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Antony Greatrex

Antony Greatrex

Wireless Operator Mechanic, Royal Australian Air Force

"I had to be patient because there was no one else to do it and I had to help those flyers get home"


Being self-reliant is supposedly the opposite of being a team player but as a quality it's just as important during wartime and one that enabled RAAF Wireless Operator Mechanic, Antony Greatrex, to do his work in extreme circumstances. 

Antony served in Darwin during the Japanese raids in 1942-43 and felt the blast of a bomb falling just near the trench he and other servicemen were sheltering in on the RAAF base. But for most of his wartime career, his service demanded careful extended concentration to pick up signals from aircraft setting off or returning from bombing raids far to the north of Australia.

The specialisation of the area he worked in further compounded the need to keep to oneself. "Huff Duff" was the revolutionary top secret high frequency direction finding technology that the Royal Australian Air Force employed to great effect to help aircraft navigate around the region. A plane would radio in and Antony would respond with a precise "direction" which the navigator or aircraft crew would triangulate with another Huf Duff station's reading to establish the plane's exact location. 


"Huff Duff" station. Geraldton, Western Australia, February 1946

This expertise took Antony all over Australia to some remote locations: Oodnadatta SA, Amberley Qld, Corunna Downs WA and Alice Springs NT. In many of these places, it was hot, dry, flyblown and there would only be a handful of personnel - and men, no women! But Antony loved it. He was a patient, dedicated serviceman whom the RAAF knew could be trusted to get the job done. And besides, these places had their own charms, and the food was never really that bad. At Corunna Downs near Marble Bar in northern WA, there was a large cattle station that provided the small base with fresh food and Antony enjoyed going for walks down the dried creek beds.

It should be noted that, as with Antony Greatrex, the services had a great knack for discerning a person's interest or skill and developing it.

"I loved fiddling with radios and the RAAF wanted Radio Operators. It sounded like an interesting job."

His father and mother had both served in the Great War and his brother Barney was in Bomber Command and now it was Antony's to play his part.


Antony graduates radio training

On turning 18 in early 1941, he signed up and was sent directly to radio training in Melbourne where he and others were billeted in the Exhibition Hall which had been hastily converted into a soldiers' dormitory. They learnt Morse code and wireless transmission and he was posted to 2 AOS Mt Gambier in South Australia to undertake flying training as a wireless operator. This wasn't quite as thrilling as it sounds and he soon asked for another posting which wasn't well received.

Back in Melbourne he awaited his orders to leave to serve overseas but the Japanese bombing of Darwin put a halt to that and he was sent there in March, 1942. Almost all civilians had departed and the city was having to cope by using military personnel to do everything. On disembarking he was immediately approached to drive a truck to remove some garbage. Just as well he'd got his truck licence earlier.

As an indication of Antony's unflappable nature.


"I remember that those raids when I was in Darwin didn't seem dangerous, certainly no more dangerous than traffic in Sydney".

His reasoning was that the first raids were undertaken when the city's defences weren't ready and the Japanese aircraft were able to come in low and fast. At the later stage when Antony arrived, the air defence was much more improved and the raids weren't as lethal. Darwin's defence also relied on the very Huff Duff technology that Antony had been trained in.

"The direction finding was an essential part of getting Australian aircraft back in to defend the city."

At the more remote postings Antony felt confident he could methodically work his way through any problems to find a workable solution.

"I had to, because there was nobody else with me on duty and I had to sort it out myself."

One site was on top of a hill rich in iron ore which affected the compass reading for Magnetic North. Antony thought about this and eventually used the wire-netting perimeter to try and even out the radio waves.


The isolation was a personal concern to many servicemen in these remote postings but as Antony was a non-drinking, non-smoking, solitary individual and enthusiastic reader, he found the weeks and sometimes months flew by. Often his routine was either being on duty at the radio for long shifts or sleeping.

In one instance he received an unusual piece of very personal news. Coincidentally, Max,  an old friend of his from Sydney was also at Corunna Downs in Western Australia's northern interior. Max recognised the uncommon Greatrex name in an incoming message from Europe and immediately alerted Antony. It concerned Antony's older brother Barney who was flying missions in Bomber Command and had been shot down in his Lancaster over Germany. No one knew if he was dead or alive until this message arrived. Antony remembers Max running down to him, calling out "Barney's alive, Barney's alive".

Like so many friendships, this one continued for many years after the war and Antony and his wife Kath even bought an apple orchard at Batlow partly because Max was living there.


When Antony thinks back to his wartime experiences, it's typically about the places and the work and he says, "I just had a job and had to get on and do it".