Noel George BURNELL


BURNELL, Noel George

Service Number: 409289
Enlisted: 15 August 1941, Melbourne, Victoria
Last Rank: Flying Officer
Last Unit: No. 23 Squadron (RAAF)
Born: Berri, South Australia, 11 December 1922
Home Town: Heidelberg, Banyule, Victoria
Schooling: Ivanhoe Grammar School
Occupation: Clerk
Died: Killed in Action (flying battle), Hansa Bay, New Guinea, 24 February 1944, aged 21 years
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Ivanhoe Baptist Church Memorial Window, Lae Memorial
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World War 2 Service

15 Aug 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 409289, Aircrew Training Units, Melbourne, Victoria
24 Feb 1944: Involvement Flying Officer, SN 409289, No. 23 Squadron (RAAF), Air War SW Pacific 1941-45

Raid on Hansa Bay 24 Feb 1944

Related by Alec Boxall

My first raid from Nadzab was the day after I got there. I arrived on the afternoon of 21 Feb 1944 and on the afternoon of the 22nd I flew with Flt. Sgt Simpson dive bombing installations at Madang, we were in the air for two hours and fifteen minutes. The first operational flight I did wasn't with Howard (James-Martin), I don't know why, he may have been on another mission.

Hansa Bay

The Hansa Bay raid was the second operation which I went on and it was the first one with Howard. On 24 February, from reading my log book, "Flight Sgt. Martin", which was the first trip I flew out of Nadzab with Howard. The raid had a very sobering effect on everybody. If I remember rightly, it was a Sunday morning. We'd been on alert from early morning. I remember in the crew room it was on and then it was off; there must have been cloud over the target. We were hanging around waiting and then it was on again and we left the crew room aboard the jeep.

We would get about ten people on a jeep, we sat on the bonnet, everywhere which would deliver us around the dispersals (protected bays in which aircraft were parked separate from one another to protect them from raids) which were a long way from our tents. The aircraft were dispersed all around the place so you needed transport to get to them. Noel Burnell, who was killed on the raid, was sitting in front of me on the jeep. We went down there and dispersed at our different dispersals.

We lost two crews that day at Hansa Bay. We lost Noel Burnell who was flying with Captain Watson, the army liaison man. They went in almost underneath us. The other crew was the two Mac's, who were lost as we were leaving Hansa Bay, they were hit by anti-aircraft fire and we flew beside them after they were hit. I made sign language to them but there was nothing that we could do, although it seemed I had to do something. They lost their engine power and went down into a cloud, then bailed out. Two (P40) Kittyhawks followed them down and saw them jump. The sequel to that was that McDonald, the pilot, injured his leg landing in trees and the natives took him to their village, and a couple of days later a Japanese patrol came up shot him. McAllister was taken across to the coast when he was captured, and was treated very poorly. At the end of the war, when the information came up of his death, it resulted in a Japanese major being tried for war crimes.

We got into the aircraft and went through the preliminaries. I had to check the wireless and the guns, in co-operation with the armourer and radio technician. Howard had his job with the engine mechanic, and one thing and another, we checked through the different aircraft functions to make sure it was going to work. We took off for Hansa Bay, just below Wewak, which was near the limit of the Vultee's range. This wide bay was probably the strongest Japanese base in New Guinea, the Japanese had everything there. They had heavy ack-ack positions which weren't found at places like Madang. Madang had light ack-ack. I was more scared of the light than the heavy ack-ack which comes at you at incredible speed, like big oranges flying towards you, which is the tracer in the tail of the shell. It was said that those big ack-ack guns were radar controlled and that they could lock onto a flight of planes and were giving the American heavy bombers like the (B24) Liberators and the (B25) Mitchells a bit of curry, so we went there to try to knock them out.

When we got there we could see the wide bay and then we could see the big base and, as we got near, the heavy ack-ack position opened up with box barrages. The heavy ack-ack exploded with a great jet black explosion - which is smoke they leave from the explosion. The explosions went off ahead of us and as we flew into the aftermath of them we could smell the cordite in the air, which is a bit unusual, you could smell it as you went in. The box barrages exploded in a given area. It wasn't like light ack-ack that follows you around 'pomping' at you, these heavy ack-ack tried to bracket the flight.

We had two flights of six which they tried to bracket; the ack-ack would go off in a given area all at once. They'd try to estimate the time it took for the shells to reach the aircraft so that the shells and the aircraft would arrive together in this area where the barrage would explode. If you were unlucky enough to be caught in this it would have pulverised you as they were huge shells, but the first salvos were slightly above us, we went through those, through the oily black smoke and then another one went off ahead of us, and after that I don't remember too much about that ack-ack. It would still have been firing but obviously they weren't exactly on to us.

"A" flight dived first (that wasn't always so - sometimes "B" flight would do so) but on this occasion "A" flight dived first and dropped their bombs. You lose sight of the other Vultees as they dive vertically, against the background of the land and the installations and light ack-ack and one thing and another, you lose track of the aircraft and then as they drop their bombs and level out they go off in different directions, so it isn't as though you can see them all the time, you see them dive and then you lose track of them.

It was then our turn, we were the third of the six to dive and as we dived they got organised and we got plastered whereas the first six didn't. I don't remember much about the heavy ack-ack because we rolled over onto our back, pulled away and then dived vertically. In that way the pilot can see the target all the time. Before the dive I would swivel my seat around so that I was sitting backwards so that I was in the position to fire at any enemy fighters and to strafe ground positions. As you pull out of the dive the G's pull your hands down from the guns, you are immobilised for a second or two, as you pull out the blood drains out of you face, you feel like your chin is down around your knees until the G's come off then you can move again.

