851 Squadron History

851 Squadron originated as a Royal Navy (RN) torpedo/ bomber/ reconnaissance squadron forming in October 1943 at Squantum, USA. The Squadron served aboard HMS Shah in the Indian Ocean adding a fighter flight to its complement in April 1944. Shah returned to Britain with 851 Squadron embarked, following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, where the Squadron subsequently disbanded.

851 Squadron re-commissioned at Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra on 3 August 1954 under the command of Lieutenant Commander (later Captain) Digby Johns, a Korean War veteran who had served with 808 Squadron aboard HMAS Sydney. Flying Fairey Firefly AS-5s and Douglas C-47A Dakotas, the Squadron's main responsibilities were training pilots and observers for the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm's (RAN FAA) front-line Firefly squadrons (816 and 817 Squadrons). The Dakotas were primarily used as observation aircraft but also performed communications and transport duties, and sometimes carried VIPs and dignitaries such as the Duke of Edinburgh and Lord Mountbatten.

 

851 Squadron's RN Battle Honours Board.
851 Squadron's RN Battle Honours Board.

The Squadron would lose four of its members in two separate accidents in a relatively short period of time. Sub Lieutenant A. Arundel, RN, and Midshipman Noel Fogarty were killed on 27 November 1956 when their Firefly collided with another 851 Squadron Firefly near Jervis Bay. The crew of the other aircraft were uninjured. Just four months later on 19 March 1957, Sub Lieutenant Warren Brown and Midshipman Ian Caird were killed while conducting navigational exercises when their Firefly crashed into Saddle Back Mountain in NSW.

A Fairey Firefly two-seater trainer as flown by 851 Squadron.
A Fairey Firefly two-seater trainer as flown by 851 Squadron.

In spite of its allotted training role, 851 Squadron embarked in Sydney for two weeks in March 1956 travelling to Brisbane. However, with the decision to operate just one carrier instead of two as originally planned, the need for 851 Squadron declined and the unit de-commissioned at NAS Nowra on 13 January 1958.

An RAN Dakota. This aircraft would be re-numbered 800 and re-fitted as a flying classroom with Sea Venom radar installed which would result in a distinctive elongated nose.
An RAN Dakota. This aircraft would be re-numbered 800 and re-fitted as a flying classroom with Sea Venom radar installed which would result in a distinctive elongated nose.
Trackers on display at NAS Nowra.
Trackers on display at NAS Nowra.

851 Squadron re-commissioned as a training and transport unit at NAS Nowra on 2 September 1968 flying six Grumman S-2E Trackers and two Dakotas. In addition, a Tracker simulator was also ordered at a cost of $2.5M with an ongoing maintenance contract of $80 000 PA. The Weapons System Trainer (WST) was to be built into two trailers, allowing it to be towed, with the cockpits and instrument console in one trailer, and the computer, associated electronics and workshop in the other trailer. The WST was meant to be operating by the end of 1967 but a fire, started by an urn that had been left on overnight, caused enough damage that it was returned to the US before it was commissioned. It would later be installed in a purpose-built brick building at NAS Nowra and became operational in May 1970.

Fourteen Trackers, along with ten McDonnell Douglas A-4G Skyhawks, arrived in Australia aboard HMAS Melbourne on 21 November 1967. The Trackers disembarked the following day in Sydney where they were transported by road to Mascot, checked, flight tested and flown to NAS Nowra later in the year.

The long-range capabilities of 851 Squadron's aircraft meant that it was often called upon to perform duties outside of its normal training and transport roles such as search and rescue, coastal and fishery patrols in northern Australia, and security patrols of oil facilities in Bass Strait. Shortly after re-commissioning, the Squadron adopted US Navy prefixes and became VC851 Squadron indicating that it was classed as a fixed-wing composite unit.

