Bill's airborne efforts help thwart U-boat threat

SEVEN uniformed young airmen stand side-by-side in front of a plane, smiling into the camera, their relaxed demeanour giving little hint of the gravity of the task they have just completed.

Warrnambool resident and former RAF pilot Bill Sinclair, now 94, reminisces about his distinguished war service and his involvement with D-Day landings in 1944.

Warrnambool resident and former RAF pilot Bill Sinclair, now 94, reminisces about his distinguished war service and his involvement with D-Day landings in 1944.

For the previous 12 hours they had systematically scoured the waters between France and England, vigilant for the threat of enemy submarines. 

It’s nearly 70 years since the photo was taken, but Bill Sinclair, the young pilot flanked by his Australian crew in the candid shot, remembers it well.

Part of the RAF 179 Squadron, the crew had just returned to base at Predannack on the Cornwall coast after a gruelling shift in the days after the D-Day Normandy landings of June 6, 1944.

“We’d just come back from a flight after the invasion and the photographer happened to be there,” Mr Sinclair recalls. At 94, sadly he is the only surviving crew member of those captured by the camera that day.

The large black-and-white framed photo takes pride of place in the study of the Warrnambool home he shares with his wife Lydia.

It is one of few mementoes of his distinguished war service. Other treasured snaps show an aerial view of the Normandy beach with its makeshift harbour built by the Allies to create a smoother landing, Mr Sinclair’s plane attacking a German submarine off the French coast at Brest, another flying low in the beam of a U-boat searchlight.

Then there is his flight log book. Neat handwritten entries trace his career from early training flights in Tiger Moths at Temora in New South Wales in late 1942, to advanced training in Canada where he received his wings in June 1943, before the 40-odd operational flights with the British RAF Coastal Command anti-submarine squadron.

The last entry, a search flight for a missing plane in the Atlantic, is listed on June 20, 1945, closing the chapter on a flying career rated in the log book by the squadron’s commanding officer as “above average”.

As commemorative services mark today’s 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Mr Sinclair is humble about his contribution to the Allied campaign that helped win the war.

“It was not much different going to the office than spending a day in an aircraft,” reflects the man who went on to become the founding partner of the south-west’s well-known accounting firm Sinclair Wilson.

A typical “day in the office” at the controls of a Vickers Warwick would amount to a 12-hour shift, combing the waters of the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel in search of German U-boats.

“The aircraft would fly in ‘box patrols’ covering the whole surface with radar,” Mr Sinclair explains. 

“Our main job was to keep them (German submarines) under the water so they couldn’t surface and recharge their batteries.

“It proved to be a very successful way to combat the subs.”

Keeping the U-boats below the water, he says, involved shining a powerful searchlight, or Leigh light, on a sub from about 600 feet (183 metres) and flying in the beam.

It was a practice not without its dangers.

“Once I was homing in on a sub near Bordeaux, the navigator was lying in the front of the aircraft to drop the depth charges. 

“I was flying in the beam and had become mesmerised by it. The navigator realised I was leaving it late and yelled out. 

“This snapped me out of it with enough height left to pull out safely,” he recounts. 

Two other crews were not so lucky, lost without trace, presumed to have flown into the water in the beam of light.

There were other mates who never made it back to base, and tales of atrocious weather conditions to test the best of pilots.

“The weather was as big a hazard as the enemy,” Mr Sinclair reflects. 

“Sometimes you had to fly half way to Scotland to find a ’drome where you could land, the weather was so bad. Most of the time I flew on instruments.

“It’s strange. When you do things in the war, you don’t think anything of it.

“When you look back on it now, you wonder how you ever did it.”

jmclaren@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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