NO. 12 REPAIR AND SALVAGE UNIT -
IN AUSTRALIA DURING WWII
No. 12 Repair and Salvage Unit
by Des Lang
What were Repair and Salvage Units?
Repair and Salvage Units were specialised RAAF units that were formed during the first year of the war with Japan to help overcome the acute shortage of aircraft and the high incident of crashes, a consequence of inadequate airfields, inexperienced pilots and the confusion and haste associated with the need to prepare for and meet a rapidly advancing enemy. The role of these units was to attend crashed aircraft and restore them if possible or, if not, to cannibalise salvageable parts to use as spares for other aircraft. As aircraft often crashed at remote and inhospitable locations the men were often required to work without supporting facilities, to use initiative and employ creative and innovative solutions, to scrounge, and be able to talk any “locals” into providing locally available resources and manpower. Critical, also, was the ability to keep track of which parts were interchangeable between different aircraft, and to maintain parts updates for different models. 12 RSU was one of these Units.
No. 12 Repair and Salvage Unit (12 RSU) was “Formed to Establishment M.25 at Charters Towers” on 18 May 1942 with Flight Lieutenant T. A. Cummins arriving the same day to take command. He “obtained accommodation at local hostelry”. The Unit’s Establishment was 8 Officers and 381 Airmen.
Two days later, on 20 May 1942, an advanced party of “three airmen arrived and were accommodated in town as there were no quarters available”. During the following week Flying Officer A. L. Godden (engineering), Flight Lieutenant H. A. A. Altmann (medical) and Pilot Officer G. S. Jackson (equipment) arrived to bring the Unit’s strength up to 4 Officers and 4 Airmen.
Esdaile “Diesel” Davis and others commented that Charters Towers at that time was “a frontier town with a pub on every corner and some in between. They looked like out of a wild west movie complete with swinging doors”.
After nearly three weeks in town, all personnel moved (on 7 June 1942) to a camp site at the Charters Towers airstrip, 5 km north of the town. The men proceeded to erect tents and other camp buildings. They used sand from the river to spread on the floor of the tents and slept on straw paillasse. The airstrip had been recently upgraded to accommodate military aircraft with initial work commencing on 16 February 1942 and completed during March 1942.
Further transfers in during June 1942 brought the Unit’s strength to 7 Officers and 40 Airmen. Esdale “Diesel” Davis arrived at this time. He relates that the camp was being used as a staging unit as men would arrive to share the tents only to disappear shortly later, apparently off to another unit.
There was a lot of confusion following the entry of Japan into the war with the formation of new units and shortages of men, equipment and facilities. Conditions were often very primitive. “Diesel” recounts how he “went into town and bought a couple of candles for a light at night – so I could at least read”. As there was no toilet paper the men had to use leaves. Bathing was by the “bush bucket” with a rope attached.
12 RSU shared the town airstrip with the US Army Air Force (USAAF) 3rd Bombardment Group (Light), equipped with A-24 Dauntless dive bombers, A-20 Havoc (Boston) medium bombers and, later, B-25 Mitchell Bombers.
B-25 Mitchell Bomber probably at the Charters Towers airstrip (CIC).
The difference between the Australian and US units was stark. Each 12 RSU man was allocated 10 rounds of ammunition which couldn’t be used even for target practice. On one occasion while “Diesel” and others were down at the creek they had to take cover “as a group of yanks strolled above us on the bank of the creek blazing away with their machine guns in bursts at anything floating. Fortunately we heard them as they were shooting long before they reached us”.
In July 1942 one of the two runways was sealed while the other was metalled with local mine tailings. “Diesel” and a colleague noted that the construction workers “were wearing yank fatigues” and discovered that they had obtained the fatigues from a recently vacated yank camp site. An inspection revealed the “deserted camp, stacks of 44 gallon drums of scarce fuel left and carpet squares where tents had been. The yanks hadn’t been impressed with our luxury gravel floors and had dashed into town and bought carpet squares for their tents … Also they had left fatigues and gaiters which we now selected along with two motor bikes, an American Indian and a BSA”.
The strength of 12 RSU increased considerably during the month of July 1942 with one officer and 188 airmen being transferred into the unit bringing its strength to eight Officers and 228 Airmen.