The Dakotas had been scheduled to be replaced for some time and their long period of service in the RAN (the first was delivered in 1949) came to an end in 1973 when VC851 Squadron took delivery of two Hawker Siddeley HS748s. The first arrived at NAS Nowra on 7 June 1973, flown from the Hawker Siddeley factory in Woodford near Manchester marking the first trans-global flight by RAN personnel. On board were Lieutenant Commander Winston James, Lieutenants Bob Salmon, Jack McCaffrie and Owen Nicholls, Air Artificer Bob Griffiths, and Leading Seamen Air Technicians Doug Lange, Alan Bird and Michael Rischin. The second aircraft arrived on 17 August 1973. The twin turboprop HS 748s were used for navigation training, communications and transport duties, and also took part in continuation trials for the Ikara missile system.

851 Squadron circa 1968.
851 Squadron circa 1968.
The crew of the first RAN trans-global HS748 flight; LEUT Jack McCaffrie, LCDR Winston James, LEUT Bob Salmon and LEUT Owen Nicholls flank a representative from Hawker Siddeley.
The crew of the first RAN trans-global HS748 flight; LEUT Jack McCaffrie, LCDR Winston James, LEUT Bob Salmon and LEUT Owen Nicholls flank a representative from Hawker Siddeley.

The Squadron and its HS 748s were called into action to assist in relief efforts for one of the most devastating natural disasters in Australian history. When Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, VC851 Squadron personnel were called back to NAS Nowra, leaving their homes and loved ones at Christmas time, to begin support flights to the northern capital. After picking up personnel and supplies in Sydney, they were on the ground in Darwin by Boxing Day.

The approach to the Darwin airfield was made over a relatively unpopulated area so the full devastation of the Cyclone was not immediately apparent to the crew. However, the Commanding Officer of VC851 Squadron, Commander Jim Campbell, later said that the force of Tracy was evident when he saw "a large white refrigerator firmly wedged in the branches of a tree about 40 to 50 feet (12-15 metres) above the ground."

Darwin in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy.
Darwin in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy.

There was no hangar for the crew to work in once they landed, just an open concrete area. Maintenance support consisted of the maintenance personnel who accompanied the flight, and the tools and spares they brought with them. The maintainers would double as flight stewards for those being evacuated on the return flight, mainly naval dependants from HMAS Coonawarra, who converted the rear sections of the planes into an area for children to play and sleep. Maintenance personnel based in Nowra were then faced with a 12 hour overnight period to service, prepare and load the aircraft with freight for an 8.00am departure the next morning. The families of VC851 personnel also collected pharmaceuticals for distribution in Darwin as well as toys and magazines.

Two cars teeter on the edge following the Tasman Bridge Disaster.
Two cars teeter on the edge following the Tasman Bridge Disaster.

The relief effort for Darwin was interrupted in the early hours of 6 January 1975 when the Squadron was again called upon to provide assistance, this time in Tasmania. At 9.27 pm the previous evening, the bulk carrier, the Lake Illawarra, collided with the Tasman Bridge on the Derwent River collapsing two piers and 127 metres of bridge decking. Five commuters and seven crewmembers from the Lake Illawarra lost their lives. At 1.15am on the morning of 6 January 1975, VC851 Squadron received word that they were required to fly a Navy Clearance Diving Team to the scene. An HS748 was prepared and departed NAS Nowra for Sydney at 2.30am. It arrived in Hobart five hours later.

In the days following Tracy, VC851 Squadron completed 14 return flights amounting to 222 flying hours, carried 485 passengers and 22 700 kgs of freight. Their outstanding performance in aftermath of Cyclone Tracy and the Tasman Bridge Disaster drew high praise from the Flag Officer Commanding East Australian Area, Rear Admiral Neil McDonald:

"I have been informed by the Commanding Officer, HMAS Albatross of the exceptional devotion to duty of the Commanding Officer, Officers and sailors of VC851 HS748 Flight during the period 25 December, 1974 to 10 January, 1975. The zeal and enthusiasm displayed throughout the preparation for, and conduct of the 14 sorties as part of Operation 'Navy Help Darwin' in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, and which enabled a sortie to transport a rescue team to Hobart as a result of the Tasman Bridge disaster during this operation, is most commendable. The conduct of the flight, the motivation displayed despite personal discomfort caused by long hours reflects great credit on all officers and sailors concerned. I would be grateful if you would inform all those involved of my admiration of their conduct."

