CRASH OF A BEAUFIGHTER
NEAR CAPE FOURCROY, BATHURST ISLAND
ON 31 DECEMBER 1942
On New Year's Eve, 1942 some Beaufighters of 31 Squadron RAAF were sent to attack the Japanese at Betano on the south coast of Timor. They hit very bad weather conditions. Cy Greenwood's crew returned OK, but two other Beaufighters did not return to base at Coomalie Creek airfield in the Northern Territory. The two crews were "Tiny" Wilkins and his navigator Bill Byrnes and Pilot Officer Gabb ("Gabby") and his navigator Sergeant Webb ("Webby").
Over the target at Betano, "Tiny" Wilkins' Beaufighter was hit in the tailplane area by some machine gun fire from the ground. This cut the cable controlling the elevators. They were only a few feet off the deck when this happened. Wilkins immediately lost vertical control of the aircraft. Realising what had happened he used the trim tab control and throttles to gain some altitude. Unfortunately as the aircraft climbed, the airspeed fell away until a stall was imminent. Wilkins then throttled back to allow the nose to drop.
They gained speed while the plane slowly started to dive. As they lost altitude, the trim tab controls took some time to regain control and by that time they were dangerously low again just skimming the water. Wilkins repeated the process and opened the throttles again and gained altitude using the trim tab controls.
The Beaufighter was not a very stable aircraft at the best of times, requiring the pilot to fly it the whole time. Wilkins was unable to adjust the trim tab to achieve level flight, so they continued their roller coaster ride for about 2 hours back towards Darwin.
They finally sighted Cape Fourcroy which is at the western tip of Bathurst Island. As it was not safe to either ditch in the sea or attempt a forced landing on the shores of Bathurst Island they decided to bail out as close as possible to the Cape Fourcroy lighthouse. They had to synchronise their exit from the Beaufighter at the time that they were near the peak of one of their upward sessions in the roller coaster ride. The navigator's parachute was pinned to the chest and the pilot's was attached such that he sat on it in the aircraft.
When they opened the the hatch at the bottom of the aircraft, this created an amount of drag which caused the aircraft to drop its nose. Once the navigator had dropped out through the hatch, Wilkins had to drag himself up out of his seat and over his backrest and position himself over the hatch and jump through it, all the while trying to control the parachute strapped to his bum.
The Beaufighter crashed and burnt on impact. Wilkins landed in a swamp on Bathurst Island near the beach and Bill Byrnes landed in the ocean some distance from the shore. Bill, who could not swim, spent over 5 hours in the water supported by his Mae West.
Some RAAF personnel saw what happened and Corporal A.E. Woodnutt, used Wilkin's inflatable dinghy to bring Bill Byrnes back to shore. The rescuers then contacted the Navy by radio who then picked them up in a small boat.
Corporal Woodnutt was later awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for the part that he took in their rescue.
On 3 January 1943, "Tiny" Wilkins and Bill Byrnes arrived back in Darwin after their dramatic rescue.
Many years later (2001?), the Beaufighter was discovered by some Telstra contactors clearing dense bushland on Bathurst Island. It was discovered on the west side of the island. It was surrounded by ammunition and weapons. A serial number was taken from the aircraft and the Australian Defence Force confirmed that the wreckage was that of a twin engine, two-seat Beaufighter.
Members of the island's Tiwi Land Council were not aware that the plane was in that location.
FOOTNOTE:- The other aircraft lost that day piloted by Pilot Officer Gabb, was also damaged by groundfire. They were unable to maintain their height and they ditched off the coast further east from the target of Betano. Lancer Force advised they were safe. They later were bought back to Australia by HMAS Arunta.
Could this be the same aircraft as the other Beaufighter that I have listed as crashing at Cape Helvetibg, Bathurst on the 29 December 1942?
"Coomalie Charlie's Commandos - 31 Squadron
"Beaufighters at Darwin 1942-43"
by Kenneth Neal McDonald, DFC
Can anyone help me with more information?
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© Peter Dunn OAM 2020
This page first produced 24 October 1999
This page last updated 21 February 2020