Service Number: NZC436059
RNZAF Trade: Fitter
Date of Enlistment: 19th of March 1943, at RNZAF Station Omaka
Rank Achieved: Leading Aircraftsman
Flying Hours: nil
Operational Sorties: nil
Date of Birth: Born on the 3rd of November 1924, in Cambridge
Personal Details: Peter was educated at Cambridge Primary School. His mother was a teacher at Goodwood School. He was married to Barbara, and they had children Janet, Ewan, Katherine, and Julia.
Service Details: Peter joined the RNZAF at the age of 18, in early 1943, and he did his initial ground training at RNZAF Station Omaka, near Blenheim. He was then sent to RNZAF Station Rongotai in Wellington for a three month basic engineering course. He says "We were just doing filing and stuff like that."
At the completion of this course, he moved on to the Technical Training School at RNZAF Station Nelson, where he completed his Fitter's course. This took a further three months of training. On passing out as a qualified Fitter, with the rank of AC1, he was given two weeks leave, and then stationed at RNZAF Ohakea where he joined No 2 (GR) Squadron.
At this time the squadron was preparing to take its new Lockheed Venturas up into the Pacific, and after a few brief months at Ohakea, Peter moved with the bombers to Espiritu Santos just before Christmas 1943. However he was no longer part of the squadron, the ground staff having been broken off to become No. 11 Servicing Unit.
So Peter spent several months servicing the Venturas of No. 2 (BR) Sqn, as it was now designated - Bomber Reconnaissance rather than General Reconnaissance. One of the pilots on the squadron was fellow Cambridge airman Brian Oliver. Peter in fact spent a period servicing Brian's own aircraft.
Eventually No. 2 (BR) Sqn moved on from Santos, but most of the No. 11 SU men remained on the island, and were absorbed into the new Corsair Assembly Unit. Corsairs were arriving in numbers for the RNZAF from the United States on flat top ships, all encased in crates and fully inhibited against the sea voyage. The Corsair Assembly Unit's role was to assemble them and get them up to operational standard so they could pass into the RNZAF fighter squadrons, replacing the current Kittyhawk fighters.
Eventually the Corsair Assembly Unit moved from Santos to Guadalcanal. Peter recalls one particular Corsair they had assembled at this new base was taken up for a test flight, but having gained only about 300 feet in altitude, the engine cut out. "He came down over the end of the runway, and just cleared a jetty, and managed to land it in shallow water, " Peter recalls. "The pilot got out safely but the plane was in several pieces. It was late in the day and I was given the job of sitting on the beach and guarding it over night. It was about half a chain offshore. I spent most of the night trying to get some sleep, under a tree in the drizle. I knew that no idiot would try to get out to it to steal bits in shark infested waters, it was pretty safe."
Peter has some amusing stories about life in the islands. "I had this chap living in my tent. He was a guard, and his job was to guard the American Stores, all the canned food and the likes. The Japanese were still on Guadalcanal and living in caves up in the hills. They would make raids to steal food from us. It was this guy's job to protect the food from the Japs. Anyway, he regularly used to come back to the tent with armfuls of food he'd swiped. We never went to breakfast at the Mess, it was always tinned peaches with custard or whatever. I think the Japs got blamed for a lot of food stolen in raids that were in fact going to us!"
When he was working on the Venturas, the groundcrew made their own fun whilst the aircrew were away on a mission. One such event that sticks in his mind revolves around the tracked vehicle that they had for towing the bombers around. "It had rubber tracks. It was much the size of a Bren Carrier, and was quite nifty. Some of the boys used to rip it down to the end of the runway and back for fun, and boy, it would get some speed up. But me and my cobber thought this was getting boring, so one day we decided to find out how it would handle in the jungle. So we jumped in and drove it into the jungle, and a little way in we realised we'd driven into a cocoa plantation. The cocoa trees were about three metres high but they spread out a lot as their branches hung down with the weight. Anyway, we thought we'd have a go at some tree clearing and started ripping into these cocoa trees."
"After a bit we noticed that above the trees were all these telephone lines, not supported by anything but criss-crossed all over, just laying on the treetops in these rows of cocoa trees. Anyway, we didn't know what they were for or even if they were even still live or in use. But we decided maybe we'd better give up just in case. So we snuck back into camp on this thing very quietly, having extracted several bits of telephone cable out of the tracks and everywhere. And we didn't say a word."
"Up the back of our camp was this big place where the head of the Americans in the Pacific worked. Anyway, a couple of days later word trickled down to the RNZAF camp that apparently the head American, the highest bloke in the Pacific, was sitting at his desk and had reached out to answer the phone when suddenly the telephone was yanked off his desk! There were a couple of Kiwis there who didn't know a thing!!" he laughs.
Peter's same colleague came up with a very interesting scheme for the Kiwis at one point. An old US Navy submarine from World War One was used to train the RNZAF bombers. "They'd go out to sea, submerged, and then they'd come up for a bit. They'd go along for a very short time and submerge again. Our boys would have to located the sub, and then do a mock attack on it. They had these small practice bomns, with a charge that went off not much bigger than a shotgun. So if they missed, the submarine would see the splash on radar, and if they happened to hit the sub they'd really just hear a slight thump. This old sub only had a thin skin, only about an eighth of an inch apparently, but the practice bombs were not enough to do any damage. And the sub crew could tell the bombers if they'd hit, or missed, or how close they got."
"Anyway, he came up with an idea for them to do an exchange with the Air Force boys, if it was their day off," Peter says. The idea was that six RNZAF men would be taken onto the submarine to act as observers. Really they were along for the experience. Meanwhile six of the submarine crew were taken up in the Ventura that was making the attack, to give them a thrilling ride. Peter was one of the fortunate airmen to get this rare opportunity. They had a free run inside the submarine. "We were even allowed up into the cockpit, and all over really," he recalls. "Anyway, we were having lunch. The sub was submerged. All of a sudden there were six or eight great thuds and the whole thing shook, it shook enough for your coffee to spill. We asked what this was, and the sailors said it was just depth charges. I was thinking 'What the hell am I doing down here where depth charges can get me!'. They used to have these merchant ships that plied up and down the coast, and if they spotted anything on their radar, even if it were a whale, or a sub, they used to throw half a dozen depth charges over the side just to warn anything down there that they had depth charges and were willingt o use them."
"Anyway, after lunch I went itno the cockpit, and I heard the captain radio to headquarters to report that they'd felt these depth charges - and he said they were an estimated TWELVE MILES away!!! I thought twelve miles and they spilled my coffee? And the sailors said that it was when you got within 400 feet that it got a bit dicey!!" He laughs. "You know, they still reckoned they were safer down there in a sub than anywhere else!"
"Anyway, apparently our planes had been sent out that morning to search for a Japanese sub that had been spotted, and we got word to come back in early because they didn't want the planes to mistake us for the Jap sub. So we cut our trip short."
Peter says this great little exchange deal they had going with the submarine crew only lasted about six trips, and was stopped by the authorities after an accident. "The Ventura had this tendency in a tight turn for the inside engine to cut suddenly. Of course if this happened at low level, the other engine's torque just flung it over onto its back and down into the drink. This happened at least two or three times up there. And this happened when one of the sub crews was onboard. So it was stopped from then on."
Note: There Is More To Come Soon
Died: Peter died on the 23rd of March 2016, in his sleep at Oakdale Resthome, in Leamington, Cambridge, aged 91
Buried at: Hautapu Cemetery, Cambridge
Connection with Cambridge: Peter was born in Cambridge and lived in the district for practically all his life