86 Squadron RAAF 1943-1945

A29-306 P-40M-1 Kittyhawk at Gawler March/April 1943 before the Squadron code letters were added (MP) followed by the individual aircraft letter.

86 (Fighter) Squadron RAAF 1943 - 1945:

Formation and the Gawler connection:
Merauke & Combat:
Reformation & the P-51 Mustang:
The Eagle and its History:

No. 86 Squadron under the command of SQNLDR W.J. (Jack) Meehan officially formed at RAAF Station Gawler (Willaston) on the Fourth of March 1943 with an establishment of 24 Officer and NCO pilots and 271 officers and airmen in the ground support echelon. A total of 24 Curtiss P-40M Kittyhawks were flown in to equip the Squadron.

It was to be the only operational fighter squadron to be formed in South Australia (and still is) and the last to be formed by the RAAF. And it is stated in, 86 Squadron 1943-45: Men, Kittyhawks and Mustangs; that the squadron was accorded the title of the City of Adelaide squadron, although it appears that this was never officially sanctioned.

A smattering of experienced pilots were assigned to the squadron to provide depth, leadership and combat prowess to the balance of the pilots who were posted in directly off course. The most experienced being FLGOFF R.J.C. Whittle DFM with ten kills, two probables and two damaged to his credit whilst serving with 250 SQN RAF in the Western Desert (North Africa). Four other pilots with ten kills between them had served with 75 and 76 Squadrons at Port Morseby and Milne Bay during the critical period in which the Japanese thrust in New Guinea was checked.

Rumours abounded about the new home at Gawler. It was supplied with all the most up to date mod cons including underground hangers! Sadly, the real story was somewhat different. The airstrip, at that time in the process of being developed, was just a dirt airstrip with a concrete cellar used for ammunition storage. The squadron was actually camped some three miles (7kms) away. A galvanised shed served as the Admin and HQ building and the squadron was obliged to use the local public toilets and cold showers at the grounds of the Trotting Track. The Kittyhawks were flown into RAAF Mallala as it was deemed the Gawler strip was not suitable for the ferry pilots to fly into. After servicing, the aircraft were flown onto Gawler by the squadron and familiarisation flights and combat manoeuvring flying began in earnest.

A severe mouse plague at that time put a damper on the efforts of the squadron and it was a welcome relief to be able to catch the train into Adelaide and visit the ‘Cheer-Up-Hut’ and the fine hospitality offered by the city. 86 squadron very quickly struck up a very close bond with the Town of Gawler and many residents invited the members of the squadron to Tea and a quiet drink at some of the local watering holes. Not to mention the many church services and local dances held in Gawler. No doubt the girls were also of some interest to the young men of the squadron as well.

Quite soon however the squadron received orders to pack up in preparation to be deployed north to the combat zone. Cipher message QM 469 signalled the redeployment.

"Movement 86 Squadron Gawler to Townsville comprising 21 vehicles 200 hundred tons equipment 273 personnel 3 TMO to supervise and co-ordinate move. Movement will be by two trains (A) comprising 70 personnel vehicles and stores, (B) comprising 203 personnel. 3TMO to contact army movements Adelaide for particulars of loading. M/T and stores to be consigned Sandy Creek to Townsville. Bulk rail and meal warrants to be issued for personnel. Personnel to carry blankets and messing gear. Timetable (A) Depart Sandy Creek 2300 1 May arrive Gawler 2355 depart 0030 2 May… (B) train departs Gawler 1700 1 May."

On one of the last Squadron Parades before the squadron departed the CO; SQNLDR Meehan, voiced his dissatisfaction with the rate of progress in preparing the unit to go into action, he stressed the need to develop a spirit and a bond that would bind the men and their efforts together, to enable them to endure the realities of combat that they would all have to live through while on active service.

On the eve of the squadron’s departure, a number of men took the CO at his word having seen the eagle sitting atop of the verandah at the front of Thomsons' Iron Foundry in King St, Gawler; a plan was hatched  to “knock it off for the duration of hostilities.” The eagle with wings outstretched was a cast iron affair and in plain view to all. The following account is related in the squadron history and is repeated here in its entirety.

“Alan Weir climbed the building one night but was unable to remove the eagle  as it was set in concrete. Forewarned, the kitchen staff led by Jack McGregor took a pick along and uprooted the bird and stowed it away. Before the local authorities became aware of the unroosting the squadron had departed.”

The eagle was smuggled aboard the train under the watchful eyes of the Service Police and first used by the squadron in Merauke, New Guinea, pride of place being above the stage in the squadron recreation hut/Airman's Mess. It continued to serve the squadron throughout the rest of its operational history during the war and was returned to Gawler on the disbanding of the squadron in 1944 with a letter apologising for the theft.

The air echelon took off on the First of May for the first leg to Laverton, Victoria and formed up into two flights over the Gulf of St Vincent where they then proceeded to fly down the coast and continued on over the Adelaide CBD at 'dot feet' (supposedly organised by the Lord Mayor of Adelaide). The sight of  a full squadron of Kittyhawks at extremely low altitude and travelling at speed must have been a spectacular sight. Indeed the author of the Squadron's history was a school boy in Adelaide at the time and clearly remembered the event - vowing to one day become a fighter pilot. Not then realising that within two years he would be posted to 86 Squadron as a FSGT pilot when they were converting from P-40N's on to P-51K Mustangs in 1945 when the squadron was reformed.

Finally,  the squadron climbed, set its course and headed east to Laverton formerly closing its association with Gawler and South Australia. It that short two month period many bonds were formed that have lasted a lifetime and 86 Squadron will always be remembered as Gawler's and Adelaide's own fighter squadron.

It is the association with Gawler, the RAAF and the Eagle that ties 608 Squadron to 86 Squadron. Born in a time of war, the Air Training Corps had members that served with 86 Squadron during hostilities and thus a lineage and a tangible link between the two squadrons exists. When 8 Flight was formed in 1951 it gave rise to a rebirthing of the RAAF at Gawler. In adopting the eagle as our unit insignia it only serves to perpetuate and strengthen that link and the special bond to those gallant young men who travelled north and into harms way for us...