Darwin's mayor, Harry 'Tiger' Brennan, echoed the Rear Admiral's commendation saying "We owe the Navy the greatest debt of all."

 

A RAN HS748 accompanied by two Trackers.
A RAN HS748 accompanied by two Trackers.

It was not long after the relief effort in Darwin that VC851 Squadron would be required to cross the breadth of the nation to participate in Operation Trochus 75. The intrusion of foreign fishing vessels to the north-west of Australia was becoming increasingly problematic to the Government, not least for the poaching in Australian waters but also for the threat of exotic diseases and possible drug trafficking. After participating in a flypast as part of the Festival of Perth at the end of February 1975, and the first ever live colour television broadcast in Western Australia, three Trackers and an HS748 proceeded north to Broome. The HS748 returned to NAS Nowra soon after but the Trackers remained in Broome for what was originally intended to be a one month deployment in support of Operation Trochus.

Trackers on patrol in the top end.
Trackers on patrol in the top end.

Flying operations started on 6 March 1975 and covered thousands of square kilometres from the mainland to offshore reefs some 550 kms north of Broome. The Squadron's HS748s would fly fortnightly courier services for the detachment bringing supplies and a regular changeover of personnel. The length of stay in Broome could vary from two to five weeks and not a single sortie was cancelled because of unserviceable aircraft, a credit to the aircraft maintenance crews who were working in temperatures up to 45 degrees C, in high humidity with wind and dust.

Aircraft maintainers POATW John Woods, POATA Brian Sargeson and ABATW Peter McCarthy at the RAN Air Station near Broome for Operation TROCHUS.
Aircraft maintainers POATW John Woods, POATA Brian Sargeson and ABATW Peter McCarthy at the RAN Air Station near Broome for Operation TROCHUS.

The deployment was so successful in curtailing the illegal intrusion of foreign fishing vessels that the original one month deployment was extended to three. VS816 Squadron took over from VC851 in May 1975 and the two squadrons continued Trochus operations until December 1980 when the task was taken on by a civilian company.

851 Squadron Trackers in flight over Uluru.
851 Squadron Trackers in flight over Uluru.

Both Tracker squadrons, VC851 and VS816, suffered major setbacks on 4 December 1976 when most of their aircraft were destroyed in a hangar fire at NAS Nowra. At around midnight that evening, 'H' hangar was engulfed in flames and all but three of the RAN's Tracker fleet were lost. One of these was at the Hawker de Havilland workshops in Bankstown at the time, undergoing inspection.

NAS Nowra after the hangar fire of 4 December 1976 that all but wiped out the RAN Tracker fleet. The roof over the southern end of the hangar collapsed destroying all the aircraft beneath it.
NAS Nowra after the hangar fire of 4 December 1976 that all but wiped out the RAN Tracker fleet. The roof over the southern end of the hangar collapsed destroying all the aircraft beneath it.

Around 100 RAN personnel and local Nowra fire fighters risked their lives battling the flames and trying to drag aircraft from the burning building. The Trackers' fuel tanks were fully loaded with volatile aviation fuel to avoid water contamination from condensation forming in the fuel tanks over the Christmas period. In spite of the inherent danger, personnel ran into the building and climbed into the cockpits of the aircraft to release the brakes and tow them clear of the hangar while the planes themselves were ablaze, in some cases, using their own cars to do so. They managed to pull five of the twelve aircraft in the hangar clear; two of them were repaired and returned to service. Their courageous actions drew high praise from the Minister for Defence, Mr Jim Killen, who said after visiting the site on 5 December 1976:

"If any people in this country think guts has gone from the Services, I invite them to reflect on what happened in the early hours of this morning."

