assailants.
Based on the information from Collins, Wilkinson was charged, convicted and jailed for three years over his role in the Mudgee mail robbery, for which it was said he received just 50 pounds.
Morris also was given indemnity after “dobbing” on Ryan. He never faced trial, but Ryan was to figure prominently in subsequent events.
Another inside job?
Just a year after the Mudgee Mail robbery, bags containing 10,000 pounds in notes were taken from a Canberra-bound mail train at Queanbeyan on 1 May 1931.
Four men were charged and much of the money was recovered, some of it turning up as far afield as Bendigo in Victoria.
Officials in Canberra said at the time whoever was responsible for the robbery must have had intimate knowledge of the way in which the notes were periodically sent from Sydney to Canberra.
One of the men charged was Lancelot Verne Lynch, 31, a postal assistant.
Two of the other men charged were Arthur Collins, 30, a motor mechanic, and Joseph Harold Ryan, 31, motor driver.
The charges most probably resulted from evidence of a robber-turned-informer.
Collins and Ryan were charged with having stolen 10,000 pounds, property of the Postmaster General. The charges followed an extensive police surveillance operation based on the belief that someone with “inside knowledge” would have been involved.
The fourth man was James Caffrey, 30, labourer, who was charged with having received 200 pounds in bank notes knowing them to have been stolen. No evidence was given against Caffrey and at the request of the police he was discharged.
Ryan and Collins, along with George Morris already had been linked to the Mudgee Mail robbery.
Outlining the case at the start of the hearing at Central Police Court on 11 June 1931, police said that on 30 April, 10,000 pounds was sent from Sydney by registered mail to Canberra, but on arrival the mail bag that had been substituted for the original contained only telephone directories and paper.
Later, 7,000 pounds of the missing money was recovered from a farm near Penrith, and 200 pounds in five-pound notes was discovered in a deposit box under the name of Collins at the Commonwealth Bank.
A further 100 pounds was retrieved from Ryan’s flat, but Ryan would later deny claims it was part of the haul.
Morris turned up in the Canberra Mail case as a “King’s witness.” He and Percy Edward Jacobs gave evidence implicating Lynch and Ryan.
Jacobs, another postal employee, told the court he had met Lynch about three weeks before the robbery and in turn Lynch had introduced him to Ryan. He said Lynch had talked about “fixing the Canberra bag.”
Jacobs said he had seen mail bags that were to be used in the robbery.
Police alleged Ryan and Lynch went to Queanbeyan to see how the mail was handled at the station. They noted it was left unattended for a short time.
Police said the plan was hatched for Ryan to drive to Queanbeyan with a duplicate bag and swap it for the real bag while the mail was unattended. On April 30, the plan was executed.
By that time Jacobs had gone to Melbourne and police said he was no longer involved in the plot. It was noted Jacobs had been sentenced in Melbourne to 11 months jail on an unrelated matter.
The court heard that Lynch contacted George Morris, part-time postmaster and farmer at Mulgoa Road, near Penrith, to tell him of the plan. Ryan had driven to Morris’s house and given him the bag, allegedly telling him “I have got the money, I want you to smoke it.”
Evidence was that most of the money was buried in a tin about 100 m from the Morris house. Sometime later Morris allegedly took 200 pounds from the tin at Ryan’s request and given it to Collins. Still later, the court was told, Ryan asked Morris to take 2,000 pounds from the tin and give it to a man who would take it Melbourne where it could be exchanged.
Morris told the court he showed police where the tin had been buried.
Morris said he was compelled by Ryan to take part in the robbery; he feared that Ryan would tell people that he (Morris) was a convicted criminal. He was trying to live down his past.
There were some extraordinary twists to come.
Police went to Mascot airport to inspect a two-seater Sopwith plane said to be owned by the accused men. There was no money in the plane but, police said, it was ready to fly and one of the men held a pilot’s licence.
Ryan and Lynch were to face court again in July charged with having stolen the money and an alternative charge of having received stolen money.
Ryan, who had by then been charged over the Mudgee Mail robbery, failed to appear. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
Police said they were searching extensively for Ryan but they did not hold out any definite hope of apprehending him immediately. There was no clue to his whereabouts; all his known “haunts” had been combed and all trains and shipping were being carefully watched.
