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NH Oddie

Flying Officer Neville Hargreaves Oddie 400541 RAAF: KAO 13 February 1942

The RAAF contribution continued...
Spread half way around Australia or more, today the Oddie family maintain a keen sense of history, close links with each other, and a tradition of service in the RAAF, in the Army, and in the Middle East.

John and Barbara, and Peter and Rosemary, first kindly made much of their carefully maintained collection about Neville Hargreaves Oddie available, even as Darwin commemorated the 60th anniversary of its first air raid.

Neville was a cousin of John and Peter’s father, Jim Oddie. Peter and Rosemary farm the property once owned by Neville and his sister Margaret in the Central Highlands district of country Victoria. In 2012, John Oddie AM CSC retired in the rank of Air Commodore after a long and distinguished RAAF career. Barbara also served in the RAAF, in the early 1980s. She gathers the Oddie family history together, from records variously held by the family and elsewhere.

    Oddie Portrait c1941 cropped
    Pilot Officer Neville Oddie cJune 1941 (Oddie family)
    A fine formal portrait of the sort taken to mark the big occasions: graduation, commissioning, or departure for overseas service—and thus very often undated. Photographed by the then well-known Broothorn Studios of Collins St Melbourne, Oddie wears the uniform of an RAAF officer. Commissioned in early June 1941 shortly after completing his Observer training in Australia, he was immediately posted to 1 Embarkation Depot Sydney. By late June, he was at sea bound for the Middle East and RAF service. Taken together, the date looks fairly certain to be early June 1941.

    The framed print, embossed with the Broothorn stamp and with the usual impenetrable order number on the rear, had been quietly resting in an old buffet in a back room at the family property until recently retrieved by Barbara. An amazing find indeed.

The Oddies have dipped generously (and more than once) into their collection of family memorabilia, from which material it has been a pleasure to draw together this account of Neville’s war-time RAAF and RAF service, while also calling upon RAAF personnel and casualty files from the National Archives of Australia.

Some background
Neville Hargreaves Oddie was born on 9 March 1908, at Ballarat in rural Victoria. When he joined the RAAF in September 1940 at 1 Recruiting Centre, Melbourne, he was already holder of an A Class Pilot’s License. However, as others found at that time, the RAAF need was for more than pilots. Old for a fighting pilot at 32, Oddie was accepted for Aircrew training but mustered as an Observer.

Posted to 1 ITS Somers on the Mornington Peninsula South of Melbourne, his nominally 12 week Initial Training School course ended in early December 1940. For his three month Observer’s course, Neville was posted to No 1 Air Observer’s School, RAAF Cootamundra in Western New South Wales. In early March 1941, a member of a Flight of 50 on 7 Course, he passed a stiff set of exams after a lot of classwork and numerous air navigation exercises of 300 or 400 miles by day and by night, mainly in Avro Ansons.

His next posting was to No. 1 Bombing and Air Gunnery School, Evans Head, where he had completed the eight week bomb-aiming course for Observers by the start of May 1941. 1 BAGS trained many an RAAF airman, mainly in Fairey Battles: Oddie’s crewmate Joe Payne had been posted there, too, for his 4 week WOp/AG training in August 1940. JB Keeping also trained there, completing his WOp/AG course just as Oddie was finishing his Cootamundra stint.

For the remainder of May 1941, Oddie was rounding out his overall Observer’s course-work under the EATS syllabus requirement of some 8 months training, by attending No 7 Air Observers Course at 1 Air Navigation School, RAAF Parkes in western New South Wales. At 1 ANS, he passed out Dux of the 4 week Astro Navigation course.

    Bookplate: Australian Flying Corps (Oddie family collection)
    His achievement was recognised, in the custom of those days, with the award of a book. Graced with a magnificent hand-coloured and drawn bookplate, Cutlack’s Australian Flying Corps (Volume VIII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918) was presented to NH Oddie by the Rotary Club of Parkes. I hardly need add that the book today lies safe in the collection of John and Barbara Oddie.

