WWII RAAF Mosquito pilot Col Griffin - still flying today - shares
some of his memories with Kathy Mexted and tells how a wartime
recruitment poster set his life on a dramatic and exciting new course.
An Adelaide railway station poster headlined: I’m going to join the
RAAF. Are you coming? caught the eye of a 21 year old Col Griffin.
Quickly sold on the idea, Col says it took him a while to “make up the
academic stage”, but once enlisted he commenced initial training locally
at Victor Harbour. “I walked through that, and then went to learn
flying at Parafield, soloing in 8 hours 25 minutes. There were some
bright arses that went solo in 6:20, but often that was because they had
good weather. Others had worse weather and never soloed at all. The
system couldn’t wait for them.
“We got through, and while most of the blokes went off to Canada, half a
dozen of us went over to Geraldton in WA to fly Avro Ansons. I loved
Geraldton, it was such a beautiful place. I was commissioned off course
as a ‘Pilot Officer’ (he says, waving his arms in self mockery). “I
came from Strathalbyn in South Australia, where I was nothing but a lad
in a dusty country town. Within twelve months I was a ‘Pilot Officer’
and I had a uniform, and I had a cap, and boy - was I up myself!” says
Col, laughing at the memory of his transformation.
“Within 12 weeks, I was aboard TSS Ceramic bound for England with about
105 flying hours under my belt. We crossed the Pacific, through the
Panama Canal, Newport News, New York City and then Halifax where we
waited for a convoy before sailing off across the Atlantic. Boy, was I
glad to get to England. The U Boats were sinking ships everywhere, and
by the time we got there I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to
survive this bloody war.’ (On December 6, 1942, the liner was sunk by U
515 en route to Australia from Britain. She was carrying 656 people as
well as a cargo which, because it was war-time, included bombs and
ammunition. Only one passenger survived.)
“We were entrained at Liverpool then sat around for five weeks at
Bournemouth until they could decide what to do with us. We were
interviewed as to what role we wanted to play in the war. They said to
me ‘you’re too tall to be a gunner, and you’re not smart enough to be a
navigator, how would you like to be a pilot?’ and I said ‘well that’s
what I joined for.’ Well everybody wanted to be a ‘Fighter Pilot’ and
nobody wanted to be a bomber pilot because the rumour was that it was a
pretty dangerous job.
“I was keen to fly the Beaufighter but they told me ‘We don’t know if we
can do that, but we’ve got lots of vacancies on Lancasters,’ and I said
‘well if that’s the case then, OK. I don’t mind.’ - So Lancasters it
The next move was to Spitalgate in Grantham where Col learnt to fly
Airspeed Oxfords before moving on to Charter Hall in Scotland to fly the
Blenheim Mk.I, Mk.IV and the Mk.V or Bisley, and he recalls: “God it
was cold in Scotland. I reckon the Bisley was one of the few aeroplanes
that would get bird strike from behind. Then they introduced me to the
Beaufighters. They were built with radial engines but there was a
shortage of these, so they put Merlin engines in them and it became a
dog. Once you got it flying, it was nice plane, but it was a dog on the
ground. I lost it one day on landing. Went across the middle of the
airfield and came out the other side. I went clean through all the vege
gardens, and it took me all day to wash the mud off. I was so glad to
get out of there.”
Col’s next posting was to 456 RAAF Squadron at Valley on Isle of
Anglesey, Wales, where there were Beaufighters. There was also two
Mosquitos being re-equipped and Col recalls: “…so I got an endorsement
on the Mosquito. It was fast and smooth - the latest and popular. I
was one of the lucky few. Here we were posted to Middle Wallop, based
between Salisbury and Andover in Hampshire for three or four months,
then back to Colerne in Somerset, Fairwood Common, Wales, then RAF
“By then the allies were grooming themselves for the Second Front, the
Americans were flying over Germany, and the Lancaster force was becoming
immense. This is when the Germans realised they had been foolish in
not developing a heavy bomber force. Compared to Lancasters the
Mosquito was like an eagle to fly. Lancasters were being built in the
hundreds and the US were flying massive B-17 daylight raids. Being an
intruder Squadron it wasn’t just night fighting, as Germans were getting
a bit sparse with heavy bombing on Canterbury and destroying cities and
people, it was all coming to an end.
