WWII plane wreck riddle

Roger Cussen (left) and Andrew Coffey, from the Rotary Club of Warrnambool East, with the plaque commemorating the crash of the Avro Anson AW-878. 140828RG19 Picture: ROB GUNSTONE
Roger Cussen (left) and Andrew Coffey, from the Rotary Club of Warrnambool East, with the plaque commemorating the crash of the Avro Anson AW-878. 140828RG19 Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

GERMANY’S quest for military domination in World War II may have came much closer to south-west Victoria than most residents realise — in fact, Hitler’s sailors may have come ashore near Yambuk.

While most of the world’s focus was in Europe, German patrols were scouting Australia’s coastline with Japanese naval missions.

A little-known plane wreck off Lady Julia Percy Island is a fascinating link with a secret role of Australian defences in warding off possible attacks by enemy submarines.

On the western side of the rugged rocky island off Yambuk lies pieces of a   RAAF Avro Anson which toppled off the edge after an apparent attempted crash landing.

The two pilots and two crew members were never found and were officially listed as killed — the plane was listed as “written off (damaged beyond repair)”.

A wing of the aircraft was found on the island, the rest is in the ocean.

Due to wartime censorship, no details of the crash were reported by the media, but authorities at the time were quick to investigate.

Now some fascinating theories have surfaced, including speculation it could have been shot down by a submarine crew.

One story apparently  floating around at the time was that a 13-year-old girl saw a surfaced submarine and possible enemy sailors on shore near Yambuk, presumably collecting fresh water.

Allegedly she was told by the local policeman to keep it secret or he would kick her backside.

The Standard this week was unable to find any Yambuk district residents who knew of the enemy subs, but there were recollections of a “dad’s army” volunteer defence corp patrolling the shore carrying pieces of timber that looked like rifles.

One man who knows more than most about the plane crash is Warrnambool’s Andrew Coffey. He has seen plane wreckage on the ocean floor numerous times during his many years of abalone diving near Lady Julia Percy Island in the 1960s and ’70s.

It is mostly covered with ocean growth, but distinctive sections are visible including part of an engine with a piston conrod which moves with the current.

“There’s a wheel embedded in the sea bed,” Mr Coffey said..

“Over the years a few divers brought up bits and pieces as souvenirs.

“An engine with propellers attached was hauled to the surface and sat in the back yard of a Port Fairy house for years, but it has disappeared.”

Another relic, a piece of brass, is in the Port Fairy History Centre collection.

Mr Coffey’s knowledge of the plane and his passion to have the missing aircrew acknowledged prompted his Rotary Club of Warrnambool East to spend $1500 on getting a brass plaque made as a tribute memorial.

With the help of Port Fairy’s Bamstone factory, the plaque will be set in bluestone and laid later this year at The Crags which overlooks the coastline where the Avro Anson crashed.

Part of the inscription reads “The plane is believed to have been on submarine surveillance at the time”.

Several descendants of the airmen and an air force representative have indicated they will attend the ceremony.

“This is a rich piece of history that has been overlooked,” said Mr Coffey and club colleague Roger Cussen who is helping co-ordinate the project.

“We want to honour them with the a memorial to their service.”

Flight Sergeant J. H. MacLellen (pilot), of central Victoria, Flight Sergeant Dennis Baulderstone (instructor), leading aircraftman Norman Kruck, of Brisbane, and leading aircraftman Brian Ladyman, of Perth, had taken off from Mount Gambier air base in AW-878 at 8am on February 15, 1944 on a patrol.

They lost radio contact with base and a subsequent search located part of the aircraft on Lady Julia Percy Island.

According to author Ron Telford in his book A’Osis, Airfield several air force officers inspected the area during the next five days.

“No further evidence as to the cause of the accident has been forthcoming,” Telford wrote.

He speculates one theory that the Avro Anson may have run out of fuel and the crew tried to land on the island.

“A landing could have been attempted, but failed, the aircraft clipping the cliffs, losing portion of the wing (which remained on the island) and crashed into the sea,” Telford writes.

Two other theories are that low cloud and rain could have forced the crew to fly low and they would have had difficulty seeing the island or that smoke from bushfires reduced visibility. His most interesting theory is that the plane was damaged by enemy gunfire.

“This is not impossible as there were reports of enemy submarines in the area,” he said. 

“A lucky shot from a submarine could have disabled the radio.

“Perhaps fuel capacity had been reduced by the aircraft being fired upon and the tanks holed — no one will ever know.

“No other official records are obtainable and due to censorship of the media no editorial in any of six local newspapers printed at the time contain any reference of the accident.

“Maybe the last scenario is closer to the truth than we believe.”

Telford said research decades later revealed sightings of surfaced submarines and possible enemy sailors in the area including one by a young Yambuk girl.

A few days before the crash on Lady Julia Percy Island seven aircraft were despatched from Mount Gambier after air intelligence reported an alleged enemy submarine was seen off Beachport, but no sightings were made.

“The possibility of panic setting in amongst the population of southern Australia by reports of the enemy so close at hand was carefully managed by the defence force intelligence sections,” he says.

Mr Coffey also researched the submarine theory and concluded that German reconnaissance subs working out of Singapore covered southern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand.

“I would say a number of the planes lost at sea were shot down by enemy subs,” he said.

“My theory is that on the eastern side of the island a sub had been on the surface when a plane suddenly appeared. Then the sub crew opened fire and hit the plane’s fuel tanks and forced it to try to land on the island.

“Even if the crew had climbed out it would have been almost impossible for them to get onto the island because the sides are so steep and rugged.

“Nothing was revealed by authorities about the crash and when we made contact with some of the airmen’s family members, they said they knew nothing except what we told them.

“We have been unable so far to contact the families of Flight Sergeant MacLellen and leading aircraftman Kruck to arrange for them to attend the ceremony.”