Will (Bill) ALTREE


Service Number: 437383
Enlisted: 30 January 1943, Enlisted Adelaide. Basic training at Mt Brecon Victor Harbor, South Australia
Last Rank: Warrant Officer
Last Unit: No. 192 Squadron (RAF)
Born: Hindmarsh, South Australia, 2 December 1924
Home Town: Hindmarsh, Charles Sturt, South Australia
Schooling: Woodville High School
Occupation: Clerk
Died: Natural causes, Myrtle Bank, South Australia, 18 July 2015, aged 90 years
Cemetery: Enfield Memorial Park, S.A.
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World War 2 Service

30 Jan 1943: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 437383, Aircrew Training Units, Enlisted Adelaide. Basic training at Mt Brecon Victor Harbor, South Australia
27 Mar 1943: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, Aircrew Training Units
1 Apr 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 437383, No. 1 Wireless Air Gunners School (Ballarat, Victoria), Empire Air Training Scheme
14 Oct 1943: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant, Aircrew Training Units
14 Apr 1944: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant, SN 437383, Aircrew Training Units, Empire Air Training Scheme
1 Jan 1945: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, SN 437383, No. 192 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
14 Apr 1945: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Warrant Officer, No. 192 Squadron (RAF)
28 Nov 1945: Discharged Royal Australian Air Force, Warrant Officer, SN 437383, 9 Aircrew Holding Unit

Much ado about nothing......?

Bill related a story concerning his time at an RAF personnel depot near Hastings, on England's south coast. Aircrew arriving from the outposts of the Empire would be held here before being 'mustered' to a squadron or training unit.

Bill and his colleagues were getting 'browned off' doing endless and in their view, pointless, route marches up and down the coast in their opinion just to fill in time.

One day, Bill was the NCO in charge of a group of 30 or so men, engaged in yet another route march. The mischevous streak of his youth got the better of him. As they entered Hastings on their route march, Bill halted the men for a 'breather'. He let the group in front get well away, then dismissed the men. When asked what they were to do he said - 'Make your own way back - use your initiative'. A subsequent question "What are you going to do?" was answered with "I'm going to the pictures (ie movies)".

When Bill was making his way back to camp he had the misfortune to run into the Squadron Leader who was responsible for the part of the unit to which Bill was assigned.

He found himself 'on the carpet' and got a dressing down for being a 'typical Australian' who 'came over here and was 'too smart' for his own good. 'Don't you know we've been fighting this war for five years?'. Bill responded with a spirited defence saying "Sir with all due respect we have come here to help you fight the war, not march around the countryside like a bunch of recruits. We've got our own war on at home you know'.

Bill did not suffer any punitive disciplinary action, but did find himself posted to a remote stores depot in northern Yorkshire, which he assumed was some kind of punishment. He and another man were responsible for specialist electronic stores used in Electronic Warfare. When they later found themselves both posted to an operational Electronic Warfare unit, 192 Squadron, he realised that perhaps there was method in the process other than 'revenge'.

He retained his dis-like of pointless route marching though.

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Based on family documentation and an oral history interview October 2014

Will Altree was born in the inner Adelaide suburb of West Hindmarsh, on 2nd  December 1924 to Wallace and Agnes Emma Altree.  He was one of a total of twelve siblings. His father had been married previously prior to the untimely death of his first wife, with three children from that marriage and a further nine with Agnes.  Some were born in the UK and the remainder after emigrating from the UK during the First World War.  

His uncle was William Truman Altree (www.rslvirtualwarmemorial.org.au)who was KIA at Gallipoli in 1915, having only emigrated to Australia from Britain the previous year (1913).

Will grew up in the local neighbourhood.  When war broke out Will had not turned 15 and he was still at school.  He completed his High School education at Woodville High School and obtained employment as a clerk with the State Government.  He recalls getting very good grades in Latin despite being a sometime wilful student.  As he approached 19 years old he applied for entry into the RAAF.  His girlfriend and later wife, Gwendoline Steart, like many other young women in the same situation, viewed the process with some trepidation but wore the small brooch indicating her sweetheart had enlisted.  He was 'mustered' for aircrew training as a Wirelss Operator / Air Gunner.  He undertook his initial training at 4 Initial Training School at Mt Brecon in Victor Harbour, South Australia. 

From there he proceeded to Ballarat and No 1 Wireless Operator School where he trained in Wackett trainers.  After leave he proceeded to RAAF Base West Sale for gunnery training.  Bill recalled he never really understood firearms and couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.  From there he proceeded to Cootamundra as a Staff Wireless Operator at No. 1 Air Observer School where he was flying in Avro Ansons, and from there to Evans Head as a Staff Wireless Operator  on 13 Dec 1943.

He was appointed Aircraftsman Class 2 on enlistment in January 1943 and graded Aircrew V, Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) on 27 March 1943 (Graded Aircrew V (G)) and on 16  September 1943 he was graded Aircrew 11 (G) coinciding with the completion of his Wireless Operator  / Air Gunnery Training.  He was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Wireless Operator Air on 11 March 1944, Flight Sergeant and then Warrant Officer on the 14 April 1944.

