The Sunken Squadrons

The year is 1944, the war is raging in Europe and the Pacific. I am 15 years of age and living in Pyrmont. The waterfront there is taken up by many wharves that stretch from The Colonial Sugar Refinery wharf in Johnston’s Bay right around into Darling Harbour as far as Pyrmont Bridge. This bridge is the only crossing from Pyrmont to the City.


Early in 1943 many of these wharves were taken over by the US Navy and used for resupply and minor repairs. Some wharves were often littered with damaged aircraft and all sorts of military equipment. We “kids” had always been used to free access to the wharves, paddling home-made canoes from wharf landing steps and learning to swim at Pyrmont Baths out at the end of No 24 Wharf (The Baths have long gone. It was an old post and plank construction akin to the Dawn Fraser Pool at Balmain). Security on the wharves was an unknown word.

Now the Yanks had arrived nothing much changed. Yes there were a couple of guys next to the ships gangway with 45s in holsters. They seemed to be just as interested in giving us gum, an occasional Lucky Strike cigarette and trying to find out if we had some older sisters. We could walk around all the wharves much as we pleased except when ships were actually loading or unloading.

The US Navy were very welcome. Apart from gum, their throwouts consisted of slightly worn jeans and denim shirts, like GOLD to us poor kids of Pyrmont. We also had fun climbing in and out of the occasional damaged airplane. Nobody cared.

Meanwhile the War moved on, Hitler was defeated and the attention shifted to the Pacific and the Japanese. Slowly the Yanks pulled out, we presume moving north as the battles shifted into the North Pacific. The Royal Navy took over the Pyrmont wharves. Were they different! No more friendly waves and gum. Much stamping   of feet and rifle butts. The guards stood at attention, no sitting around on wharf bollards. And no gum. They were a bit put off by our casually walking through where we had walked for years but didn’t stop us, just gave us dirty looks.


Then in August 1945 came the two atom bombs and the war was ended. But the RN stayed on. Very soon in 1946 British aircraft carriers started arriving. Their decks were loaded with planes. Trains arrived with more. As Carrier Planes their wings folded back to save space on ships. Now they were able to fit more on the decks. They packed the decks. Some trucks even arrived with aircraft still in crates. Not only aircraft, but aircraft engines. Crate after crate of Rolls Royce Merlin engines. We kids were fascinated of course. We could sit in the planes scattered about the wharf. Pretend we were shooting the enemies. We also could help ourselves to bits and pieces in the planes. Like Very Pistols and rescue life rafts, morse code sets – I even saw a loose machine gun lying inside an Avenger Bomber! Ah, like a big toyshop.

Some “men in utes” also had a grand time removing various bits from the engines, small electric motors and lord knows what else. Of course we all had to keep a sharp eye out for the RN Guards. I think the serious men were giving little “thank you envelopes” to the guards. Load after load was loaded on to carriers. We watched them sail off. And watched them return a day or so later. It was a regular shuttle. Mind you we were not keeping track of all this every day but we were down along the wharves often enough to get the broad picture, recognizing the same Carriers coming back to reload. I even knew the names of some of the ships, forgotten now, HMS This and That.

About this time I read in the newspaper about all the Lend Lease Armaments that legally had to be returned to sender. The Lessor, the U.S., didn’t want to be lumbered with all these war cast-offs. After all, this, like World War I, this was the war to end all wars. The carriers were taking them somewhere off shore and pushing the lot over the side into the sea.

Being a bit of an aircraft buff I took note of what was going. Yes, American planes like the Grumman Avenger Torpedo Bombers and Wildcat and Corsair Fighters, all with British markings, but also British built Seafires (a naval version of the Spitfire) and Fairy Barracudas, a torpedo bomber. Add to this, brand new crated aircraft and RR Merlin engines. I couldn’t fathom how the “made in England” stuff came under “Lend Lease” which was a deal struck with President Roosevelt that they would supply the Brits with war material for free, but we couldn’t keep it – it was just “leased”. The Brits didn’t want their stuff back either.

THE WAR was all finished, who the hell wanted hundreds of used warplanes. The Jet plane was being invented. Ditch them, ditch everything. And that was just what they were doing. A shuttle of Carriers were heading east through the heads, heave to somewhere, and over the side with 30 or 40 or 80 aircraft, and back into Pyrmont for more. This went on for many weeks. Not too sure exactly how long. We were never told just where they went? Who knows? How far out? Into relatively shallow water, 100-200m deep or way beyond that into several thousand metres of the Tasman Abyss? Did they bother heading out on the same bearings? Probably not. But somewhere out there in the Tasman Sea is possibly one huge pile of WWII airplanes, or dozens of small heaps? Did anybody in the British or Australian Navies take notes of what was going and where? Maybe, but not likely. Out there somewhere in large or small heaps are the Sunken Squadrons. They would be a find indeed. It could take a lifetime of searching and a few million dollars to find them.

But what a sight they would be!