Lynch pleaded not guilty when he appeared for trial in December.
The police case was that Lynch marked the bags with the notes in them at the GPO so they could be readily identified.
In a statement from the dock Lynch said he was innocent and denied he had been associated with Ryan, Morris or any other persons.
He said the Crown witnesses Jacobs and Morris had tried to “shelf” him to save their own skins.
Lynch denied he arranged to substitute a mail bag. He said he had no conversation with anyone regarding the taking of a mail bag. He said a statement by Jacobs that he had brought along a new mail bag wrapped in brown paper was a fabrication; he had never at any time given anyone a new mail bag, seals, or mail labels.
Lynch said he had never been to Queanbeyan; Picton was the farthest place on the southern line he had visited.
Morris was the chief witness in the case against Lynch, admitting that some of the stolen money had been recovered from his land but said he had not been charged in relation to it or the Mudgee Mail case, despite admitting in cross-examination in another hearing that he had taken part.
Lynch’s trial ran for five days. The jury deliberated for about two hours and their “not guilty” verdict was greeted with applause from the gallery.
With Ryan still missing, the charges against Arthur Collins were heard.
In July, Collins pleaded guilty to having concealed knowledge of the theft of 10,000 pounds, the property of the Commonwealth Bank. It was the first charge of its kind (concealing knowledge of a crime) laid in Australia.
Collins was “bound over” to be of good behaviour for two years. The court heard police were satisfied Collins had nothing to do with the actual robbery; he was apparently sorry for what he had done and intended to make another start in another country. He was advised to do so as soon as possible.
Reports abounded about the whereabouts of Ryan. It was said he was possibly in England, other parts of Europe or even in the United States.
One newspaper report said he had been located in America “where he is said to be doing well.” He had not been seen since 21 July 1931, at the Sydney Quarter Sessions Court.
As it turned out, after four years absence Ryan turned himself in to police on 19 June 1935. He said he had been in England.
The Crown Prosecutor told Judge Curlewis the next day: “This man’s trial was listed for July 1931. He disappeared and visited England and now he has turned and given himself up to the police. I formally ask that he be committed for trial without bail.”
Ryan sought bail but Judge Curlewis said: “I will refuse bail and as far as I am concerned it’s for all time”.
With that, Ryan prepared for trial. But there were to be more sensational turns of events.
First, on Thursday 1 August after a four-day hearing, two charges – of stealing and having received the stolen 10,000 pounds in banknotes from the Canberra Mail – Ryan was acquitted.
Counsel for Ryan described Jacobs and Morris as “unmitigated liars,” his concluding words being: “The rotten house the Crown has built you would not hang a dog on.”
Summing up, Judge Curlewis told the jury that Jacobs and Morris, two of the main Crown witnesses, had been accomplices and it would be dangerous for the jury to convict on such uncorroborated evidence of accomplices, particularly when the pair were “so lost to decency and honour as they were.” He regretted that he had to express himself so strongly.
Though acquitted on those charges, Ryan was remanded in custody; there was still another matter to be dealt with.
The final rounds for Ryan
Ryan’s trial for his alleged role in the Mudgee Mail train robbery began in the Quarter Sessions Court on 8 October 1935.
The indictment read: “That on April 8, 1930, at Emu Plains, Ryan, being armed with a revolver, assaulted Albert Ernest Squires and Kenneth Aubrey Allen, and robbed them of four securities, an automatic pistol, a revolver, and money amounting to 4,703 pounds, 11 shillings and 10 pence.”
Ryan pleaded not guilty.
The Crown prosecutor said that on the night of 8 April two men entered the guard’s van of the Mudgee Mail, held up the guard and his escort, broke open the safe while the train was ascending a steep grade, threw the valuables on to the track, and jumped off.
The Crown alleged that the two men who actually committed the robbery were Ryan and Collins, in association with a third man, Morris (a Crown witness), who met them with his car at the rendezvous where they left the train.
Mr. Curtis, for Ryan, said his case was Morris, not Ryan, was in the guard’s van with Collins on the night of the hold-up.
He said the Crown case rested on evidence of two accomplices, Morris and Collins, whom he described as “crooks.” Out of a desire to save themselves they were more likely to drag in Ryan because of their expectation of favour from the Crown.
