Keith Braybrook HENRY

HENRY, Keith Braybrook

Service Number: 61691
Enlisted: 30 December 1941
Last Rank: Leading Aircraftman
Last Unit: No. 31 Squadron (RAAF)
Born: Paddington, New South Wales, Australia, 12 June 1923
Home Town: Woollahra, Woollahra, New South Wales
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Mechanical Engineer
Died: Flying Accident, Peron Islands, Northern Territory, Australia , 6 December 1943, aged 20 years
Cemetery: Adelaide River War Cemetery
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour
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World War 2 Service

3 Sep 1939: Involvement 61691
30 Dec 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, No. 31 Squadron (RAAF)
30 Dec 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman, 61691, No. 31 Squadron (RAAF)
30 Dec 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, 61691
1 Dec 1942: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, No. 31 Squadron (RAAF)

One Life Given In Place Of Another

My father, Ron Wardlaw LAC 76310, served in the RAAF 31 Squadron with Keith Henry. The following is taken from my father's war diary and is dated Monday 6th December 1943. At the time they were stationed at Coomalie Creek.

"Duty crew organised a "flip" with F/O Archer. Two of us went up "86" and "152." We were in "152"..."86" didn't come back. Went in just off the coast. Saw a patch of smoke, went to investigate and found Keith Henry in the dinghy. F/O Archer stripped off his "Mae West" and dinghy. I took them to Jack Holland (Obs). We opened the hatch and dropped 2 "Mae Wests" and a dinghy to him. We circled again, then made for home. We climbed to 3,000ft slowly at about 220 knots, leveled out at 260 knots. Came in over Adelaide River. Could see our strip from there. Came home feeling rotten."

The National Archives Accident Report states that the 2 planes left Coomalie Creek at 4.30pm to carry out a test flight and shooting exercises in Anson Bay. During the exercises "86" reported it was having trouble and was heading for the coast south of Peron Island. At approx. 5.10pm the crew of my Dad's plane, "152", saw that Keith's plane had crashed into the sea 8 miles south west of Peron Island. Keith was seen clinging to a partially inflated dinghy. No other survivors were found. Dad's crew dropped 2 Mae Wests and a dinghy to Keith then returned to base. The "152" returned to the scene to direct help from shore. At 6.40pm Keith was retrieved from the dinghy. He was conscious but seriously injured and told his rescuer that he hadn't seen the other 2 crew members after the crash. Keith was admitted to the 1 MRS at 8.10pm but died from his injuries at 10.40pm. His funeral was held the following day at 3pm attended by 30 members from the 31 Squadron. He was buried at the Adelaide River War Cemetery.

The Captain of A16-86, Flying Officer Kenneth Albert Gerdes and Navigator, Flight Sergeant Andrew Kenneth McMillan, perished at the scene but their bodies were never recovered.

Personal Note: Keith and Dad were passengers on these flights and before they boarded their assigned planes the orders were switched which meant the crews changed planes. This meant that Keith changed places with my Dad so he was killed instead of my Dad. This was something that my Dad never forgot or came to terms with. He and Keith were both 20 years of age. Dad died on the 12th October 2000 aged 77.

Submitted by Sue Smith

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Biography contributed by Sue Smith

Keith Braybrook Henry was born on the 12th June 1923 in Paddington NSW, the son of George and Mary Henry.  Keith’s middle name “Braybrook” was also his father’s middle name.  Keith grew up in Woollahra NSW and after leaving school around the age of 15, he spent 5 months at N. Palmers in Paddington NSW working on turret lathes as well as milling and drilling machines.  He then worked for the Camperdown Water Supply Engineering for 6 months.   He commenced training in fitting and machining at the Technical College at Ultimo NSW and was in his 2nd year at the College when he applied to join the RAAF on the 11th June 1941.  That was unsuccessful so he applied again on the 24th October 1941 and this time he was accepted.  Prior to joining the RAAF he worked for 18 months with W. A. Shields Manufacturing Company at Darlinghurst NSW.  Keith enrolled in the RAAF Reserve on the 6th December 1941 and enlisted in the RAAF at the No. 2 Recruiting Office in Sydney on the 30th December 1941, aged 18.  His service number was 61691, his rank was Aircraftman 1 and he was 5ft 10ins tall with a medium complexion, dark brown hair and blue eyes. 

In early January 1942 Keith was part of Trainee Group 5 at the No. 2 School of Technical Training in Canberra ACT.   Eight weeks later he was posted to the No. 1 Engineering School at the Melbourne Showgrounds in Ascot Vale VIC.  In early May 1942 he was remustered to Flight Rigger and a few days later posted to the No. 11 Elementary Flying Training School at Benalla VIC which operated Tiger Moths and Wackett Trainers. 

In mid August 1942 Keith went absent without leave for 3 days and was awarded 14 days confined to barracks as well as forfeiting 4 days pay.

On the 12th September 1942 Keith was posted to the recently formed 31 Squadron at the RAAF Base Wagga NSW which operated Bristol Beaufighters.  The Squadron underwent training before deploying to Batchelor airfield in the Northern Territory in October and then to Coomalie Creek airfield NT on the 12th November.  Keith was promoted to Leading Aircraftman on the 1st December 1942. 

