Working as ground crew in the RAAF, Jim Russell was never too far from the fighting.
He recalled his team in 1945 doing a lot of work on heavy bombers in preparation for embarkation to Okinawa to join the bombing campaign against the Japanese mainland.
But two atomic bombs put an end to the war and today Jim prefers thinking about the lightyer moments, such as when he and some mates – “with a skin full” – nabbed a sheep from the saleyards near their base and cut it up for a good feed.
You were a Patho boy.
I was born in Cohuna but I grew up on a farm in Patho. It was mainly dairy but it was mixed as well.
You were in such a rush to get to war you applied for a job in the aircraft factory at Fisherman’s Bend?
That’s right. Actually there was a connection to the Russel’s down there, and he was at that place. I had two brothers already on the farm so I took the opportunity at 16 and a half to work in the mechanical factory. I hadn’t done any mechanical work before. After I left Patho grade 8 I went to Bendigo and boarded with thee people by the name of Richmond. And what has stayed in my head is that he had a brother in Canada and one in Wales and during the war I was able to go to the one in Wales. The army had taken what was above the ground. And where we were staying and where the Richmond’s was living was underneath the ground level.
The day you turned 18 you enlisted?
Yeah I joined the air force. Well I was actually in the inspection branch when the parts/castings came out. We were to go through them and we had to go through them and check to see that they were capable of being machines. Some castings of course go haywire.
Mostly building boomerangs. Then I got out of the foundry part and they put us in the engine part and we were much the same thing there, but a little bit different.
Did you have to travel for training?
We did three months at the Brunswick tech for technical training. (Then finished up in East Sale and that where the orders came through to be posted). We went by train up to Brisbane (to sail to Europe). Well first of all we went to New Caledonia and stopped there for two days but we weren’t allowed off. Then to San Francisco and then a few days there, and this is where we could see Alcatraz, even the boat went there, but, of course, we weren’t allowed off. There were no guard rails but they never ever found someone who escaped on the mainland. Then we had five days on the train up to New York, a few days leave and we got on the Queen Mary (to England) with 20,000 other troops because the war was moving north.
Where we you based in England?
Mostly in Bramwell Bay, and of course most of time we were on the Mosquito Squadron and I had my particular plane RXR to look after. (That was 456 squadron and that was Australia’s only Mosquito night fighting squadron.) Then a few weeks on the Lancasters in a different place.
Were you one loan?
Well we just had to do what we were told. I don’t know why they did that, it might’ve been to train us more.
Had you dealt with a Rolls-Royce engine before you got to England?
No. it wasn’t the engines we were, just the general things on the planes. The only flying I did was when we were on duty with the Lancasters. They took this Lancaster to go to another area to have it seen too and we came back on it. 20 mins back.
And a little story, my best mate, Bill Johnston and I, we were in a small English town and we see coming up, three girls in the English Air force uniform. And about 15 yards away, one of them started singing ‘In an old Australian homestead’. (and so they were Australians) So then we pulled up and had a talk to them. And she had come from Broome. And every time I see that name on the weather map, it brings back that memory. It’s amazing, some little thing like that.
I believe you heard a very big explosion one day? Might’ve been a V2 Rocket?
The last one that the German’s ever sent from Germany to England. It might’ve gone haywire going for London – London coped quite a few of them. It was 30ft deep and slung the dirt 100 yards all round. And what was left was a container that held all the explosives.
I went on my own (to see the V2), I took a photo of what’s left – everything else was gone. Fortunately this was in open country. Had it gone a mile or a mile and a half, it would’ve been a bigger bang.
They stole a sheep or something in that line and when they came home that night, there must‘ve been 40 in that dormitory, we placed it under a bed. But what happened, one of them, Curly, left his wallet behind (so he wasn’t a very good thief). I thought it was that night, or it could’ve been the next day, they turned up (with Curly’s wallet). And they had to go to court and they got $5 each for about 20 I think, maybe 16 I’m not sure. That paid to replace the sheep and the court costs.
What was the food like if you had to steal a sheep?
You were in the line mostly. If you didn’t like it you went hungry.
This is your war diary, did you keep that everyday?
Sometimes there’d be a gap of two or three days. I just had the one.
In 1943, the Diary of J. S. Russell. 126887
What happened after the war ended in Europe?
Well I have the papers where it shows we were going to Okinawa and anyway the war ended so instead of that they sent us to Southampton to send us home. That’s where I came past Portshead.
I believed you tried something new on VE Day?
I had three beers and I’d never had any before and I haven’t had any since.
So you got back in 1946, and then you got demobbed?
Yes, we were paid up, on the boat, the day before we hit Melbourne. On Princes Pier, it was chocka-block with people waiting for people to come home. I had no trouble finding my parents, my mother was holding up the word ‘Patho’.
So when you came home, did you just go back onto the farm or what did you do?
No, my father was leasing a place with the option to buy, I guess it was for me of one of my brothers. Anyway I took that up and it ran as a dairy farm in the main, oh, you know we ran pigs and a few things like that.
I was married in 1950 and that’s when my wife came up then. She and her parents lived in St Kilda and they didn’t know the first thing about the country. Then the first Christmas, when her parents came her father said ‘I didn’t think you’d stick it’. No electricity, of course she had to learn the wood fire stove and lots of things. When we did get electricity a few years later, Betty went through the house and turned of every light.
So when you came back from the war, did you pick up as though you’d never been away?
Aw yeah, well I was used to the farm and that look like where it was supposed to spend the rest of my life and I was very happy with that.
When you sailed from Brisbane, you didn’t see Australia again until the end of the war?
That’s right. I should’ve of mentioned earlier, when I saw Australia disappearing I wondered if I’d ever see it again. Because in the back of my mind, I was named after my mother’s brother uncle Jim and he was killed two weeks before the end of the war.
Did you keep in touch with your mates from the war?
Yes, for quite a while there were five of us, we didn’t go to the war that’s why.
What do you think about the whole thing now?
Well, when this Korea business, surely they’re not going to have it all over again. I was a bit worried there for a while.
You don’t need to see another?
No, not particularly no.
I’d hate to see it because you know they’ve probably got arms that reach far more than we did. Korea reckons they can reach Australia.
Do you think people understand what a big war is like?
Well they couldn’t really. They couldn’t understand what I’ve been through.
Interviewed by: Andrew Mole.
Voice: Vivienne Duck.
Produced by: Kimberley Price and Vivienne Duck.
A Riverine Herald production.