A routine WWII night fighter mission suddenly found 21-year-old Pilot Officer Alan Brown and 23-year-old Navigator Vic “Possum” Whitfield committed to a deadly duel as their matte-black Beaufighter engaged a German flak train they spotted.
With their night fighter’s limited ammunition loading, only short bursts of .303 rounds from its six Browning machine guns were possible, interspersed with 20mm cannon fire from the quad Hispano Mk 3s. Meanwhile, the Germans fired heavy streams of colourful 20mm tracered projectiles from their more generous reserves in response.
Reeling from multiple strikes, the damaged “Beau” beat a hasty withdrawal, hoping its twin Hercules engines were still capable of powering it back to base. After a long, anxious flight they finally landed safely.
The ever-reliable ground crew had to patch over 20 sizeable holes, check for serious structural damage and have the aircraft back to operational status as soon as possible. Both German and Japanese foes dubbed the Beaufighter “Whispering Death” for its ability to suddenly arrive on the scene, creating havoc.
Childhood on a apple farm
Dodging enemy flak and cannon fire was a very different scenario to Alan Brown’s pre-war vocation – picking apples on the family orchard near Bapaume in South East Queensland. The nine-year-old first became interested in planes and flying as he climbed a tall tree to prolong the magical sight of a buzzing Tiger Moth as it barnstormed in the district.
When Alan’s father, “Pop” Brown purchased an Astor radio for 10 pounds, with part of the deal including a five- minute joy flight in a Tiger Moth, Alan really became hooked on flying!
But when Alan finished school, aged 12, the fruit block needed attention, as did his relationship with life- long partner, Edna Chappell. Still inseparable at 95, they met as country neighbours living only 12 miles from each other.
Alan’s service during WWII was the only time they were apart. Within a week of returning home they were married, with Alan in full dress uniform.
Having completed 100 missions, he was offered two choices – do another 100 or go home. Say no more! It took two weeks to get from Athens to Bombay, via stopovers at El Adem, Cairo, Callia (the Dead Sea), Habbinyah, Basrah, Bahrein, Dubai, Jiwan and Karachi.
Just missing the Liberty ship from Bombay, Alan was seconded into the military postal system for six weeks until the next sailing. After two weeks at sea, he arrived in Melbourne and jumped on a northbound train, alighting at Stanthorpe in Queensland. He was finally home after a three-and- a-half-year hiatus.
Signing up in 1941, 19-year-old Alan trained first in long-admired Tiger Moths at Narromine in New South Wales. Following this, he flew Ansons in Alberta, Canada, then back to Moths and Ansons at Wiltshire, England, as a sergeant, before climbing into the pilot’s seat of Beauforts and Beaufighters in September 1943.
By early 1944, he was flying familiarisation sorties in the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) 46 Squadron, based in North Africa. The ‘Colonials’ had arrived!
The only two Aussies in the unit
Alan and “Poss” were the only Australians embedded into the unit. The two like-minded airmen were soberly intent on getting on with the task at hand and each had a deep appreciation of the other’s particular skills.
Poss was married with one child and Alan was engaged to Edna. An engine failed on their second flight together, leading to a “safe” crash landing. Poss was impressed with Alan’s calm hand at the controls.
Many times, on night patrols, Poss’s innate knowledge of astral navigation directed them safely to one of several alternative Allied airfields dotted across North Africa. He’d been a boy scout, with a grounding in compass usage and star recognition, greatly assisting navigation when nocturnal landmarks were invisible. Poss’s nickname derived from his habit of curling into a ball, possum-like, while sleeping.
A total of 100 operations together welded them into a formidable team. The only incidences of skylarking were a low-level flight between the pyramids and a couple of jaunts past Gallipoli, where Pop Brown served for several months after going ashore on the second day.
Convoy patrols, strafing trains, staff cars, lorries and Axis troops camped in Athens stadium were all in a night’s work. So, too, were clandestine insertions of agents behind enemy lines, ELAS underground missions and long- range reconnaissance.
On several occasions, return fire peppered the “Beau”, with some hot enemy rounds ripping between the pilot’s legs – tearing trousers, but missing flesh. Minor physical injuries did occur when their aircraft pancaked or crashed and burned on landing, due to battle damage.
Sandstorms, poor diet and makeshift accommodation
Tolerating the invasive annoyance of frequent sandstorms, poor diet and makeshift accommodation was merely part of being in a RAF unit, which treated the Colonials as somewhat inferior beings. The pair simply got on with the job, keeping apart from the reckless, carousing behaviour of their peers and survived.
Always looking forward to contact with home, they keenly awaited mail. Once, 110 days lapsed between deliveries. The drought was broken when a sackful of 130 letters arrived between them!
On each mission, no personal identification was allowed, while silk maps were issued should they land behind enemy lines and tiny compass buttons fastened on flight jackets. Both sat on a parachute and inflatable life raft and wore a life jacket under their flight jacket.
Flights took up to five hours, with no toilet facilities; a plastic water bottle and a sandwich was their only sustenance. Rapid preparedness for action was paramount. Their record “scramble” time was two-and-a-half minutes and their average was four minutes.
All missions were single aircraft operations; most with specific tasks, but with practical latitude to pursue and destroy Axis bombers, night fighters or ground targets of opportunity. Each night fighter Beau had flame arresters fitted to the exhaust, while one small hooded lamp each were the only visual aids for the crew. The matte-black exterior camouflage colouring assisted in the aircraft being almost invisible until armament firing flashes gave away its presence.
For almost three-and-a-half years, Alan flew a variety of aircraft in both training and aerial combat at locations around the world. Now, it was time to get married, settle down and enjoy a well-earned rest.
But this was not to be the case. In 1946, after the family farm was sold, the Browns moved to the Sunshine Coast, where Alan’s love for being aloft soon found him heavily involved in regional gliding clubs over several decades.
He flew, mentored trainees and piloted the towing planes on hundreds of occasions, hauling gliders into the wide blue yonder, before casting them adrift to soar independently. At the age of 95, he only recently became medically grounded from driving his Holden ute.
I’m sure, however, that if he climbed into the cockpit of a restored Beau and pulled on his leather helmet, he could still perform a few aerobatics and loop-the-loops. Well done Alan – your family, friends, ex-servicemen and this particular nephew are truly proud of you.
Sadly, Vic “Possum” Whitfield wasn’t able to enjoy much post-war life. He passed away from appendicitis complications just a few weeks after returning home via America, and only two days after a fond reunion visit from Alan.
On another sad note, Alan’s wife Edna passed away in November 2017 following a brief illness, not long after she had proof-read and approved this article