Keith remained with the 31 Squadron at Coomalie Creek until 6th December 1943.  On that day at 4.30pm in the afternoon, two planes, each with three crew aboard, left the Coomalie Creek airfield to carry out a test flight and shooting exercises in Anson Bay.  Keith’s plane, A19-86, was piloted by Flying Officer Ken Gerdes and navigator Flight Sergeant Andrew McMillan with Keith as a passenger.  The other plane, A19-152, was piloted by Flying Officer John Archer and navigator Flight Sergeant Alfred Holland with passenger LAC Ron Wardlaw…my father. 

The following account is a combination from numerous official reports and a personal account from my father. 

The two planes flew seaward to within a few miles of Peron Island.  F/O Archer dropped a flame float, made a pass and fired a burst of cannon before making a left hand turn.  When he did so he couldn’t see the other plane.  A few minutes later he received a transmission from F/O Gerdes stating that he was in trouble and making for the coast south of Peron Island.  F/O Archer immediately turned his plane for the coast in the hope of finding A19-86.  As he did so he noticed black smoke rising from the water.  The time was 5.10pm.  Flying straight to the smoke he saw flames coming from A19-86 which had crashed into the sea about 8miles south west of Peron Island.  He saw one person in the water about 20 yards from the flames and he was clinging to a half inflated dinghy.  That person was Keith.  F/O Archer immediately ordered my Dad to drop his and the pilot’s Mae-West vests as well as the pilot’s dinghy to Keith through the bottom hatch.  F/O Archer tried several times to report the accident but was unsuccessful.  By this time he had reached his base at Coomalie Creek where he landed and reported the crash.  He was then ordered to return to the scene to lead a rescue plane to the sight of the crash.  He took off and returned to the scene and seeing the Seagull rescue plane near Peron Island, lead it to Keith in the dinghy.  Upon arrival at the scene of the crash at 6.40pm the pilot of the Seagull aircraft, F/O Grahme Lobwein, found a large oil slick and considerable debris.  He searched the area for survivors and found only Keith lying in the dinghy.  The pilot rescued Keith who was conscious in spite of horrific injuries and he told the pilot that he hadn’t seen the other crew members since the crash.  F/O Archer remained circling the area until the Seagull left with Keith aboard.  Keith was flown to Batchelor airstrip from where he was transported to the No. 1 Medical Receiving Station at Coomalie Creek.  He arrived there at 8.10pm.  His injuries consisted of multiple lacerations, compound fractures of both knees and massive internal bleeding.  Sadly, Keith died from his injuries at 10.40pm, five and a half hours after the crash.  All efforts to find the other two crew members failed so it is believed that they lost their lives on impact with the water or drowned before being able to escape the sinking plane.  Two theories exist concerning the cause of the crash and they are that there was either a failure of an engine or that the plane exploded. 

Keith was buried with full Air Force honours at 3.30pm the following day at the Adelaide River War Cemetery.  The service was conducted by Rev. W.D.C. Dunbar and was attended by 30 members of the 31 Squadron. 

Personal note…As a child, I remember my Dad telling us this story and becoming emotional…with good reason.  Just prior to the planes taking off that day from Coomalie Creek, the orders were changed.  Dad was originally to go up in A19-86 so when the orders were changed Keith took his place on that plane which meant that Keith was killed instead of my Dad.  This was something that my Dad never forgot or came to terms with.  He and Keith were both 20 years of age at the time.  Dad went on to get married, have 5 children, 13 grandchildren but didn’t live to meet his 32 great-grandchildren.  He died peacefully at home surrounded by his family on the 12th October 2000 aged 77.  My family and I will never forget, and we are eternally grateful for, the ultimate sacrifice that Keith made on the 6th December 1943 which allowed our family to exist. 

A note of interest…Keith’s rescuer, F/O Grahme Lobwein, went on to become a Flight Lieutenant and was awarded the Air Force Cross in October 1944 for having rescued 23 RAAF and Allied Airmen in his 12 month tour of duty in the Northern Territory during 1943-1944.  He was killed on the 15th November 1945 when his plane struck a mountain in dense cloud.  He was married just 3 months prior to his death and never lived to meet his daughter who was born in April 1946.  

Keith Braybrook Henry was awarded for service in WW2 the Australia Service Medal, Defence Medal and the 1939-1945 Star

Respectfully submitted by Sue Smith November 2020


Biography contributed by David Barlow

RAAF Beaufighter aircraft A19-86 of Number 31 Squadron crashed into the sea near the Peron Islands, NT while on a gunnery exercise.

Leading Aircraftman Keith Braybrook Henry 61691 survived the impact and was picked up by a rescue flying boat from Darwin but died from his injuries.  He was buried at Adelaide River War Cemetery.  Son of George Braybrook Henry and Mary Jane Henry of Woollahra, NSW

Commemorated on the Northern Territory Memorial to the Missing located at Adelaide River War Cemetery, NT are:

Flying Officer Kenneth Albert Gerdes 410322 - Son of Albert Henry and Fanny Jane Gerdes of Frankston, Victoria

Flight Sergeant Andrew Kenneth McMillan 413320 - Son of Andrew Donald and Ivy McMillan of Bondi, NSW