In a statement from the dock, Ryan said he was absolutely innocent, that Collins and Morris were lying and trying to put their crime on himself to save themselves. He said he was in Sydney at the time he was supposed to be with them. Around that time he had won “a lot of money” at the races.
Witnesses gave evidence that they had attended a funeral on the afternoon of 8 April with Ryan.
After six days of evidence, the jury determined on 15 October following 12 hours of deliberation that they could not agree on a verdict.
Ryan was remanded in custody for a new trial that began on 28 November 1935.
The new jury inspected the scene of the robbery near Emu Plains. Evidence given by railway and bank officials at Ryan’s first trial was read to the jury.
But one of the key Crown witnesses, Arthur Collins, had disappeared and could not be found.
At the previous trial, Collins sought to be excused from giving evidence on the ground that his answers might incriminate him but eventually had given evidence against Ryan.
The Crown Prosecutor said it was significant that after the Incident Ryan made large deposits in the bank under different names. It was clear, the prosecutor said, that Ryan at that time had come into possession of a considerable sum of money, and his disposition of it was of such a nature as to be consistent with it being stolen money. Ryan, however, said the money was from betting wins and several bookmakers gave evidence of Ryan’s betting activity.
Albert Ernest Squires, a guard from the train, said Ryan was not like the man who had held him up.
This time the jury reached agreement. Ryan was not guilty.
Cleared of the two mail train robberies, that left Ryan to face the charge of murdering George Morris.
In 1944 George Morris, “well known to police”, was murdered while sitting in a car in High Street, Miller’s Point, Sydney.
Reports were that Morris, 44, was lured to Millers Point on the evening of Tuesday 28 March 1944 by a phone call from an unknown person.
High Street Millers Point
A dozen shots were fired at him from close range as he sat in his car. His body was found by a milkman the next morning.
In November 1944, the City Coroner committed Ryan, wharf labourer of Jacques Avenue, Bondi, to stand trial on the murder charge.
The Crown case seemed to depend upon motive; Morris had given evidence against Ryan, and Ryan’s trial was pending at the time.
Ryan said he met Morris in 1929 and had remained friendly with him until 1931 when Morris gave evidence against him.
Most significantly, Ryan had an alibi. He was, he said, at work on Howard Smith’s wharf at the docks at the time Morris was killed.
This was backed up by two dock workers who said Ryan had worked through the night of 28 March from 9 pm. Morris was shot around 9.20 pm, according to residents who heard shots.
The Solicitor-General directed that “no bill” be filed in the case.
A 2,000 pounds reward over the murder of Morris was never claimed. And police never got to find out what Morris knew about the Yanderra case.
That was that Ryan; he wasn’t guilty of anything in a series of crimes to which he had been linked spanning a decade.
No stolen money was recovered. It is believed Ryan died in 1952.
FOOTNOTE 1: Judge Herbert Raine Curlewis, who heard the charges against Ryan over the Canberra Mail robbery died on 13 October, aged 73. He retired in 1939. A tribute said of him: “He was the greatest judge that sat in any jurisdiction. Any person with the semblance of a case could rely on every consideration”. He was married to novelist Ethel Turner. Their son Adrian Curlewis also became a legal practitioner and District Court judge in NSW. Adrian Curlewis’s Army service saw him rise to the rank of Captain. Captured in Malaya, as a prisoner of war he was put to work by the Japanese on the Thai-Burma Railway. Among many community service leadership roles after the war, he was the long-time president of the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia. He was knighted in 1967. Sir Adrian Curlewis died in 1985.
FOOTNOTE 2: The biggest train robbery in American history was the work of the “Newton Boys,” four Texas brothers who robbed at least 60 banks and six trains during their criminal careers. The biggest heist was on the night of June 12, 1924. Working on a tip from a crooked postal inspector, two of the Newton brothers boarded a mail train on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. They pointed guns at the engineer, and forced the train to stop near Rondout, Illinois. The rest of the gang was waiting in cars. The robbers threw bottles of noxious formaldehyde into the windows of the passenger cars, leaving the train’s 17 armed mail clerks incapacitated. When the guards surrendered, the robbers fled with mail sacks containing a $US 3 million in cash and bonds. In the confusion of the getaway, one of the robbers shot one of the Newton brothers several times. The robbers were later arrested after they tried to get medical assistance in Chicago