During August 1942 another 15 airmen were transferred into the unit. Also, during August, a detachment of men under the command of Flying Officer J. W. C. Carter was sent to the large Garbutt airfield.
On 12 September 1942, Flight Lieutenant T. A. Cummins was promoted to the rank of Temporary Squadron Leader effective from 1 April 1942.
On 14 September 1942 a detachment of one officer and nine airmen (No. 1 Salvage Party) was sent to the North Coast of Queensland to salvage crashed aircraft.
George (“Wizzer”) McBride was part of this detachment. He states that they were “involved in the round the clock assembly of a group of Kittyhawk fighters urgently needed as replacement for losses in the Milne Bay area”. They also attended to a Beaufort with a landing gear problem in Cairns, and crashes at Cooktown “of Australian and USAAF C47’s that had come to grief in the mud surrounding the too-short Mission Strip on the outskirts of the town”. They also had to recover “an almost-new C47 at the Iron Range airstrip with a badly damaged wing” (McBride 2007).
A week after No. 1 Salvage Party departed, on 20 September 1942, Pilot Officer W. T. Barnard and 46 airmen (No. 2 Salvage Party) departed for Horn Island to salvage aircraft in that area.
In late September 1942, RSU 12 moved to a new site at the Breddan airstrip, 24 km north of Charters Towers. The move was completed on 2 October 1942. Work had commenced on this new strip on April 10 1942 with the main runway being sealed by 22 August 1942. It is thought that the men may have witnessed the departure of the last of the USAF B-25 Mitchell Bombers of the 71 and 405 Squadrons (38 Bomb Group) stationed there which flew out at the end of September.
Three B-25 Mitchell Bombers of 71
or 405 Squadrons (38 Bomb
Group) preparing to take-off from the Breddan airfield, possibly
for the last time, most likely the 30 September 1942 (CIC).
Possibly the last B-25 Mitchell
Bomber preparing for its final take-off
from the Breddan airstrip, possibly 30 September 1942 (CIC).
By September 1942 conditions and facilities had improved considerably and the unit was able to function as intended with a wide range of aircraft allotted for repair and overhaul. Aircraft output for September amounted to 12 Kittyhawks, one Hudson, one Anson, two Douglas’s, a Beaufighter, a Tiger Moth and two Wirraways. Aircraft on hand included one Kittyhawk, a Beaufighter, two Beauforts, an Airspeed Oxford, one Douglas, one Percival Gull and one Miles Falcon.
The 27th of October 1942 saw No. 1 Salvage Party returning from north Queensland. By the end of the month, transfers in had increased the Unit’s strength to 9 Officers and 326 Airmen.
No. 1 Torpedo Maintenance Unit is recorded as being formed at Breddan on 1 November 1942 and its personnel being initially accommodated with 12 RSU.
On the following day (2 November 1942) one officer and 53 airmen from 10 RSU were attached to 12 RSU for five days. They left on 7th of the month for salvage duties at Milgarra (near Normanton in the Gulf country).
In spite of the disruption caused by the move to Breddan, output for the three months to the end of December 1942 amounted to 77 aircraft. The majority of the aircraft comprised of Kittyhawks, Wirraways and Ansons.
The New Year (1943) saw 12 RSU continue in their role.
Two months into the new year, on 21 February 1943, an advance party of 53 men under the command of “Flying Officer Oats arrived and (were) attached to this unit pending the formation of 13 A.R.D”.
The following day, on 22 February 1943, 12 RSU’s Establishment was increased “to 14 Officers and 480 Airmen on receipt of new Establishment M.31”. Its strength at the end of the month amounted to 16 Officers and 363 Airmen.
During this time 12 RSU men raided a US site out of Townsville where there were “hundreds of Yank Tenders, Ambulances, jeeps, etc. stretching as far back as you could see and our men now took off to help themselves to any that we could use.
As the Yanks, in their throw away mentality would discard a vehicle for the slightest reason, especially as new ones were coming all the time, it was no trouble to get these vehicles mobile. We also collected two stationary Ford engines complete with generators as lighting plants so we now were able to light both the mess and orderly rooms” (“Diesel” Davis).
On 5 March 1943 “An advanced party of 18 airmen proceeded to MACROSSAN (a site just to the east of the Burdekin River and about 29 km east north east of Charters Towers) to prepare camp site pending move of unit to that location”.
