The way it was

Welcome to my historical look back of Williamtown RAAF base "The way it was" was inspired by Mr Clive Hall after he sent me an email sharing some of his experiences of Williamtown RAAF Base with me. Clive Hall served for 21 years in the RAAF including two stints at Williamtown the first from Sep 57 to Jan 59 and the second from Aug 60 to Jul 62. With this sort of first hand experience of Williamtown I just had to ask him to write something down for me and I thank Clive for taking the time to write down the following for us to read.

I was posted to RAAF Base Williamtown (often incorrectly referred to as Williamstown) after completing my basic training at No 1 Recruit Training Unit at RAAF Base Richmond New South Wales. I joined the RAAF on 28th May 1957 and was posted to Williamtown in September of that year.

It was quite exciting to have at last finished twelve weeks of basic training and to be posted to No 78 (F) (fighter) Wing was the envy of a lot of my fellow course members. I remember being ecstatic that the ‘spit and polish’ of basic training was finally over.

I remember arriving at Newcastle railway station at night with several of my recruit course members who had also been posted there. A RAAF truck awaited us and we climbed aboard to proceed to the base. We crossed Newcastle harbor on the vehicular ferry (there being no bridge at the time) and proceed through Stockton, Fern Bay etc to the base. My first memory is of the ‘cattle grid’ across the road at the entrance to the base which was insurance against straying cattle from local farms entering the base and possibly the airstrip. I should imagine that it would be rather disconcerting for a pilot landing an aircraft to be confronted by a cow on the ‘strip’.

The base was primitive by today’s standards. The majority of the roads had not been sealed and were still ‘dirt’. The majority of the buildings were WWII ‘huts’, some having been converted from living quarters to support buildings, i.e. ‘Barracks Section’, the ‘Transport Office’, squadron Orderly Rooms etc. The Barracks Section was responsible for the issuing of bedding, eating utensils etc. Yes, in those days, we were issued with eating utensils, known to the airmen as ‘eating irons’, consisting of one cup, one knife, fork and spoon. On the completion of a meal, one carried their plate to a ‘trough’ filled with warm soapy water and washed the plate/plates and also washed their ‘eating irons’. Of course, that applied to the ‘other ranks’ only. The Officers’ and Sergeants’ Messes had cutlery lain on the table.

Upon our arrival, we were taken to the Barracks Section and issued with blankets, pillow and bed linen, all of which we had to sign for. We were permitted to change one sheet per week. We then were transported to the ‘Transit Hut’ (for transient personnel) which was the ‘Igloo’ type of hut. An ‘Igloo’ hut is constructed so that looking at the it from the front, the roof went from ground level in a semi circle to the other side .The next morning we were allocated permanent quarters. My first ‘permanent quarters’ was a long ‘dormitory’ style hut housing approximately twenty men, ten per side. I remember being extremely ‘green’ so to speak and was standing to attention for every Corporal that spoke to me and addressing him by rank (as we had to do during basic training). I was soon informed that I could ‘forget all of that crap’ and that I need not address a Corporal by rank if he were known to you personally. Of course, when confronted by a Service Policemen or such one used one’s discretion.

Some Airmen’s ‘brick’ two story quarters had been constructed but there was a long waiting list to be allocated to them. They housed four airmen to a room. There was a wardrobe, a bed and a bedside table. Also, there was a ‘rifle rack’ beside each bed. Every airman was issued with a .303 rifle on his arrival at a base. These were used on parades and also on guard duty (although no ammunition was issued).

The Base had several different types of aircraft. No 78(F) Wing was equipped with the F86 (Sabre) fighter. The aircraft had been used in Korea by the US Air Force and Australia adopted that aircraft to replace the Gloster Meteor. The aircraft had modifications incorporated to suit the RAAF. An ‘Avon’ engine was installed, the intake was made a little larger and some other modifications were also installed. There were ‘Vampire’ aircraft on the base also. They were used by No 1 OTU…(Operational Training Unit….later to be renamed Operational Conversion Unit). Pilots posted onto the base from basic flying training (which consisted of propeller powered aircraft…the old ‘Wirraway’ in 1957) went to No 1 OTU in the first instance for ‘jet’ training and then later completed conversion training on the Sabre aircraft.

