Bruce Robertson’s love of planes began when his mother took him to greet Charles Kingsford Smith after his trans-Pacific flight. “That’s what set me off. I just wanted to be somehow involved with aeroplanes.”
Bruce got a job in a radio sales and repair shop, and in 1937, he joined a militia, the Scottish Regiment.
“People had been anticipating a war with Germany. Hitler was on the go. Germany was building warships and aeroplanes, and thousands of soldiers were marching in the squares.”
Bruce was lying in bed one Sunday night when he heard Prime Minister Menzies making a special announcement. Germany had invaded Poland and Britain, and therefore Australia, was at war with Germany. “My mother came in and said, 'Don't think you're going to the war'. She'd had a taste of the First World War and she just didn't want that to happen to me.”
When war broke out the Scottish Regiment volunteered to serve as a unit, but the government would not allow it and the militia had to go their separate ways. Bruce waited for 12 months to get into the Air Force. “I had radio training so that led me to be a Wireless Operator. I trained at Ultimo in Sydney and from there I was posted to Point Cook in Victoria which was a communication and flying school.”
“Morse code was the communication. For hours you said, 'Dit Dah A', 'Dah Dit Dit Dit B', 'Dah Dit Dah Dit C', over and over till it stuck in your brain.”
After graduating as a Wireless Operator Bruce was posted to No. 30 Squadron at Richmond. “The Wireless operators helped in the signal station. At two o'clock one morning, I was sitting in front of a receiver turning a dial when this Morse code hit me in the ears, very loud. There was no resemblance to anything that I had learned. It struck me, it had to be Japanese.”
“I screamed out, ‘It's Japanese here’, and everyone came running. We had no radar in those days, but we had direction finding stations that could hone-in on a signal and say where it was coming from. They pinpointed it at Sydney Heads. We had a Lockheed Hudson with bombs on standby, and they went searching. It was a black night, no moon, a black submarine – they couldn't find it.
“This was the first time that we'd listened in to any Japanese signal, and it was right on our doorstep. If I hadn’t picked it up, nobody would have known about it.
“The mother sub must have unloaded the midget subs that came into Sydney Harbour. There was a boom net from South Head to Middle Head with a gate to let shipping through. The Manly ferries had to go through that gate and the midget subs must have followed them through.
“The target was a large American Cruiser. If they sank her, she would block Sydney Harbour off for the rest of the war. They fired two torpedoes, but they were set too low and went underneath the ship. One landed on the shore and didn’t explode. The other one hit a Sydney Ferry, which the Navy was using as workshops, and killed 20 sailors.”
As the war progressed, Bruce’s mother became resigned to his going. “Four divisions had gone overseas to fight. One went to Malaysia and Singapore and the whole division was captured, and the others were in the Middle East. We sent thousands of young airmen to Canada to train and they went to serve in Europe. Japan had taken Madang and Lae in New Guinea and bombed Darwin. Recruitment had to go on, to protect Australia.”
In March 1942, after the Japanese invaded the Philippines, the American General, Douglas MacArthur fled to Australia and was made Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific. “The Americans started to arrive then, and things were taking a better shape.”
In early September 1942, Bruce and a detachment from 30 Squadron were sent to Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea. The 30 Squadron was a long-range fighter squadron flying Bristol Beaufighters. “They were magnificent aeroplanes and the fastest of any at sea level. They could fly, 60, 70, 80, 100 feet above the water, come to a headland, and just go up over the top and down the other side. They had quiet engines, so silent the enemy had no idea they were coming.”
When Japanese naval infantry troops attacked the airfields at Milne Bay, the Allied land and air forces overwhelmed the invading Japanese. “Milne Bay was a wonderful victory. It was the first time the Japanese had been defeated.”
No. 30 Squadron’s main mission was to attack Japanese shipping and beachheads around Buna, Sanananda and Gona, and to support operations along the Kokoda Track, Goodenough Island and Lae.
No. 30 Squadron
In early 1943, the squadron took part in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. “The Japanese were building up a convoy of 16 ships, eight destroyers and eight transports with an army onboard at New Britain. It was presumed they were going to Lae, to join up there and then come through. We had no naval ships to stop them and the Army was no good, so it fell to the Air Force.”
“The plan of attack had 12 Beaufighters circling at sea level, then the American skip bomber squadron and the B25s, Marauders, Bostons, Liberators and Flying Fortresses forming a big chimney, going up to the sky.”
“The Beaufighters got the word to go at 9.30 in the morning. Off they went approaching the Japanese fleet. When the ships saw them coming, they thought they were torpedo bombers, so instead of being broadside they turned head on. This was just what the Beaufighters wanted, to go straight down with all their firepower.”
“Then came the skip bombers, dropping bombs at low altitude that skipped on the water and hit the sides of the ships. Then the bombers did their work. They destroyed 12 out of the 16 ships.”
“I was listening to the battle and relaying it to the boys in camp. The Beaufighters were still strafing as the American bombers were bombing. The Americans were loving those Australians, filling the airwaves with admiration. None of our fellas were killed or wounded, and all their bombers came in at their set time and they just finished them. The battle took only 28 minutes.”
It was everything Bruce's mother was terrified of and yet Bruce returned home safe and sound. He acknowledges, however, he was one of the lucky ones to return not only alive but without any injuries.