Col recalls; “The Germans were building up a night fighter force and
they had thousands of night fighters based in Western Europe to oppose
British bombers. My Squadron was involved in intruder work. Our duty
was to fly over their fields and make a nuisance of ourselves. Drop
flares and bombs or shoot up planes on the ground. Our mere presence
didn’t terrorise them, but it did scare them. They knew we had hundreds
of Mosquitoes and we could put them out any time.”
“It was dangerous, because you never knew how high above the ground you
were. We’d fly over at about 10,000 ft and come down to around 1,000
ft. The German airfields were defended with multiple guns. Some of the
intruders would bomb runways as well. This continued until the end of
the war. By that time I was based at Bradwell Bay near Chelmsford.
“I have nothing but praise for the Mosquito. It had two engines, which
made a single engine landing tricky, because it was so streamlined.
With one operational engine, when the undercarriage was lowered, you
needed a lot of power. Recovery took 1,000 ft, so if you were below
that, then you were committed to the landing.
“I only had one single engine landing and it was due to a radiator
coolant failure. Coolant leaked out, the temp went up and I shut the
engine down. It was in daylight and a piece of cake, because at the
time I had experience and been trained for such an event, so I knew
exactly what to do.
“I flew 650 hours in the Mosquito. That included Squadron work and
training other pilots. About 250 were combat hours. The first time I
departed for combat I was frightened as hell. The thought of it was a
bit worrying because you had to make a flight plan, and navigational
instruments were rudimentary, also we relied heavily on dead reckoning.
My navigator, HP ‘Hoppy’ Williams, would plan it on the table. It would
always be a black night, and I’d fly the flight plan that he gave me,
and he’d map read as much as possible. He was very good, and once we
got going, all fear was gone.”
Col then adds “Between 1939 and 1945, fully trained and operational
aircrew deaths totalled approximately 75,000. Sixty percent were bomber
command personnel. One’s demise came rather cleanly and relatively in
the final sense, permanently. No horror, no drama, in most cases they
simply did not return from operations to their billets.
“On one occasion I was shot at, the aircraft was damaged, and the radar
operator wounded by flak in his buttocks. It came up through the bottom
of the aeroplane and through the parachute on which he was sitting.
“We were based at Arundel, in Sussex, at RAF Station Ford. It was right
on the coast where many shot-up aircraft landed with wounded on board,
often including the poor rear airgunner shot dead and frozen stiff with
the winter wind whistling through his busted turret. What a hell of a
job getting his body out for identification and recording by our
Squadron Doctor! The Americans suffered no less on their daily forays
before the Mustang fighter could accompany them and mix with the enemy
“While I was stationed at Ford, I witnessed an incredible event. A
damaged B-17 crash landed there one afternoon. Coming in at speed with
one gear leg dangling, the pilot pushed his machine onto the ground,
creating a spectacular cartwheel, followed by a thump and instant fire.
The ground rescue services were on the spot in an instant, rescuing
crew. Some were limping, some were OK, but one bloke who was on fire
ran back into his blazing aircraft and died. Why? Who knows who could
give a reason? For days, I wished that I’d not witnessed that moment.
It was one of the most upsetting, inexplicable, graphic scenes I’ve ever
witnessed. No wonder the horrors of W.W.I affected our Diggers well
into the thirties. Poor buggers.”
As if war doesn’t provide enough drama and danger, Col managed to have
one of his most memorable events occur on a day off. One morning he was
approached by a young RAF flying officer who wanted to go to Liverpool
to meet his girlfriend and Col recounts the event; “‘Will you fly me
up?’ the young bloke asked. I said, ‘If they’ve got an aeroplane I
will.’ As it was about a two-hour flight each way, we went over to the
flying school and I said, ‘Can I have a Mosquito to fly this bloke to
see his girlfriend? I’d love to have a bit of a fly alone on the return
“The WAAF said; ‘All the Mosquitos are occupied but we’ve got a Beaufort
over there in the grass. We’ll drag it out and you can take it for a
run.’ So we hauled it out of the long grass and got the old thing
going. When we got to altitude, there was one hell of a crash from the
starboard engine and all the cowling flew off, the prop went into fine
pitch and the engine caught alight, so I shut it down to put the fire
out. It shed three cylinders and I thought I’d die in the backside.