    Budsey,Golder, Sinclair
    L to R Keith Birdsey, Dennis Golder, Ken Sinclair (three of my pals) (Oddie family collection)
    No. 1 AOS Cootamundra February 1941: Keith Birdsey 400523 subsequently served with 11 Squadron RAF in the Far East, only to be killed in a flying accident 5 April 1943. Dennis Golder 400531 survived the war, marching out a Flight Lieutenant 9 September 1946. This additional information by courtesy of David Vincent, who holds a dated copy of the print.

By the first week of June 1941, Pilot Officer Oddie found himself posted to 1 Embarkation Depot Ascot Vale, leaving Sydney on 27 June bound for the Middle East, Kenya (70 OTU) and Egypt. Promoted Flying Officer in December, he joined 211 Squadron on 28 Dec 1941 according to his RAAF record, joining them in time for the long flight to the Far East in January 1942.

Australian aircrew were a strong presence in the Squadron’s early 1942 Far East campaign. Sadly, Neville was on operations for only a very brief period before being posted missing. Oddie, his pilot GG Mackay 404566 and WOp/AG JH Payne 406150 were all lost on the Squadron attempt to attack the Japanese invasion force in Banka Strait on 13 February 1942. First posted as missing, the site of their loss was only found 25 years later.

Returned to the family at the end of the war, Neville Oddie’s personal effects included photographs from his service overseas but the collection did not extend to his time in Sumatra.

NHO’s photographs

    Oddie and de Havilland DH89
    Just landed after 700 miles (Oddie family collection)
    “NHO in Egypt or Kenya, 1941”
    The aircraft is a de Havilland DH.89 Dominie apparently in silver dope over all, if not trainer yellow. No rank insignia visible, either within or upon the Sidcot.

    The DH.89 had a range of 570 miles and a cruising speed of 132mph - an endurance of about 4 hours 20 min. Tired and somewhat ruffled after 700 miles of watching the mainplanes twitching, it looks as though NHO might have fancied a short interlude for refreshment. Well over 5 hours flying time in a DH.89 must have made for a very long day.

    While the distance itself might be seen as confirming the attribution, the flying suit and lack of camouflage are together faintly suggestive of other places, other times, possibly even Australia. In Aug—Sep 1940, the RAAF had impressed a number of DH.89s into service. Referred to in Australia by their original title, RAAF Dragon Rapides operated until 1944 mainly in the wireless and navigation training roles.

    On the other hand, there is at least one indication that DH.89s were present in the Middle East. The Kenya Auxiliary Air Unit had one DH.89 on charge in East Africa in 1940—1941: K8 (ex VP-KCR) was used as a transport for example to the April 1941 armistice discussions with the Italians at Diredawa, finished in a local camouflage scheme. While Oddie had spent time at 70 OTU in Kenya, the connection is rather faint. This may be a RAAF Dragon Rapide, but equally may be a RAF Dominie. Only Neville’s Log Book would reveal which aircraft this was.

    Oddie relaxing, Sudan
    Myself (Neville Hargreaves Oddie) outside The Sudan Railway Hotel at Wadi Halfa - quite a good pub (Oddie family collection)
    Wadi Halfa: a staging post on the border of Egypt and the then Sudan, well known to the denizens of Wadi Gazouza.

    Bristol Blenheim Sudan
    Our damaged craft in the hands of the RAF boys away down in The Sudan (Oddie family collection)
    A Mark I Blenheim, cockpit shrouded against the heat, as fitters work on the starboard engine. The LSC (Light Series bomb carrier) clearly seen against the sunlit sand, abaft the bomb bay. Mid to late 1941, most probably.