Will deployed to the United Kingdom with a draft of colleagues, by ship.  After a stopover in Capetown, South Africa they headed into the Atlantic when the biggest concern became the presence of German 'U-Boats' (submarines) and the risk of being torpedoed, particularly on  the final approach to the UK.  However they arrived safely and without incident.

Initially based at a personnel depot near Hastings on the south coast of the UK,  Bill recalls he got into a bit of strife with their British flight commander.  See accompanying story. 

He found himself posted to a Supply Unit, which Bill thought was punishment for his run in with the Squadron Leader at the personnel depot.  Later he realised that the specialist Electronic Warfare equipment they were managing was that with which he would later be working so perhaps there was some method in what appeared to a punitive measure.

In due course he received a posting which he was pleased about as he was worried he would miss out on operational flying.  Before flying operations could take place, Operational Conversion training was undertaken on the aircraft in which he would be flying.  Bill was 'crewed up' with six other men in a Handley Page Halifax four-engined bomber.  The prospects for bomber crews were daunting;  empty tables at breakfast in messes all over eastern England on the morning after a raid testament to the relentless toll taken by German flack and night fighters even very late in the war.

Conversion training involved training flights by day and night and were not without hazard.  Mid-air collisions in a very busy airspace, losses through weather and navigation error were not uncommon, and even attack by enemy night fighters flying intruder flights over British airfields hoping to catch aircraft returning to base were all part of the mix.  

Bill related a particular episode where they were flying at night in bad weather and were trying to get clearance from a string of airstrips around SW England to 'let down' as they were getting low on fuel, but the ground stations would not give clearance.  In the end, the pilot landed at what turned out to be a fighter strip.  The Halifax came to a stop with its  nose over the perimeter fence; fighters use shorter runways than a 'heavy'.  Getting it out again when the weather cleared was the next problem.  The squadron sent down a more experienced pilot when their own, wisely, refused to make an attempt to take off. As it was they only just cleared the trees at the end of the runway and returned to base with vegetation festooned in their landing gear.  Not recommended practice and the 'experienced' pilot found himself in hot water. 

Bill has fond recollections of a couple of places he went whilst on leave, one in particular being the picturesque little town of Mousehole (pronounced 'Mowsel') in Cornwall.  He used to receive and send a Christmas card from the lady who ran the boarding house where he and his mates stayed, until her death.

Like most of his RAAF Colleagues he was posted to a RAF squadron, in Bill's case 192 Squadron, a Special Duties (Electronic Warfare) squadron based at Foulsham in Norfolk.  The squadron contained a mixture of aircraft; specially fitted out Halifax aircraft and the streamlined de Havilland Mosquito among others.  Their task was to use a range of Electronic Support Measures (ESM) and Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) to disrupt the German Air Defence network.  The techniques included "Window", specially cut strips of foil matched to the wavelength of the enemy radar, that when dropped in large amounts, and on timed runs, could be used to create the illusion of a large movements of aircraft or ships on the enemy radar screens.  Another technique was the so-called 'ABC" or Airborne Cigar, the code name for an electronic jamming and broadcast equipment using an eighth crewman, known as  'the spare bod' as the operator.  These men were German linguists, many of whom who were refugees from the Nazis.  They faced an uncertain fate if captured;  their task was to transmit fake commands to German fighters and to emmit jamming signals.  As this was an 'active' countermeasure emitting radio frequency signals, it meant they could be tracked and hunted down by night fighters vectored by radio direction finding ground stations.  

Bill's crew flew just a single combat mission before the war's end.  Shortly thereafter like most of the rest of Bomber Command, they took ground-crew on flights to view the destruction wrought upon German cities and to drop food and emergency supplies to civilians in Holland, who at that point were starving due to a lack of access to food sources.  They also flew drafts of repatriated PoW back to the UK.

Demobilisation followed and Bill returned home to Australia.  He resumed work for the SA Health Department. He married Gwendoline Steart in Adelaide in 1947.   Bill and Gwen had two children;  Gwenda, born first and Peter five years later.  Bill became active in the Burnside Branch of the RAAF Association for a great many years and its many activities figured strongly in their family life.

Bill Altree retired in 1983 at which time he was the Administrator of Adelaide's Queen Victoria Hospital. He and Gwen lived in retirement at their Myrtle Bank home. He kept busy with a range of interests ranging from voluntary auditing, painting houses in partnership with his wife's brother, French polishing and furniture resoration, travelling around the country and overseas visiting his daughter and her family on various postings in the Army, and reading.  

Bill died of complications arising from a medical condition on 18th July 2015, aged 90 years, fondly remembered by a wide network of relatives and friends, and an admiring family.  

Bill was the last survivng member of his war-time air crew .  He had kept in touch with a number of them until their deaths.


More to follow............Transcribed from an oral history interview with Steve and David Larkins (Son in law / grandson) Nov 2014