Sydney Noel Chesterman
Today we honour Flying Officer Sydney Noel Chesterman of No. 8 Squadron RAAF. Noel was one of the 79 Australian airmen from No. 8 Squadron who did not survive the war.[i] The Squadron played a crucial role during the Malayan Campaign undertaking bombing and reconnaissance missions before amalgamating with No. 1 Squadron in December 1941.[ii]
Group portrait of officers of No 8 Squadron RAAF in front of one of the squadron's Lockheed Hudson aircraft on the edge of the aerodrome at Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaya. Flight Lieutenant Spurgeon is identified in the back row, second from the left. Flying Officer Chesterman is identified in the back row, fifth from the left.
Sydney Noel Chesterman was born in Melbourne, Victoria on 23 May 1915 to parents Sydney Arthur Chesterman and Dora Jane Chesterman. He grew up in the suburb of Malvern East, where he was educated at Malvern Grammar School. Once graduating, he worked as a clerk for Eagle Star Insurance on Collins Street.
When the newly established Empire Air Training Scheme opened for enlistments in April 1940, Noel was the first Victorian recruit,[iii] joining at No. 1 Recruitment Centre on 28 April 1940. He was given the service number 400001, the initial number 4 indicating he was an aircrew member.[iv] In June, Noel was engaged to Joan Varley Hudson.[v] The pair were married while Noel was still training at Point Cook. He also undertook training in South Australia at Parafield operating Avro Ansons before converting to Lockheed Hudsons.
At the completion of his training, Noel joined No. 8 Squadron (RAAF). He departed Sydney on 4 April 1941, arriving in Singapore 3 days later. The Squadron operated out of RAF Station Sembawang. No. 8 Squadron was one of four Australian squadrons to pass through Sembawang during the war, the others being No. 1 General Reconnaissance Squadron, No. 21 Squadron and No. 453 Squadron.
At 0630 hours on 23 January 1942, Lockhead Hudson A16-11, carrying crew members Flight Lieutenant Clarence Haddon Spurgeon, Sergeant Duxbury, Sergeant Devlin and Flying Officer Chesterman, departed from Sembawang to carry out a routine sea patrol.[vi] Approximately 20 miles east of Kuantan, Malaysia, the crew were engaged by four Japanese Zeros. They began attacking the rear of the Hudson at 1020 hours. Flight Lieutenant Spurgeon attempted to navigate to cloud cover while rear gunner Sergeant Duxbury managed to keep most of the attacks from below with his returned fire. Noel Chesterman and Sergeant Devlin manned the side-guns during the attack. At 1045 hours, when the Japanese still had not relented, Spurgeon made a dash for sea-level. The starboard oil tank was hit, causing a fire in the right engine. Noel was unable to extinguish the flames. Sergeant Devlin was shot through the head before reaching the sea, and all gun turrets had to be abandoned due to fumes and heat.
Spurgeon made a successful sea-landing, and ordered the remaining crew to abandon the aircraft through the window of the pilot’s compartment. The water managed to put out the flames, but enough damage had already been caused and the aircraft ‘broke her back’.[vii] The dinghy sank soon after Noel inflated it due to a hole caused by burning, so the crew had nothing but life jackets for buoyancy. The Hudson sank after five minutes, and the Japanese formation flew off without further action, having seen the Australian crew would likely not survive. Sergeant Duxbury had been shot in the head and shoulder during the dash to the sea, and died not long after landing. Just Noel and Spurgeon remained, and resolved to tether themselves together by the wrists to avoid losing contact with each other. By 0230 hours on 24 January 1942, some 20 hours after the crew of Lockhead Hudson A16-11 departed on their routine patrol, Noel Chesterman and his pilot Flight Lieutenant Spurgeon became separated, and were unable to reunite through the rough seas.[viii] Noel began to drift away, never to be seen again. Flight Lieutenant Spurgeon managed to reach the island of ‘Pulo Seriman’ (likely referring to either the island of Pulau Seri Baut or Pulau Sembilang), 16 miles east of Endau, at 0530 hours. He was captured six days later.[ix] Without his fortunate survival, the story of Lockhead Hudson A16-11, and the final hours of Sergeants Duxbury and Devlin, and Flying Officer Sydney Noel Chesterman, would remain unknown.
On 14 December 1944, Noel’s death was officially presumed to have occurred on 24 January 1942.[x] Until that point, it was impossible to know whether he had ended up in a POW camp like Spurgeon because of the Japanese’s unwillingness to release adequate lists of prisoners. The change of classification came in response to a report from the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva stating that Tokyo information had listed Noel dead as of 23 January 1942 as a result of action at Kuantan.
i Australian War Memorial 2022, No. 8 Squadron, available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U59373>.
ii Eather, S 1995, Flying Squadrons of the Australian Defence Force, Aerospace Publications, Western Creek, Australian Capital Territory.
iii The Herald 1945, ‘First Empire Airman Dead’, 18 January, p. 6.
iv Australian War Memorial 2022, Royal Australian Air Force service numbers, available at:<https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/numbers/raaf>.
v The Age 1940, ‘Joan Varley Hudson Engaged’, 14 June, p. 3.
vi Casualty and Repat File.
x Service Record.