    Bristol Blenheim I Sudan
    L to R Sergeant Blumer (wireless op & gunner), Flt Lt Duggan-Smith (pilot) and the Shell Co's representatives at Assouit (Oddie family collection)

    Keith Budsey Africa
    Keith Birdsey (Oddie family collection)

    The Mess
    The Officers' Mess Wakuna [sic Nakuru] (Oddie family collection)]

    An Outpost of Empire: RAF Headquarters Gil-Gil (Oddie family collection)
    [Neville's quarters Mid-East]

    The mess, Wadi Halfa
    Officers' Mess members, Wadi Halfa. The full complement of the Officers' Mess at Wadi Halfa. Breakfast on the verandah. L to R. F/O Kinnar (the C/O), Doc Robinson (a hard case Australian), Smithy, myself occupying the vacant chair (Oddie family collection)

    Graham Mackay
    Graham Mackay (Mac)
    My pilot. He does not usually look as grim as this. (Oddie family collection)

    Myself outside our home in the M.E. Pool
    The sign originally read Belle Vue but some humourist changed it.
    However it was quite appropriate as we used to spend quite a while
    there on our backs with the minimum of clothing. (Oddie family collection)

    Oddie at controls
    Myself flying a bomber somewhere in The Sudan (Oddie family collection)

    United Servces Club Tobruk
    Myself at the United Services Club "Ismailia" (Oddie family collection)

    AIF Beer sign
    This advertisement was done by a signwriter in the AIF in Tobruk. (Oddie family collection)

The tale as told by others
As usual, any amplifications [thus].

1. Pilot Officer Brown’s letter
407357 P/O R.F. Brown
6 Squadron RAAF
Richmond N.S.W.
I am sorry that I am so late in my letter but my mother had kept your letter at my home until she received from me my new address which is as above.

Needless to say I am very sorry to hear that Neville is missing, he was one of my best friends. We had both started our observers course together at Somers in Sep. 1940 [No 1 Initial Training School, near Western Port Bay, Vic] and kept together all through, first our 8 months course in Australia [No 1 Air Observers School, Cootamundra in the mid-west of New South Wales, No 1 Bombing and Air Gunnery School, Evans Head and No 1 Air Navigation School, Parkes] then Egypt, Kenya, Egypt again and finally Sumatra.

It was on 13.2.42 not 21.2.42, that Neville disappeared together with his crew, Graham Mackay and Joe Payne. I remember it well and it was from Palembang in Sumatra and not from Java - Dave Stewart disappeared from Java on 21.2.42. Neville's machine was one of several from our squadron which went out on 13.2.42 and were caught in a terrific storm. Most of the machines managed to grope their way back in the storm and in darkness, but Neville's machine and another piloted by a Scot RAF chap named Chalmers - failed to return. A few weeks later we learnt that Chalmers had been unable to find
Palembang and landed in the sea, just east of the Sumatra coast near Palembang. He and his gunner were picked up by a vessel after they'd been in the water for about 12 hours. The observer was killed on impact, but of Neville and his crew no-one has heard a word, unfortunately. They were certainly not shot down when on the raid, for they went out in formation and did not locate the enemy shipping they were after. It was only when well on the way home that the storm split them up and darkness closed down. Anything could have happened. They may have flown around looking for Palembang until out of petrol & then parachuted, or they may have put the machine down in the sea and met with an accident in doing so.
If they had jumped they will be prisoners now as we left Palembang 3 days later. It would have taken them days to have gone a few miles in the swampy & forest covered country around the port (or "that part" ) of Sumatra.

[Despite this optimism, other Squadron members held a reasonably firm view that Mackay, Oddie and Payne had gone down in the jungles and swamps that are characteristic of Sumatra’s north-eastern landscape. They were right, though it took over a quarter of a century to find out. See the Sumatra and Java section for the various DPS Casualty Section narratives, including another report from Brown.]

