23 October 2016

Radar Gunner - Dick Dakeyne DFC

It’s not common knowledge, although it is relatively well documented, that RAAF personnel served with USAAF units in the Pacific theatre, particularly in New Guinea. They flew mainly with bomber and transport crews and were on strength to make up for an early shortfall in American crews or to provide a bit of local knowledge. Ernest C. Ford, C-47 veteran and author of My New Guinea Diary, regularly flew with an Australian co-pilot. As the war progressed, and the RAAF succeeded in acquiring its own Pacific-based heavy bomber force, entire crews within USAAF Liberator units were made up of Australians as they gained experience (many had already flown with Bomber Command in Europe) flying very long range bombing operations. As I said above, this has been researched to a degree and books by the likes of Steve Birdsall, Michael Musumeci, and the team led by Lawrence Hickey, provide an extent to which these secondments were practiced.

What is interesting with Dick Dakeyne’s Radar Gunner, however, is that the overwhelming majority of his operational flying, two tours’ worth, was with a number of USAAF units as a member of several crews. Dick was a specially trained RAAF Wireless Air Gunner who had proven his mettle beyond air firing to the point that he was selected to train on the Australian-designed SN2 Ultra High Frequency receiver. The job of this ‘box of tricks’ was to detect Japanese radar transmissions from ground-based stations. With careful listening, minor adjustments to the aircraft’s course and co-operation among the crew, the position of the radar station could be estimated. As the Liberator hadn’t been designed for such a position within the crew, the operator, and his equipment, sat on what was the roof of the bomb bay. In Dick’s case, hence the title of this excellent book, he also manned a defensive gun position.

Growing up in Sydney, almost unrecognisable to today’s metropolis, the author’s childhood seems to have been a fairly standard one, living frugally during The Depression, but certainly with tonnes of fun to be had in the outdoors and among the neighbourhood kids. His was one of swimming, backyard cricket, model aeroplanes, stamp collecting and the rest. War was declared just before he left school in 1939 and, not wanting to wait to be old enough to join the Army, Dick volunteered for the RAAF and was naturally disappointed when he wasn’t selected to be a pilot. He volunteered for training in Queensland, having not been quick enough to get to the front for a Canadian posting, simply because he’d never been there.

Dick proved proficient at everything he learned hence his selection for training on the SN2. What he didn’t know then, and it was never made official, was that he was destined to be a member of the highly secretive, multinational, multiservice ‘Section 22’. This later became the Radar Countermeasures Unit and, although he doesn’t mention it, Dick, with his two tours, was to become one of its outstanding operators.

Training complete, Dick’s first posting was to Fenton in the Northern Territory. Initially settling in with the 319th Bomb Squadron of the 90th Bomb Group, Dick and his colleague stayed put when that unit was replaced by elements of the 380th BG. Fenton and, subsequently, Corunna Downs (near Marble Bar in Western Australia), must have been a culture shock for the boy from Sydney despite his love of the outdoors. Corunna Downs was a secret base heavily used by USAAF Liberators and never discovered by the Japanese. It is hard, but ruggedly beautiful, country and the perfect location for a secret airfield, but woe betide the crew that came down in the bush.

Dick flew his first mission on 26 May 1943. It was a long-distance reconnaissance of Surabaya in Java that was aborted after two hours. The fifteen-hour trip was completed several days later. That sort of flying time was to become standard for the crews and was the reason why the Liberator was such a valuable aircraft in the theatre. There was really no other aircraft available in significant numbers at the time, save the Catalina, that had a comparable range and payload.

A bit of an ‘odd bod’, initially flying with whatever crews needed a man, Dick managed to become a permanent part of the crew whose regular aircraft turned out to be the one Dick had flown his first missions in. He became an integral member of the crew, fulfilling both the RCM role and that of a waist gunner, and was really just one of the boys despite having to keep a large portion of his duties secret from the rest of his crew.

Caught in a raid in Darwin where, along with other enlisted men of his unit, he was helping unload a ship, Dick saved the life of an American gunner, but suffered minor shrapnel wounds to his hands. He returned to Fenton five weeks later, in August, to get on with his tour. What followed was a mix of shipping strikes, armed reconnaissances and numerous encounters with Japanese fighters. It was dangerous work. Before Dick’s sojourn in Darwin, his RAAF RCM colleague was killed on his second op and his eventual replacement, arriving in October, was lost in mid-November.

Returning for a second tour with the 530th BS, 380th BG, in January 1944, Dick joined another crew as the unit’s focus switched to denying the Japanese fighters from using the airfields along New Guinea’s northern coast. Interestingly, and an indication of the improving training regime and supply of equipment, Dick was accompanied by four new RAAF RCM operators. He was eventually transferred to the 90th BG at Biak, off the north coast of New Guinea, in August. After three months there, and a mere six missions, Dick bounced around a few postings, got married and was awarded the DFC before he was discharged. Post-war life saw him become a qualified geographer. He saw Kenya and New Guinea before establishing a career teaching geography until retirement in the late 1970s.

For a hardcover book of a little over 140 pages, Radar Gunner packs a hell of a punch. That said, once that final page is read, you are left wanting more. Much like Dick, there are no pretensions in the writing. It is straight-forward and highly entertaining. While a timeline is obviously followed, the narrative does not consist of a series of rigidly sequential anecdotes. Every mission is certainly not recounted in detail. Rather, the highlights of several come to the fore, indicative of the recorded interviews that were to prove the genesis of the book. There are few accounts of missions from take off to landing as, really, there is only so much that can be said before each trip begins to resemble the previous one. The editors, Craig Bellamy and publisher David Welch, include a light dusting of context, but the text never gets weighed down by a desire to paint the strategic picture at the time. Instead, it is all Dick Dakeyne. He doesn’t get terribly introspective, however, and never mentions being afraid or the fear of not coming back despite the fact the threat was real as sadly experienced by at least two of his fellow RCM operators.

Many of the photographs are from Dick’s own collection so it is likely they have not been seen or published before. Every single image is nicely reproduced with a fine balance of operational subjects (strikes, formations, maps, targets) and squadron life making up the majority. It is the latter portion that is of particular value. The USAAF Liberator units were a special part of Australia’s war, more so because they were based here, and remain highly regarded both here and in the US. To see an Australian’s photographic record of life with one of these units is worth its weight on gold. Combined with a great amount of written detail about living with the Americans, and the differences in their culture, food, equipment and opinions, makes Radar Gunner the most significant RAAF biography to be written in quite some time. It really is that good. While comparing the ‘Yanks’ to the RAAF way of doing things is not new, the presentation in this book, both in writing and images, while nothing fancy, is so well done that it makes the entire package something truly special.

This is not a big book nor is it a comprehensive biography that leaves no stone unturned. It is, however, as close to perfect as you could get for a widely appealing tale of an Australian airman in relatively unusual circumstances. Production is really tight and there are no typos or glaring errors. The text includes a few little quirks – such as names or units in bold when first mentioned or a small sketch of a cross bearing “Lest We Forget” next to the description of the loss of a colleague – but these are actually nice little touches that help to make the book stand out. It is, quite simply, a remarkable tale well told in a very enjoyable, easy to read and pleasant format. The best RAAF memoir I have read for a while.

ISBN 978-098713896-5