“I thought to myself ‘What am I doing here? Flying a bloke up to
Liverpool and all he wants to do is meet his girlfriend and have a bit
of a cuddle, and now we’re in fine pitch and losing altitude rapidly.
Someone is either going to get hurt, or die, and that could be me!’
That’s when you wonder, ‘what is my mother going to think?’ and not
panic. There was a cleared patch in the trees, so I put it down there
but forgot to put the landing gear down. We came to rest in a field of
sugar beet and, me with an engine cylinder in my lap. It had come
through the side of the aircraft.
“We were out of that plane in a nano-second because the engine was red
hot, and I thought it was going to go ‘whoosh’, and I’d have been
onions. Anyway, we survived that and the beet farmer came and found
us. My mate had a cut forehead and the farmers wife was a nurse. She
only had a needle and cotton, so she dipped it in Dettol and stitched
him up and washed the blood off his tunic before announcing to the
ambulance ‘send him on his way to see his girlfriend’.”
We asked if the mate got to see the girl? Col replied with a great
laugh: “Oh did he what! Wounded and all! Somebody from Cranfield came
and retrieved me. I had the shimmy shakes.”
Recalling D Day, Col says “I was over the beach head at Omaha on the
night of 5 June, 1944 – in preparation for the landings. We knew the
allies were about to attempt to fight their way onto French shores. We
had noticed a build up of forces - there was scarcely a leafy lane that
didn’t have an article of war ready in it. We had also noticed the huge
floating concrete caissons that were going to be towed to the invasion
point and then scuttled to make a wharf.
“We found out about the invasion the night before, after the ships had
already left. They were so thick; you could have stepped from one ship
to another. It was a vast armada and the night flying squadrons were
flying out over the channel looking for German bombers, but there were
none. That was an anti-climax.
“Around that time it was fairly humdrum, except when we received the
shot-up planes in desperate to land, including American Mitchells,
Marauders and B-17s. A Mosquito landed short one night. He was using
the rudimentary flying beam and got too low, hit the ground and the
plane exploded. The wheel came off, jumped the roadway and killed an
engineer. It was pretty wild.
After the War
“I flew over Germany about 3 weeks after the war ended and there wasn’t a
factory or city that hadn’t been raped by air power. I came home with a
total of 1,007 hours as a man who had willingly served his country
right to the end.
“Our replacement Commanding Officer (after the preceding one was killed
in a flying accident) Bob Cowper is still alive and living in Adelaide.
There are very few of our squadron left. I think there is only about
“The journey home was very unpleasant. The ship was crowded with POW’s
and only a few women. I landed back in Sydney and caught the train to
Melbourne, then the beautiful Adelaide Express home to see mum and dad.
That boat trip had knocked a lot out of me. I lost a lot of weight and
learnt to smoke. I went through about a three-month period of
depression, as I knew I would. After all that excitement, it’s one hell
of a let down when you are demobbed. All that excitement, and all of a
sudden ‘plonk’, back to Civvy Street – but you pick up the pieces. I
loved England and its people. I think all servicemen probably suffered
the same problems.”
Following his retirement from the RAAF in 1945, Col worked for
Australian National Airlines (ANA), later Ansett ANA, and upon
retirement spent ten years at a flying school in Melton. He says he
found his old service flying jacket in an army disposal store in
Adelaide once, but: “it was oil stained and dirty and held no appeal for
me at the time. It was a time when everybody was fed up with the war,
and the jacket didn’t seem to have any value, even sentimental value. I
realise now I should have just told them I’d lost it and never handed
it back.” His service boots have been worn out and long gone, and the
only part of his kit to survive are his log books and tunic.
Col still flies upwards of 50 hours per year in his amateur-built high
performance RV6, based at Kyneton in Central Victoria. He is an active
member of the Kyneton Aero Club, and flies away for lunch on average
every second weekend. Having lost touch with his sweetheart Doreen,
during the war, they were only reunited in 1997 and have been married
for ten years. Walking away from the hangar after doing some air-to-air
photography in his RV6, Col was in high spirits and confided with a big
smile, “I’m having the time of my life”. On 1 September, 2009 Col
celebrated his 90th birthday by flying himself and his wife to Adelaide
in their RV6.