No 78 Wing comprised several squadrons. There were No 75 Squadron, No 77 Squadron and No 3 squadron which were all ‘flying’squadrons. Then there was No 478 (M) (maintenance) Squadron which maintained the aircraft (engine changes etc.). I had been posted to the ‘Orderly Room’ (office) of the latter being employed as a trainee ‘Clerk Administrative’.

On the base was also the unit named Air Support Unit which consisted of Navy, Army and RAAF personnel. The Army element had also the ‘Airborne Platoon consisting of soldiers who were qualified parachutists. Also part of that unit was the ‘Parachute Training Flight’, which trained all parachutists in the Australian forces. That is now stationed at the Naval Base at Nowra New South Wales.

There was a DC 3 on the base but as to what squadron ‘owned’ it I cannot recall. I do remember that when I was roistered for my first ‘guard’ duty, I was detailed as an ‘aircraft guard’. That consisted of standing beside the DC3 for four hours in the middle of the night. I remember that it was pouring with rain and being very ‘green’, I asked the Guard Commander (a Corporal) if I was permitted to wear my ‘greatcoat’ (heavy overcoat) when on guard. He quickly seized the opportunity to have his ‘little joke’ and told me that I could not. Consequently, I stood in the rain for the full four hours dressed only in the RAAF ‘overalls’.

As stated, the base was rather primitive by today’s standards. In those days, the toilet blocks were divided into three different areas. There was the ‘Officers’ toilet, a Senior NCO toilet and an Airmen’s toilet. I remember there was an airmen’s toilet block that was rather long which had approximately ten toilets on either side facing each other. There were no doors so it could be rather embarrassing if one was answering nature’s call only to have another airman sit on the toilet directly opposite (as some were prone to do). I remember that someone had written in the concrete (before it had dried) ‘F…K Hitler…1943’. I also recall that written on one of the aircraft hangars was (from memory) ‘Beaufighter Hangar’. It had not been removed after WWII.

The Officers and Senior NCOs naturally had their own ‘messes’ with their ‘bar’ incorporated. The airmen in those days had their ‘beer hall’. That’s exactly what it was, there were no spirits available to airmen in those days, it sold only beer. That was remedied some few years later when spirits were introduced and the ‘beer halls’ then became known as the ‘Airmen’s Club’.

RAAF Base Williamtown was extremely hot in summer and cold in winter. In the summer, the area was infested with flies. It is the only place where I have had flies enter my mouth when simply talking.

On weekends, many airmen used to proceed to Nelson Bay to the ‘Seabreeze’ Hotel. There was a small band there and it was pleasant sitting there listening to the music and sipping the cold beer. Quite a few airmen died on the return trip because of over indulgence in alcohol and excessive speed. There was no such thing as a limit on the alcohol one could consume and still drive a motor vehicle in those days..

Quite a few pilots lost their lives whilst I was stationed at Williamtown. At one time, there were three lost in as many successive months. It was found that when a pilot of a Sabre went to ‘eject’, the canopy when sliding back was hitting the forehead of the pilot rendering him unconscious. That problem was eventually modified to cause the canopy to lift as it slid back. Quite a few pilots ejected and survived. One landed on a country road and was given a cup of tea by some council road workers.

Eventually, I was posted from Williamtown to RAAF Base Darwin in 1959 for a fifteen month tour upon the completion of which I was posted back to RAAF Base Richmond. I was only there a matter of months before returning to Williamtown being posted to Air Support Unit.

I have only fond memories of RAAF Base Williamtown. I visited the area a few years ago and whilst I did not enter the base, I did pay a visit to the museum which now stands outside. It renewed some memories for me.

Clive Hall

Paul's RAAF base Williamtown page