2. Letter from Graham Mackay's Mother & Step-father (extract)
A
P/O Cuttiford's account much the same as P/O Brown's - that the "planes left the aerodrome at 4.15pm and when they returned to the drome it was dark and a terrific storm was raging. There was no flare path for them to land so after circling the drome for ½ hour they left for another 45 miles away, the only other drome left in our possession, as the island was swarming with the enemy. Whilst the planes were circling, the drome ground staff were desperately trying to improvise by filling drums with sand and soaking it with petrol, to take the place of flares. All this took time and the planes had left. The Ground Staff definitely reported the 6 planes left the drome, and as only 4 landed at the next drome 2 were lost between the two places. One came down in the sea off Banka Island & the pilot & gunner were picked up. Of my son & his crew nothing has been heard. P/O Cuttiford thought that they may have been able to bale out & in that case taken prisoner. My husband immediately went to the Air Board, & we received a long telegram saying that they corroborated P/O Cuttiford's account.

3. Transcript of a letter to step-father of P/O Mackay
[An Oddie family transcript, on Challicum Park letterhead, of an Air Board document concerning the fate of P/O Mackay, lost on the same operation. The text is all in capitals (as was telegraph practice). It is not possible to state from the scanned copy whether it is a re-typed transcript or a photocopy of some sort. The language is slightly telegraphic. The reference to an enclosed list may indicate the original was a letter, but official telegrams and signals of the period were from time to time quite remarkable in length. The reference to the operation as “13 April 1942” is a an example of the sort of puzzle that arises in records, whether official or private, from such periods of great pressure. Here it is clearly a slip for February 13, and most likely a slip by the departmental staff (mentally “stuck” to the April dates of the immediately preceding references to prior correspondence) rather than a slip by the Oddie (or Mackay?) family transcriber, who would have well known the date in question.]

“Dear Sir,
I refer to telegram from this department of April 10th 1942, and to your letter dated 8th April regarding your step-son P/O Graham Gordon Mackay. Further information has been received from Sgt JO Penry of 211 Squadron who has recently returned to Australia from Sumatra. Sgt Penry states that on April 13th 1942 [sic: Feb 13] 6 Blenheims led by W/Cdr
Bateson left Palembang in the afternoon to escort a convoy. They were unable to find the convoy and as they were returning at dusk they ran into a storm over Palembang. 4 of the aircraft including the W/Cdr landed at another airfield 45 miles away. One of the other two landed [sic: ditched] near Banka Is. where the Pilot and Gunner were picked up, the Observer being killed on impact and presumed to have gone down with the plane. I regret to say that the plane piloted by your stepson has not been heard of since. This report substantially confirms the report already in your possession, that P/O Mackay is presumed missing. He is not necessarily killed or wounded. In view of this it may be of assistance to you in your anxiety to know what action is taken to trace missing members of the air-force. I am enclosing a list.”

13 February 1942
Drawing upon these and other
1942 accounts, plus the Flying Log Books of CO Bob Bateson, of Reg Cuttiford, Bill Baird, the pocket diary of Flight Mechanic Bob Livesey. and the records of George Kendrick, it has now become possible to form a rather more complete summary of the events of the day.

On the afternoon of 13 February, W/Cdr RN Bateson led his six serviceable Blenheims on a daylight sweep to seek out the Japanese invasion force, known to be approaching Banka Island to the North of Palembang.

They took off at about 15:40 hours that day, late in the North-West monsoon season. They were unsuccessful in finding the Japanese, apparently defeated by the afternoon weather. The formation had expected to return to P2 around 18:00 to 18:30hrs but were beset by violent tropical storms, as George Kendrick and his pilot Don Chalmers later recounted (and as Livesey and Baird recorded). Sunset that day was at 18:21hrs local time.

Unable to sight P2 in the filthy weather, Bateson & co, with Cuttiford & co and two other crews were able to find their way back North to Palembang P1, landing at about 19:40hrs, the last hour or so in the dark, one aircraft being written off on landing. The remaining two aircraft of the six failed to return.

