[PIX Gibson and Ross in Cat crew boat]
Bob searched out long-ignored wartime documents in Australia and America. The Black Cats’ work is detailed in the official Commonwealth War History, Australia in the War of 1939-4: The role of science and industry by Prof D. P. Mellor. It details RAAF Catalina Mining Missions from 1943 to 1945:
1,130 sorties over 281 nights
2,512 mines laid in 52 ports
60,000 tons of shipping sunk
75,000 tons of shipping damaged
The 1944 Phoenix Report puts the Black Cat success into startling perspective: ‘The minelaying operations have inflicted 40 times and probably 100 times as much damage as bombing missions for half the cost in aircraft…. Minelaying is of the order of 100 times as effective as attacks on land targets.’
The Phoenix Report estimated that if the blocked supplies reached Japanese front lines, it would take 12,000 sorties by 20 land-based bomber squadrons to destroy them there. Black Cat mining was calculated to be 40 times more effective than land-based aircraft for the job, and 100 times more effective when the loss of Japanese war production was factored in.
Countless lives and property were saved by using Black Cats.
None of this got Bob closer explained his brother’s loss, but it justified the men’s claims in a strange secret war. Crews operated out of separate seaside hotels in northern Australia and from jungle inlets. It was a different way to fight a war. Yet, crew independence – each was left to plan its own missions - and constantly evolving and daring improvisations helped shape the air transport we have today.
At this time Qantas was flying its 24-hour ‘Double Sunrise Catalina service between Perth and Ceylon – the Allies sole air link to Australia. [PIX]
Four RAAF Catalinas squadrons - 11, 20, 42, 43 – were mine-laying.
‘We’d do this quickly at tree-top level then get out,’ Dick said.
‘200 feet was just two wing-spans above the water,’ Doug added.
The first test was to Kavieng Island, a Japanese base north east of Guinea, on an 18-hour round trip. ‘The Japanese thought it was one of their planes it was so low,’ Dick said, ‘The first plane was given a green light to land! Tokyo Rose, the Japanese propaganda woman, reported: “The enemy attacked us but all their bombs fell in the water.”
The Japanese hadn’t realised what had happened. Kavieng began over two years of missions. But, how long could the secret last?
Success and survival were down to the pilot and navigator. They flew over Bali, Java, Sumatra, the Spice Islands and places hardly known today: the Helmaheras, Pescadores, and places not on maps.
Crews were left to work out their own routes. ‘We used astro-navigation, a sextant on the sun, moon, stars and planets,’ Doug said.
At times they flew lower than the 5 or 6,000 feet. ‘There were many unmarked high-rise little islands with huge shafts of rock,’ Dick remembers, ‘Quite uncharted territory. One of our planes hit a mountain that was discovered 20 years after the war.’
‘Some of our planes did not return because of the weather. I had more concern going through really rough cyclonic weather,’ Dick says, ‘A very a disturbing context to be flying through.'
Under each wing they carried a 1,000lb mine with an advanced timing system to delay detonation. ‘The Japanese never knew how those mines got there,’ Philip said, ‘Mines were set to explode after a different number of ships passing. It would not at first go off.’
Precision was vital. The Allies later had to retrieve mines that hadn’t gone off. But a mining run demanded a split-second 3D juggling act between pilot and navigator, in the dark while getting shot at. It didn’t always go right.
‘We had to fly right over this ship,’ Doug laughs, ‘He opened fire. We got a few hits. We went out to do our timed mine-laying run. There was no time on the clock. I said to the pilot, ‘Sorry Bluey. I must have forgot to press the button. We went round again. The same ship opened fire, hit us again, and we made the run successfully.’
Was he afraid? Doug laughed, ‘No, a funny thing, I crossed my legs that’s all.’
The plan relied on secrecy. Doug said, ‘My nav log got Nav of the Month that year in the Nav Bulletin, but due to the secret nature of the mission they could not publish it.’
Cyril recalls it differently: ‘Everyone knew! We were living in a hotel. We’d come down for breakfast and the waitress would say, “No flying today, fellas.” Next day they’d say, “You’re off to Kavieng at 10 o’clock.” It was common knowledge around Cairns. All this bullshit about secrecy.
But Cyril added, crews rarely met: ‘Everyone lived in hotels and no two crews lived in the same hotel. Half the time you wouldn’t even know who they were.’
Does this help to explain the secrecy? Everyone knew their own part – including the waitress – never seeing the whole plan. But how long could the secrecy last?
Black Cat successes brought longer, more dangerous missions. More defences were stripped away. Heavy wheels and armour plating were removed for greater range. Crews were ordered to fly below 200 feet to evade new Japanese radar. The casualty list grew.
[Pix Chessel armour]