Coming down I could see the aircraft peeling off coming down behind us, there were three of them in the dive behind us, then we dropped our bombs and started to pull out and Howard said to me, "There's a Vultee going in", or words to that effect, I had a quick look back and it was the one behind us, it was Noel Burnell. Noel must have got really clobbered in the dive because they didn't pull out, they went straight into the water, almost below us. Then in that split second we were out of the dive, we came around over the water and back over the gun emplacements to strafe them. You don't see another thing in the world apart from what you're looking at, and what you are strafing.

"Twenty-three Vultees from 23 and 24 Squadrons made a heavy assault on the Japanese anti-aircraft positions located at Hansa Bay Cape Gloucester on 24 February, but for the first time they took casualties when two Vengeances fell to fierce anti-aircraft fire which machine-gun attacks by Kittyhawks had failed to silence. Flying Officer N.G. Burnell's machine, with Captain W.P. Watson, the Army Liaison Officer as passenger, was preparing to dive, with bomb-bay doors already open, when it was hit. The aircraft could not pull out of its dive and exploded on crashing into the sea about 300 yards from the target. The second machine hit, that of Flight Sergeant F.G. McDonald, with Flying Officer C. McAllister as his Observer, was seen to be hit by gun fire. Their plane went down just off the coast and although they were both seen to reach the shore they were not heard of again."

Howard was using his four guns through the front and I was using my two through the back, firing to the side from the back of the wing to where the interrupter stops it. There was an interrupter on the gun so that I didn't shoot our own tail off. You absorb a fair bit, you would fire at guns, at anything that looked like a slit trench, any vehicle, you are moving over the ground at about 400 mph and almost at ground level so you are really hiking but it is surprising what you can absorb, except I couldn't see ahead so I couldn't see what was coming.

After strafing we climbed out of it because everything in the world was firing at us and, as we did our run right across the installations, a Japanese anti-aircraft gun started to fire at us. That we were the target was a bit disconcerting. Everywhere else we had shared the fire with everyone else but he was clearly firing at us. I saw these things like great oranges coming at incredible speed. For a start you think that they are going right past the front of you, then they curl around and come straight at you, over the top or underneath, you'd swear that they were going to go right through the aircraft and you tend to make yourself as small as you possibly can. The aircraft is doing about 400 mph and they fire ahead of you, which gives an illusion that they curl around and on the last part of the trajectory they come at incredible speed and just whoosh past. We got through that lot and climbed, and I remember after that feeling incredibly tired, as though drained.

Just out of Hansa Bay a little way we crossed a native village and that opened up with anti-aircraft fire, light Bofors-type anti-aircraft fire. I remember thinking to myself, "surely they have had enough". We crossed that fire then we caught up with the two Macs in their Vultee who were in real trouble, their engine was on fire, black smoke was pouring out half a mile behind the aircraft, leaving a thick trail across the sky. Howard edged in close beside them until we were only a wing tip away but their engine had absolutely had it. I'd say that they had been hit in the oil tank or in a couple of cylinders of the radial engine. I remember trying to make sign language to McAllister who was looking across at me from the back, but he just shook his head, they must have known that there was no hope that they could fly it any longer. While we were there their Vultee lost height and went down into some cloud just below and a Kittyhawk which was flying behind us, as cover followed them down into the cloud. The Kittyhawk pilot must have seen them jump because he reported later that as soon as they got into the cloud they jumped.

There was no radio message between us, radio wasn't allowed, besides there was no point we were so close but there was nothing that we could do. McAllister didn't appear hit and McDonald seemed to be just trying to fly the damn thing; at least to get as far away from Hansa Bay as he could because the arrangement that we had was that if hit we would fly out to sea and try to ditch. There would be a Catalina which was plying its way up and down the coast and if you were lucky enough, it would come into land and pick you up. That was the theory. In fact it had 110 chances of not working and that was about what the odds were. I've never known of anybody picked up that way. To start with I don't think if you landed a Vultee in the sea you'd survive, either of you. The one from 21 squadron that ditched on the raid we did to Alexishafen just seemed to crash land on the water and disappear, it didn't float at all. The concussion of hitting the water probably knocked them unconscious anyway, or killed them. So there was that problem, and then the Catalina would have to find you before the Japanese did; and I don't think the Catalina could come in too close to Wewak because the Japanese would have shot it down. So that was the theory, but they weren't very far out of Hansa Bay when they crashed and had to jump.

[excerpt from Alec Boxall's memoir as told to Peter James-Martin.

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Biography contributed by Faithe Jones

Noel Burnell was born in Berri SA.  He enlisted in Melbourne and his address on enlistment is cited as Heidelburg in that city's north east.

He was a pilot officer with No. 23 Squadron flying Vultee Vengeance dive bombers out of Nadzab when he was killed in action during a raid on Hansa Bay on 22 February 1944.  The base was heavily defended with light and heavy anti aircraft fire. His Observer as an Army ground liaision officer named Captain William Philip Watson NX112723 of 45 Australian Air Liaison Section.

An eye witness account is given by two airmen flying in the aircraft in front of Noel Burnell during the attack  - see 'Personal Stories'.   It appears his aircraft was hit in its attack dive and did not recover.

Noel Burnell has no known grave.  He is commemorated on the Lae Memorial and on the Roll of Honour in Canberra.