Charles Robert Henry ELMES


ELMES, Charles Robert Henry

Service Number: 413842
Enlisted: 13 September 1941
Last Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Last Unit: No. 203 Squadron (RAF)
Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 11 October 1911
Home Town: Sydney, City of Sydney, New South Wales
Schooling: Not known
Occupation: Process engraver
Died: Maritime Operation RAF SE Asia Command, Sumatra, Sumatra, Netherlands East Indies, 23 July 1945, aged 33 years
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
Kranji War Memorial Location: Column 457., Singapore Memorial, Singapore
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Singapore Memorial Kranji War Cemetery
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World War 2 Service

13 Sep 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant, SN 413842
13 Sep 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 413842, Aircrew Training Units, Sydney, New South Wales
11 Dec 1941: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 413842, Aircrew Training Units, Empire Air Training Scheme
24 Apr 1942: Embarked Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 413842, Aircrew Training Units, SS President Monroe
20 May 1942: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant, SN 413842, Aircrew Training Units, Empire Air Training Scheme
1 Oct 1942: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Pilot Officer, SN 413842, Aircrew Training Units, Empire Air Training Scheme
1 Oct 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Pilot Officer, SN 413842, No. 86 Squadron (RAF), Battle of the Atlantic - RAN and RAAF Operations
15 Mar 1945: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant, SN 413842, No. 203 Squadron (RAF), Air War SE Asia 1941-45

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Biography contributed by Anthony Vine

Flight Lieutenant Charles Robert Henry Elmes

Charles Elmes was a process engraver living in Bondi, Sydney when he was called up for service on 13 September 1941.  He was the only son of Charles William and Harriet Elmes and had only recently married his wife, Nellie, at the time of his enlistment. Charles had four sisters: Edna, Edith, Norma and Elsa. He had served his compulsory military service as a signaller in the Royal Australian Navy Reserve until the government abandoned training during the Great Depression.

He completed his initial training in Bradfield Park before posting to Pilots’ Course 20 in Narromine on 11 December 1941. One of the oldest men on the course, he was known by his course mates as ‘Charlie’ or ‘Chick’.

Charlie sailed from Sydney on the SS President Monroe on 24 April. He landed in San Francisco on 15 May and arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada three days later. He then moved on to 10 SFTS in Dauphin, Manitoba to commence training on the Cessna Crane and qualify as a pilot of multi-engine aircraft.

Training was not without danger. After a particularly alarming situation had occurred, Bill Gunning wrote in his diary:


Charlie Elmes and myself went on a very long cross country today, the visibility was very bad, over the last leg the visibility was down to a mile. I had radio with us and when I called the station (airport) as we were coming over Riding Mountain, they asked me if there was anyone else flying with me. They had become quite worried about us and were hoping that we had picked up with some of the boys who were also out. Anyway they told me what runway to land on and that visibility was under a mile at the airport.

We were lucky enough to see Clear Lake road which followed into Dauphin. We came down to the drome at 3000’ and could hardly see the ground. When I turned into the wind I saw another Cessna 100 yards in front of me – he must have come over the airport when I did, yet I couldn’t see him.[1]


Charlie survived this day and the following month of training. When he was in the midst of his final flying tests and written exams, news arrived from Australia that his mother Harriet had passed away. Despite this news he persevered with his training and on 25 September 1942, he received his wings and was promoted to pilot officer. He was one of only ten ex-Narromine men to be commissioned at this stage.

On 19 September, the men had been told their next assignments. Charlie and three others were to remain in North America to train as pilots on the four-engine B-24 Liberator. These aircraft were used by the RAF primarily for maritime reconnaissance at that time.

Six days after receiving his wings, Charlie was in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island at 31 GRS. The object of the GRS was to train specialist pilots and navigators to conduct operations that required both precise navigation and observation skills.

Having completed his course in Charlottetown, he posted to Nassau, the Bahamas to undertake Liberator conversion and operational training. Travelling by rail to Miami, Florida via New York, Charlie and his mates made a hazardous crossing to Nassau on a small coastal freighter. They arrived on the island on 23 January 1943.

On completion of the OTU course in late May, Charlie was flown to Miami and then he returned to Canada to await transport to the United Kingdom. He embarked in Halifax on 23 June and disembarked eight days later. Having completed the formalities of arriving at 11 PDRC in Bournemouth, Charlie completed courses at RAF Aldergrove, near Antrim, Northern Ireland and at 1509 BAT Flight at RAF Church Lawford, Warwickshire.