Running low on fuel and unable to sight either P2 or P1 in the poor weather, pilot Don Chalmers had decided that a forced-landing in the sea was the better option, as he later told Ginge Brown. He and his crew ditched in the Java Sea at about 19:50hrs, as Gunner Kendrick recalled later. Their Observer, McInerney, was lost in the impact.

Meanwhile, Graham Mackay, Neville Oddie and Joe Payne were in a similar difficulty: a moonless night, violent tropical storms, no sight of either airfield (there had been trouble again with the P2 flare path in the downpour), and fuel running low after four hours in the air. Mackay may also have decided that a forced-landing offered more chance than a bale-out in poor conditions, or perhaps the violent weather overwhelmed them. Oddie’s navigation skills had got them close to P2 but their luck was out.

Reporting once back in Australia, Bateson surmised that Mackay & co had put down in the swamps near Palembang P2. A quarter of a century later his assessment turned out to be right.

Found
In late 1967, the Indonesians found the wreckage of a war-time aircraft and the scant remains of the crew. The wreck lay in the swamps of the Moesi flood-plain, about 15 miles from P2 and perhaps 30 miles from P1. Having investigated the scene, the Indonesian Armed Forces Information Centre was most helpful, alerting Australian and British consular officials and, in early 1968, returning materials recovered from the site.

Among the recovered items was a gold watch, stopped at 8:05 (or possibly 7:05). The state of the aircraft and the associated material suggested that all the crew had perished in the crash.

The Sunday Mail, Brisbane, 11 Feb 1968 page 5
Only 15 miles but 26 years away from safety. The Mail’s story:

    FOUND: Lost for 26 Years
    Courier Mail  11 Feb 68 26-year wreck's message
    “A crashed bomber found in the jungle swamps of South Sumatra has revealed the fate of a Brisbane pilot lost in the war against the Japanese 26 years ago.

    He was Flying Officer Graham Gordon Mackay, aged 26, pilot of a Blenheim bomber which disappeared on February 13, 1942. A report from Jakarta published In The Sunday Mail last week said that the remains of three crewmen had been found 30 miles south-west of Talang Betut air base near Palembang.

    A flying jacket found In the wreckage bore the name GG Mackay. Flying Officer Mackay and his crew went missing while returning to base from convoy patrol duty. They were attached to 211 Squadron RAF. His closest surviving relative is a sister, Mrs LR Douglas of Zillman Road, Hendra.

    Flying Officer Mackay, who lived at Clayfield, was educated at the Church of England Grammar School and later studied accountancy and was on the staff of the Texaco Oil Company. He trained with the Light Car Unit before winning his wings in the RAAF at Amberley.

    Flying Officer Mackay's Blenheim was one of six which flew on convoy patrol on the day he was lost. Four of the other aircraft returned to base. A fifth crashed into the sea, and two of the three crew were rescued. The day after Flying Officer Mackay's Blenheim disappeared, his bomber unit was withdrawn in the face of advancing Japanese.”
     

Like many records of the time, the various reports differ in completeness and in detail to some degree. The Squadron record for this period did not survive and the exact identity of the lost aircraft is not recorded in the available RAAF casualty reports.

However, in seeking to confirm the identity of the aircraft and its crew, it soon became apparent to the British and Australian authorities that although it was impossible to identify the crew individually, there was no reason to doubt that it was the 211 Squadron Blenheim IV of Graham Mackay, Neville Oddie and Joe Payne.

In corroboration, the Ministry of Defence also found that RAF HQ Far East records mentioned a partial serial for a missing Blenheim: 9820.

As it turned out, that record was an understandable partial garble. The known lists of Air Ministry serials for Blenheim Mark IV aircraft show a few possible partial matches, none of them exact. Of those possible matches, all but one can be discarded as identified losses elsewhere, leaving a single possible partial solution: Blenheim Mark IV Z9829.

Bristol Blenheim Mark IV Z9829
The aircraft was one of the last of a batch of 200 aircraft built by AV Roe at Manchester and delivered to the RAF between May and October 1941. It was first issued to No 3 OTU at RAF Cranwell before being sent to the Far East.

