The Lion and the Swans

In the 1943 air campaign over Darwin, a Spitfire Wing or also known as the ‘Churchill Wing’ took on the Imperial Japanese Forces.

The Spitfire Wing, or No 1 Spitfire Wing RAAF, comprised three squadrons – No 54 Squadron RAF and two RAAF squadrons serving with RAF Fighter Command in Britain, Nos 452 and 457. These were sent out to Australia in early 1943 to satisfy a ‘promise’ made by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the request of Australian Prime Minister John Curtin.  All three were average squadrons, typical of RAF Fighter Command at the time, comprising young men with average flying and fighting skills. Many of the more experienced pilots had also transferred out the Squadron.

At the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941 the Australian RAAF did not possess any modern fighters in or near Australia. Following the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, which caused heavy damage to the military installations at the town and ships in its harbour, the Australian Government began to urgently look for fighter aircraft. As the Australian aviation industry was not capable of producing fighter aircraft at the time, the government sought assistance from the United States and Britain. While the US Government responded by providing the RAAF with what became a steady flow of P-40 Kittyhawk aircraft, Britain was initially unable to allocate fighters to Australia due to its heavy commitments in the North African Campaign and elsewhere.

Churchill finally, and reluctantly, agreed to send aircraft and 3 squadrons to Australia however delays in shipping Spitfires to Australia disrupted No. 1 Wing’s formation. In late June 1942 the British Government diverted all but six of the initial 48 aircraft to Egypt to reinforce the three RAF Spitfire squadrons there. A shipment of 43 Spitfires left England on 4 August and arrived in Australia in late October, and further deliveries continued to be made until June 1945.

After the Spitfires arrived in Australia, Curtin sent two black swans from Western Australia to Churchill in the United Kingdom, so the British people could go down to the park and feed them to remember their RAF members serving in the colonies.    Now there are two stories pertaining to what happened to the swans;  One is that when the British winter hit, they died, the other is that Churchill took them to his private estate and looked after them.  

The Lion is the lion in the centre of the Squadron crest/badge.

Of interest, on the steel gates at the Australian War Memorial there are two swans in the lower section.

“The tally of Japanese aircraft destroyed by No. 54 (Spitfire) Squadron RAF… painted on the wing tip of a Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft used as a scoreboard, [Winnellie, Darwin NT, May, 1943]… The two swans painted on the metal represent the Squadron gift of swans to Mr Churchill”. Ref: Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Text AWM. *Note colourised photo.

South Australian historian and RAAF member, Peter Pinkerton, has supplied this image of a Fighter Guide Map of the Darwin Area showing a Lion with two black swans, Spitfire aircraft and a layout plan of Truscott Airfield in Western Australia. On 20 July 1944, a Japanese “Dinah” aircraft carrying out a high-level reconnaissance flight in the Drysdale area not far from Truscott Airfield was shot down by three Spitfires from 54 Squadron RAF. This was apparently the last Japanese aircraft to be shot down, air to air, over Australian soil during WW2.

Fighter Guide Map
DL – Squadron identification indicator; Spitfires in flight; The Lion and the Swans; WW2 airfields along the Stuart Highway and in the lower right corner a drawing of Truscott airfield (where RAF 54 Squadron shot down the last enemy aircraft, air to air, over Australia in WW2.)

Below is the layout of Truscott Airfield as in the bottom right hand corner of the Fighter Guide Map. Truscott Field was named in honor of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Squadron Leader, Keith William “Bluey” Truscott who was killed piloting a P-40E Kittyhawk on March 28, 1943 during a RAAF training exercise with the US Navy, off Exmouth in Western Australia, when his aircraft flew into the sea due to very flat mirror like conditions that made it difficult to judge height above the water.

Truscott Airfield, Western Australia
Truscott Airfield, Western Australia, in the mid 1980’s

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