Unfortunately, on 14 March 1943 a member of 12 RSU, Corporal Edwin Archibald Campbell (31238) was drowned in the Burdekin River.
During the course of the move from Breddan to Macrossan, on 25 March 1943, 12 RSU received a DH84 Dragon (A34-30) of 2 AAU. The Dragon had crashed on take-off at the Cairns airstrip on 11 March 1943 and was extensively damaged. Fortunately the pilot and four passengers had escaped with only minor injuries.
DH84 Dragon A34-30 at Macrossan
having been repaired after
being extensively damaged in a crash at Cairns (CIC).
An unidentified 12 RSU airman with
the DH84 Dragon A34-30 at
Macrossan prior to its transfer back to 2 AAU on 23 July 1943 (CIC).
The move to Macrossan was completed when Head Quarters moved on 29 March 1943.
On 30 March 1943 a report was received from the Horn Island Detachment re the salvage of Beaufort A9-157 which had been forced down on a beach in an isolated area of the Gulf of Carpentaria near Mapoon Mission. The salvage was successful, just beating the incoming tide, thanks to the assistance given by the Mission of 150 personnel, five horses and two luggers.
Conditions were now much improved. “Diesel” reports “By now I no longer used candles for lighting purposes as the men had made little acetylene lamps for each tent as well as rough camp beds with stretched hessian for the mattress so I no longer slept on the ground”. Diesel was responsible for keeping track of parts, updating the parts register and being aware of all aircraft modifications.
Unidentified 12 RSU airmen in camp at Macrossan 1943 (CIC).
Vehicle used to transport 12 RSU personnel from Macrossan to Charters Towers (GMcB).
Unfortunately, on 25 April 1943, a Ryan monoplane A50-10 of 2 AAU crashed while taking off from Charters Towers killing the crew of two. The plane was transferred to 12 RSU and written off.
A month later, on 20 May 1943, a party of six men in charge of Pilot Officer R. B. Cotterill left for Musgrave (Cape York Peninsula) to salvage a damaged aircraft.
12 RSU men attend to a Kittyhawk at Macrossan 1943 (CIC).
Unidentified 12 RSU men in front
of an Avro Anson at
Macrossan with a Beaufort in the background 1943 (CIC).
An early model Kittyhawk at 12 RSU’s
Macrossan base. “Diesel”
Davis’s Library is the dark building in the trees (CIC).
Aircraft and facilities at the Macrossan base during 1943 (CIC).
Among the repairs effected at Macrossan was Wirraway A20-556 which was badly damaged in an accident at the the Breddan strip on 29 December 1942 while with 75 Squadron. The Wirraway was repaired at Macrossan and transferred to 5 SFTS on 28 August 1943.
Wirraway A20–556 at Macrossan waiting to
be repaired after
being involved in an accident at the Breddan strip (CIC).
The repaired Wirraway A20–556 at Macrossan prior to being
transferred to 5 SFTS, possibly August 1943 (CIC).
The Horn Island detachment returned to Macrossan on 30 August 1943 after handing over to No. 1 RSU detachment. Apparently, though, not all of the detachment returned as the Liberty ship Floyd B Olson, while en route to Kiriwina (December 1943) with 12 RSU men on board, met with a motor boat containing six 12 RSU men and a Chinese cook (Fig 20). K. D. “Blue” Sewell has provided an account of recovering the American crew of a crashed B-17 on 24 March 1944 while he was based on Horn Island and still attached to 12 RSU (Sewell 2011). The contingent on Horn Island had use of a motor boat and barge with which to salvage crashed aircraft.
As well as salvaging crashed aircraft, 12 RSU was involved in the repair and overhaul of a wide variety of aircraft at Macrossan including Kittyhawks, Beauforts, Beaufighters, Wirraways, Ansons, Hudsons, Bostons, Tiger Moths, Douglas’s, B-25 Mitchells, Airspeed Oxfords, Percival Gulls, DH86’s and DH84 Dragons.
Beaufort A9-241 of 7 Squadron undergoing
Macrossan during 1943. A9-241 survived the war (CIC).
Beaufort A9-296 of 7 Squadron at Macrossan during 1943 prior to being
returned to service with two other Beauforts. A9-296 survived the war (CIC).