Police suspected arson and a Board of Inquiry was immediately announced. On 19 January 1977, a 19 year old junior sailor from one of the Tracker squadrons admitted to starting the fire. He was subsequently found to be mentally unstable at his court-martial.

LCDR Jack McCaffrie, LEUT Jack Ryan, CMDR Rob Partington and CDRE Robert Loosli at the handover ceremony of replacement Trackers in the USA in 1977 following the hangar fire at NAS Nowra.
LCDR Jack McCaffrie, LEUT Jack Ryan, CMDR Rob Partington and CDRE Robert Loosli at the handover ceremony of replacement Trackers in the USA in 1977 following the hangar fire at NAS Nowra.

The fire had crippled the FAA's fixed-wing Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities. However, the following months displayed the excellent relationship that the RAN had developed with the United States Navy (USN) as the RAN's ASW component was not only replenished but increased in astonishingly quick time. Six more modern second hand Trackers had already been ordered in October 1976 and delivery was being organised at the time of the fire. This order was expanded to sixteen and an RAN team travelled to the US to hand-pick the aircraft from USN stores. The aircraft were duly supplied and the RAN received them at a massive discount, as much as 97 percent.

The replacement Trackers get a bath at NAS Nowra after their delivery in 1977.
The replacement Trackers get a bath at NAS Nowra after their delivery in 1977.

Following its participation in RIMPAC 77, Melbourne travelled to San Diego to pick up the replacement Trackers, arriving back in Sydney on 5 April 1977. The aircraft were flown-off on 5 and 6 April, still with USN markings, with some flying to the Hawker de Havilland workshops in Bankstown for further work and the rest directly to NAS Nowra to prepare for service. In less than six months, the FAA's fixed-wing ASW capability had gone from being virtually destroyed to a higher standard than had previously been the case.

In addition to VC851 Squadron's Trochus commitments in the northern parts of Australia the Squadron also began flying anti-terrorist patrols over off-shore oil rigs in Bass Strait.

Inside a Tracker's cockpit.
Inside a Tracker's cockpit.

In spite of its commendable service, the future of fixed-wing naval aviation remained in doubt throughout the late 1970s. The chances of acquiring a new carrier to replace Melbourne when she paid off in the mid 1980's became increasingly thin and Naval Aviation's focus became firmly fixed on rotary-wing and Vertical/ Short Take-Off and Landing (VSTOL) aircraft. It seemed almost certain that the Trackers and Skyhawks of the RAN would cease operations after Melbourne's demise. However, the surveillance capabilities of the Trackers, highlighted during the Trochus operations in northern Australia and the anti-terrorism patrols in Bass Strait, suggested that they may yet have a future in shore-based ASW or surveillance tasks.

With Melbourne's decommissioning in June 1982 it was not long before the RAN's two front-line fixed-wing squadrons, VF805 and VS816, were disbanded at NAS Nowra on 2 July 1982. VC851 Squadron consequently absorbed VS816 into its complement. The last ever flypast of RAN fixed-wing aircraft occurred on 8 December 1983 at a graduation ceremony at HMAS Creswell with VC851 Squadron Trackers taking part. The squadron itself, the last of the RAN's fixed-wing squadrons, disbanded at NAS Nowra on 31 August 1984. The Squadron's HS748s were transferred to HC723 Squadron where they performed electronic warfare training support and VIP transport duties until they were decommissioned on 30 June 2000.