In October 1943, he joined No. 86 Squadron RAF. The squadron had converted to Liberators in early 1943. When Charlie joined, it was based at Ballykelly, Northern Ireland, and was flying anti-submarine patrols to protect Atlantic convoys. In early 1944, the squadron relocated to RAF Reykjavik in Iceland, where Charlie flew demanding and dangerous anti-submarine patrols during the long nights of late winter and autumn.

On completion of his tour with 86 Squadron, Charlie returned to 111 OTU Nassau as an instructor. He was there until 30 November 1944, when he was posted to India. He arrived in Karachi on 15 March1945 and posted to No. 203 Squadron RAF based at Kankesanthurai, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as Temporary Flight Lieutenant. 203 Squadron had converted to Liberators the previous November and the availability of an experienced Liberator pilot like Charlie would have been a godsend. The aircraft were primarily employed in flying anti-submarine patrols in the Bay of Bengal, but, by April 1945, the Japanese submarine threat had diminished greatly and they were employed in a variety of other roles.

One of those roles was to attack Japanese shipping and RAAF Press release recorded Charlies’ description of one such attack;


We saw it, well hidden under camouflage foliage, as we approached, a rowing boat was put out and the coaster pulled in towards the shore. We saw the crew scrambling into the water. Then the coaster went out to sea again and the four of us pounced on it. It was burning fiercely as we left, but as no-one else jumped overboard we decided that the crew had deserted it when it pulled in to the shore.[2]


On 23 July 1945, just less than a month before the war’s end, Charlie, flying Liberator D/203, departed Kankesanthurai on an operational sortie with a second aircraft from the squadron. His crew was composed of five RAF airmen, John Prosser (second pilot),[3] Ken Pickering (N),[4] John Churchill (FE),[5]  Fred Marchant (AG),[6]  Ray Grainger (AG),[7] and three RAAF flight sergeants; Hugh Francis (WO/AG),[8] Colin Hamilton (WO/AG)[9] and Keith Cook (WO/AG).[10]  After refuelling in China Bay, Ceylon, the two aircraft departed late in the evening and flew independently across the Bay of Bengal to attack a convoy of five ships that had been reported travelling along the coast of Northern Sumatra. The second aircraft successfully attacked the convoy at dawn on 24 July. Its captain later reported what appeared to be a large petrol fire four to six kilometres inland. Nothing had been heard from Charlie’s aircraft since its take off from China Bay.

Extensive searches were conducted by ASR aircraft along Charlie’s track from Ceylon to Sumatra, but no trace was found of either his aircraft or its crew. The report into the loss of the aircraft concluded that it may have been brought down by anti-aircraft fire or a fighter and crashed on reaching the target area.

Charlie had been on overseas service for forty-one months and had not seen his wife Nellie since April 1942. When Nellie finally received his effects from India, most of the items had been stolen or damaged by water and fire and despite requests to the RAAF, the issue was never resolved. The RAF and the RAAF had left India, and, despite platitudes from the RAAF in Melbourne, the recovery of Charlie’s items was low on the priority list of the post-war RAAF.

Charles was the eighteenth and last of the Narromine men to die during the war. His widow Nellie never remarried and in 1980, she was living in Ulladulla on the south coast of NSW.

Flight Lieutenant Charles Robert Henry Elmes, RAAF has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore.

[1] Bill Gunning, diary entry for 25 Jul 1942.
[2] AWM 65 1190 - covering Air Ministry Bulletin 19398 dated 2 Aug 1945. Sadly by the time the Air Ministry released the interview to the Australian Press Charlie Elmes was already missing in action. 
[3] F-O John Vernon Prosser, 164532, RAFVR; KIA 23 Jul 1945, aged 21.
[4] W-O Kenneth Charles Pickering, 1265423, RAFVR; of West Dulwich, UK; KIA 23 Jul 1945, aged 26.
[5] F-Sgt John Frank Dawes Churchill, 1867412, RAFVR; of Bridgewater, Somerset, UK; KIA 23 Jul 1945, aged 20.
[6] Sgt Frederick Henry Harold Marchant, 1320334, RAFVR; KIA 23 Jul 1945.
[7] Sgt Raymond Knight Grainger, 1250280, RAFVR; of Hampton Wick, Richmond, UK; KIA 23 Jul 1945, aged 32.
[8] F-Sgt Hugh Benjamin Francis, 442421; b. Brighton, SA, 3 Aug 1921; KIA 23 Jul 1945.
[9] F-Sgt Colin Henry Hamilton, 435624; b. Mackay, Qld, 26 Aug 1920; KIA 23 Jul 1945.
[10] F-Sgt Sergeant Keith Thomas Cook, 430973; b. Quambatook, Vic, 16 May 1924; KIA 23 Jul 1945.


Reference:  High in the Sunlit Silence, Vivid Publishing 2017, Tony Vine, submitted by author