On 9 September 1943, Flying Officer A. F. Saunders was “appointed to command No. 12 R.S.U. Detachment GARBUTT”. Garbutt had virtually become the home base for some of the men, including George McBride.
Flying Officer Cotterill and a party left on 10 September 1943 for Townsville to salvage Catalina A24-52. The aircraft had crashed three days earlier (7th ) while landing, killing seven of the crew of 10 and six of the nine passengers. The salvage party returned to Macrossan on the 19 September 1943.
12 RSU men salvaging an unknown aircraft
(PZ168 or P2168),
possibly Dutch, probably somewhere in north Queensland (CIC).
Squadron Leader T. A. Cummins was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander on 1 October 1943.
On 3 October 1943, the Unit was advised that it was to proceed outside Australia at a future date. The following day (4th) “A general muster parade was held and volunteers were called for overseas service. Only seven (7) airmen out of the entire strength of the unit (about 400) failed to volunteer and these were found to have strong compassionate reasons”. That same day “Squadron Leader N. (Noel) B. Tamlyn (251345) arrived on posting from No.14 R.S.U. to command”.
On 8 October 1943, Wing Commander Cummins handed over command of 12 RSU to Squadron Leader Tamlyn. The following day (9th), the new commander with two officers and an advanced party of nine airmen departed “to new location” (probably Townsville) presumably to select a site for 12 RSU to camp prior to leaving Australia by sea.
On 12 October 1943, Wing Commander Cummins departed Macrossan on posting to No. 13 ARD.
On 18 October 1943, Squadron Leader Tamlyn returned to Macrossan.
On 2 November 1943, Corporal J. R. (Bob) Lang joined 12 RSU from a 13 ARD detachment that was still stationed at Tocumwal NSW. Presumably he was a replacement for one of the seven men who had not volunteered for overseas service, perhaps along with the two other men in the photo below.
Three 12 RSU members (Bob Lang middle,
other two unknown)
posing at Macrossan prior to their departure for Kiriwina (JRL).
Five airmen left Macrossan on 9 November 1943 for an unknown destination outside Australia.
Sometime in November 1943, 12 RSU paraded in battle dress and full equipment for inspection by their Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Tamlyn, and the Assistant Staff Officer Administration Officer HQ North East Area, Squadron Leader C. E. James, before moving out of base camp to a forward area.
Members of 12 RSU parade in battle dress
and full equipment
for inspection prior to departing for Kiriwina (AWM NEA0194).
The Commanding Officer Squadron Leader
N. B. Tamlyn salutes a march
past of 12 RSU members with Flying Officer G. R. McGie, adjutant, and the
Assistant Staff Officer Administration Officer HQ North East Area, Squadron
Leader C. E. James, prior to departing for Kiriwina (AWM NEA0206).
On 8 December 1943, 398 officers and airmen of 12 RSU left Macrossan for a camp at Aitkenvale, a suburb of Townsville. Two days later (on 10 December 1943) they embarked on the near new Liberty Ship “Floyd B Olson” (X819) to join a convoy (T.N.188) bound for New Guinea. The men were known as “Tamlyn’s Tropical Tours” because they moved so much (Charlie Nudd).
During the voyage, somewhere before entering Milne Bay, they met up with a motor boat manned by six RSU men of No. 2 Salvage Party and a Chinese cook, as previously outlined. One of the men may have been Kevin “Blue” Sewell.
Believed to be the motor boat manned by
six 12 RSU men of No. 2 Salvage
Party and a Chinese cook that rendezvoused with the Liberty Ship “Floyd B
Olson” en route to Kiriwina (JRL). One of the men is possibly Kevin “Blue”
Sewell who was still attached to 12 RSU and still based on Horn Island.
The “Floyd B Olson” arrived at Kiriwina on 16 December 1943 and the 12 RSU men disembarked just four days before the heaviest air raid experience on Kiriwina; on 20 December 1943. 12 RSU were fortunate not to suffer casualties or loss of equipment.
However, a small 12 RSU detachment finally returned to Macrossan from salvage operations after 12 RSU had departed on the “Floyd B Olson”. This detachment had to embark on a very slow old molasses tanker for the journey north. They arrived at Kiriwina in the midst of the air raid (George McBride).