The aircraft is known to have been on 211 Squadron charge in January 1942 as the Squadron prepared to leave for the Far East. At one point it was allotted to the all-RAAF crew of Bev West, George Ritchie and John Keeping, as recorded in Keeping’s personal diary (they were later allotted a different aircraft to ferry to the Far East).

No further details of crews or operations for the aircraft are available at present, but the evidence strongly suggests that it was Bristol Blenheim Mark IV Z9829 in which Mackay, Oddie and Payne were lost in Sumatra that night.

From the time on the recovered watch, it seems likely the crash had happened at about 20:05hrs on the night of 13 February 1942, about 25 minutes after the main group had landed at P1 and some 15 minutes after Chalmers had ditched his aircraft in the Java Sea.

In unravelling these later details of the losses of 13 February, I am indebted to the Oddie family for access to family papers, to Bill Baird for further extracts from his Air Gunner’s Flying Log Book, to Colin Tigwell, ex-RAAF Hercules loadmaster, for access to recent and historical RAAF and MoD correspondence about the 1967 recovery, and to the Kendrick and Summerville families for access to the late George Kendrick’s papers.

Sources
MoD & RAAF correspondence 1968, 2008 (via Colin Tigwell)
RAAF Personnel File 400541 NH Oddie (
NAA A9300)
RAAF Casualty file 400541 NH Oddie (NAA Series A705/15 Item 163/50/51)
RAAF Casualty files Bateson, Penry & Brown reports (NAA A705 series, various)
W
Baird correspondence & Flying Log Book
R
Cuttiford Flying Log Book
JB
Keeping personal diary
Kendrick & Summerville family papers & correspondence
Oddie family papers, letters and photographs
D Vincent personal correspondence

HMSO London Gazette issues 1941, 1942
Halley RAF Aircraft X1000 to Z9999 (Air Britain 1984)
Campbell & Lovell So Long Singapore (Campbell 2000)
Robertson British Military Aircraft Serials 1912-1969 (Ian Allan 1969)
Shores, Cull & Izawa Bloody Shambles Vol II (Grub Street 1993)
Sturtivant RAF Flying Training and Support Units (Air Britain 2007)

Remembered with honour
Like too many of their comrades, Graham Mackay, Neville Oddie and Joe Payne are commemorated in the
Australian War Memorial Honour Roll and by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on the Singapore Memorial in Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore and on the CWGC Honour Roll.

For 26 years the Singapore Memorial had been their only epitaph. In 1970, after consultation with the families, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission arranged for reburial of their scant remains in Lutwyche War Cemetery, Queensland. Graham Mackay’s sister lived in Brisbane.

Neville’s sister Margaret Oddie in Victoria was also notified of the service. Although it is uncertain whether she was able to attend, Margaret kept a simple photograph of the site dated 29 June 1970—the day of the burial service. The grave, immediately behind the front row of headstones, is marked at this point only by funeral wreaths and equipment.

NHO 5_104
Lutwyche War Cemetery 29 June 1970 (Oddie family collection)

The boys were not individually identifiable. Thus inseparable in death as in life, Graham, Neville and Joe lie together in a single plot, commemorated by the simple inscription, An Australian Airman of the 1939—1945 War. The family photograph, below, shows the same corner of the cemetery as it is today: the headstone is in the centre of the row in the foreground.

25.01.2009 - Lutwyche War Cemetary 011 copy
Lutwyche War Cemetery 25 January 2009 (Oddie family collection)

In Memory of
NEVILLE HARGREAVES ODDIE
Flying Officer 400541
Royal Australian Air Force
who died on Friday 13 February 1942
Age 33
Son of Francis and Elizabeth Ann Oddie
Remembered with honour

 

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Site created 15 Apr 2001, last updated 11 Nov 2016. Page created 2 Mar 2002, last updated 31 Jul 2014
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