851 and 724 Squadrons at their de-commissioning in June 1984. From left to right: LEUT Andrew Davis, POACM Rick Neville, LEUT Peter Brown, POACM Mal Hume, CPOACM Bob Mills, LEUT Tony Caladine, SBLT Harry Wendt, SBLT Graham Miller, LCDR Roger Scovell, LCDR Richard Scott, LCDR John Hamilton, LEUT Ray France, SBLT Dave Coote, LCDR Mike Killingsworth, LCDR Larry Mills, LCDR Neil Austin, LEUT Neil Coulch, SBLT Deane Williams, POACM Linton Beggs, POACM Sandy Nelson, SBLT Bob Jones.
851 and 724 Squadrons at their de-commissioning in June 1984. From left to right: LEUT Andrew Davis, POACM Rick Neville, LEUT Peter Brown, POACM Mal Hume, CPOACM Bob Mills, LEUT Tony Caladine, SBLT Harry Wendt, SBLT Graham Miller, LCDR Roger Scovell, LCDR Richard Scott, LCDR John Hamilton, LEUT Ray France, SBLT Dave Coote, LCDR Mike Killingsworth, LCDR Larry Mills, LCDR Neil Austin, LEUT Neil Coulch, SBLT Deane Williams, POACM Linton Beggs, POACM Sandy Nelson, SBLT Bob Jones.
 

Chronology

Date Event
10/1943 Formed as a RN torpedo/ bomber/ reconnaissance squadron
09/1945 Disbanded
03/08/1954 Commissioned at NAS Nowra as a training squadron flying Fairey Fireflies and Douglas Dakotas
13/01/1958 Squadron de-commissioned
02/09/1968 Squadron re-commissioned at NAS Nowra as a training and transport squadron flying Grumman Trackers and Dakotas
07/06/1973 Takes delivery of two Hawker Siddeley HS748s. The aircraft are flown from the UK to NAS Nowra marking the first trans-global flight by RAN personnel
24/12/1974 Cyclone Tracy hits Darwin. VC851 Squadron flies 14 sorties amounting to 222 flying hours carrying 485 passengers and 22 700 kgs of freight
05/01/1975 Tasman Bridge Disaster
04/12/1976 NAS Nowra hangar fire destroys almost the entire RAN Tracker complement
05/04/1977 Replacement Trackers arrive in Australia
02/07/1982 VC851 Squadron absorbs VS816 Squadron
08/12/1983 Last flypast of RAN fixed-wing aircraft at HMAS Creswell
31/08/1984 Squadron de-commissioned
The RAN's two HS748s in flight over Point Perpendicular, Jervis Bay.
The RAN's two HS748s in flight over Point Perpendicular, Jervis Bay.

Commanding Officers

Assumed Command Commanding Officer
03/08/1954 Lieutenant Commander D.C. Johns
03/08/1956 Lieutenant Commander M.E. Scott
12/08/1957 Lieutenant Commander J.M.Wade-Brown
02/09/1968 Lieutenant Commander R.R.M. Lea
20/04/1970 Lieutenant Commander H.C.D. Findlay
09/12/1971 Lieutenant Commander J.L. Clarke
15/01/1973 Lieutenant Commander R.V. Morritt
19/04/1973 Lieutenant Commander J.D. Campbell
15/01/1975 Lieutenant Commander T.A. Burdorf
19/07/1976 Lieutenant Commander C.W. Talbot
04/10/1976 Lieutenant Commander P.O. Hamon
04/04/1977 Lieutenant Commander A.P. Adams
20/02/1978 Lieutenant Commander R.E.N. Geale, MBE
20/01/1980 Lieutenant Commander C.W. Talbot
13/07/1981 Lieutenant Commander T.A. Peck
14/01/1983 Lieutenant Commander J.W. Dalgliesh
08/04/1984 Lieutenant Commander D.R.A. Scott
04/06/1984 Lieutenant Commander R.P. Scovell

Further reading

  1. Australian Naval Aviation Museum, Flying Stations: A Story of Australian Naval Aviation, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1998
  2. Eather, Steve, Flying Squadrons of the Australian Defence Force, Aerospace Publications, Canberra, 1995
  3. Gillett, Ross, Wings Across the Sea, Aerospace Publications, Canberra, 1988