After more than four months supporting allied air operations against Rabaul, 12 RSU embarked on the rusting former banana boat and icebreaker SS Mana (XIII) on 29 April 1944. They arrived at Aitape, on the north coast of New Guinea, on 1 May 1944 on the heels of the US assault force. They had bypassed Lieutenant General Hatazo Adachi’s 60,000 strong Japanese 18th Army based at Wewak.
Because the allies had cut Adachi’s supply line he dispatched 20,000 troops with orders to re-take the Tadji airfield which is 16 km east of Aitape - and where 12 RSU was based. The troops marched 150 km along the almost trackless New Guinea coast and commenced their assault on 10 July 1944; just nine weeks after 12 RSU had arrived in Tadji. The men of 12 RSU established and manned the airfield’s defences and maintained, re-fuelled and re-armed Beauforts of 8 and 100 Squadron and Beaufighters of 30 Squadron as they bombed and strafed the Japanese in support of the US army defenders just to the east of the airfield. The Japanese finally withdrew on 8 August 1944 after four weeks of fierce fighting leaving behind about 9,000 dead.
12 RSU then maintained and re-armed Beauforts of 7, 8 and 100 Squadron as they supported the AIF’s 6th Division’s push to drive the remaining Japanese 18th Army troops back to Wewak and to then re-take Wewak. They also serviced aircraft heading north in pursuit of the Japanese forces in their retreat towards Japan.
On 1 January 1945, 12 RSU was renamed as 12 Repair and Service Unit.
At 0930 hrs on 15 August 1945, 12 RSU received news that Japan had accepted surrender terms. Unit Diary reports: “Stood the Unit down P.M. 15/8/45 and all day 16/8/45. Issued bottles of beer to all ranks 1400 Hrs 15/8/45”.
12 RSU ceased to function as an RSU on 31 October 1945 while still located in Tadji.
Sadly, Noel Tamlyn died of an illness about 12 months after the war ended.
LAC Kevin Doug "Blue" Sewell of 12 RSU contacted me on 26 February 2011 and advised of his involvement following the crash of B-17 Flying Fortress # 41-2497, nicknamed "Tojo's Nightmare" at Horn Island on 24 March 1944 whilst attached to 12 RSU when it was based at Horn Island:-
"I was associated with 12RSU at the time the fortress crashed and assisted wit the recovery of American crew. When it hit the water the fuel tanks burst spreading fuel everywhere. I, the unit's electrician had to disconnect the aircraft's batteries because of the risk of an explosion. We were on a rising tide and the spilt fuel was covering us very quickly. Another member of our unit stripped off his shorts which I used to cover the battery terminals to prevent sparking and so the job was done OK. As we were a repair and salvage unit, the captain of the aircraft signed it off to us. It was loaded with many different articles but our main concern was saving the cases of different types of grog that was being carried for the American units home base. That was quickly recovered and stored in various places at our camp. With several of the recovered crew we had a joint celebration that night feeling the worse for it next morning."
Cummins, T. A. & Tamlyn, N. B. (1945) 12 RSU Operations Record Book 1943-1945. (Royal Australian Air Force).
Davis, E. (2003) The Esdale Story. E. Davis.
McBride, G. (2007) Return to Service. Flightpath, Vol. 18, No. 3, p27
McBride, G. War Years Memoirs. G. McBride.
Queensland WWII Historic Places. Charters Towers Airfield. Queensland Government.
Queensland WWII Historic Places. Breddan Airfield. Queensland Government.
Sewell, K. D. (2011) “Crash of a USAF B-17 at Horn Island” in: No. 12 Repair and Salvage Unit - RAAF in Australia during WW2 (Ozatwar).
Australian War Memorial Photographic Archives: (AWM) NEA0194 and (AWM) NEA0206 used with permission.
I'd like to thank Des Lang for his assistance with this web page.
Des Lang is heavily indebted to Esdaile (Diesel) Davis and George (Wizzer) McBride for information, both verbal and written, and photographs (GMcB), also to Yvonne Conroy for supplying the originals of her late husband’s (Cels “Bluey” Conroy) photographs (CIC), and to my late father (Bob Lang) for his photographs (JRL). Thanks are also due to other former 12 RSU airmen, especially Charlie Nudd, for information supplied.
Can anyone help me with more information?
"Australia @ War" Research Products
© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 18 July 1998
This page last updated 16 March 2017