Aircraft coming soon on display
The Secret Order of the Double Sun Rise - Qantas and its Wartime Secret Indian Ocean Air Service
The Catalina was the very last type of flying boat type operated by Qantas. Most importantly, through its Catalina flying boat operations across the Indian Ocean between 1943 and 1945 Qantas created, and still holds, a world air service duration record that has never been broken - and probably never will!
In mid 1943, at a time when the war was being bitterly fought and Japan had complete domination over much of South East Asia, including the Indian Ocean, Qantas took delivery of five unarmed Catalinas.
In June, Qantas engineers Norm Roberts and Colin Sigley began setting up a base at Nedlands on the Swan River but they had few facilities and received almost no support from the Department of Civil Aviation which did not support the establishment of this new air service even though the Australian Government required it. Facilities remained crude for much of the war and had it not been for the generous but informal support of an American Navy Catalina Patrol Wing nearby, the service would have been in serious trouble.
The only protection these 'Cats' had was their camouflage paint. These flying boats - their brave crews and skilled maintenance staff - were to operate a highly secret air service between Lake Koggala, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Perth, Western Australia.
A distance of 8,780 kilometres had to be flown some of it over Japanese dominated oceans to re-establish an air link - broken in 1942 - with the United Kingdom. The Catalina's flew in complete radio silence lest their radio signals allow Japanese fighter aircraft to be homed onto them, with virtually no navigation aids and so heavily overloaded with fuel that, if they suffered an engine failure in the first seventeen hours of flight they would either crash or would be forced down onto a Japanese dominated ocean. If that occurred and they were captured, Qantas crews faced death as the Japanese routinely tortured and murdered any allied aircrews they captured in World War II. Where possible, the crews attempted to fly over Japanese territory in the hours of darkness.
Captain Russell Tapp, First Officer Rex Senior, Flight Engineer Frank Furniss and Radio Officer Glen Mumford
flew the first service. With a fuel overload of nearly four tons they took off from Nedlands at 4.30am on 29
June 1943. Their aircraft was 'Altair Star'. First officer Senior remembered:
As we slowly climbed to our cruise height and settled on course along the Western Australian coast the
knowledge that we were commencing the first and longest non-stop passenger service in the word, travelling
3580 miles COVERT across the lonely waters of the Indian Ocean, gave us all a considerable thrill.
At night as we neared the area controlled by the Japanese, the aircraft was blacked out ... with the Indonesian
and surrounding territory occupied by the Japanese our radio was turned off and as a result Glen's function
was basically to listen out at scheduled times, when very short transmissions gave an estimated weather forecast.
- Passing through the region of the tropical fronts there were occasional periods of rain and much cloud cover, while from time to time flashes of lightning lit the clouds.
Captain Tapp and his crew completed the flight without incident in a time of twenty-eight hours and nine minutes.
At night, the uninsulated Catalina's became very cold and the crews flying them often wore RAAF flying suits in an attempt to keep warm.
First Officer Rex Senior remembered that 'There was a lot of beauty to be enjoyed on these long flights, with the clearness of the atmosphere far out in the Indian Ocean creating a clarity of the stars, far unlike that seen from the land, and I vividly recall watching Venus one night as it rose from the horizon, when its light rivalled that of the moon'.
Captain Tapp and his crew had broken Japan's Indian Ocean blockade of Australia.
To conserve fuel and make the most of the prevailing wind the aircraft flew north from Perth was flown at low level - after a climb to 1000 feet a further slow climb as fuel was burnt took the aircraft to two thousand feet. On the return trip from Sri Lanka, the aircraft flew at between 10000 and 12000 feet again to make use of the prevailing wind.
These Indian Ocean flights in the slow 'Cats' that travelled at around 100 miles per hour were made non-stop - no landings and the average duration was twenty-eight hours - the very longest flight took thirty-one hours and forty-five minutes! How would you like to be in the air that long today in a modern properly fitted out passenger aircraft let alone in an unpressurised, noisy and cramped aircraft subject to surprise enemy attack for much of the distance? This achievement still stands and it is a record created by an airline that played an important role in helping Australia win the war against Japan.
The service was so secret that Qantas crews could not tell anyone what they were doing and the service was never publicised during the war. This had some unfortunate consequences for the Qantas crews who wore civilian clothes when off duty. First Officer Rex Senior - who had earlier flown Sunderland flying boats on combat operations with the RAAF in Europe before transferring to Qantas, when trying to buy cigarettes in a shop was told to "go and join up, there are no cigarettes for bludgers" while on another occasion he received a white feather (denoting cowardice) from a passer-by. Due to the secret nature of their work, aircrew like Rex could say nothing to those who humiliated them in this manner. To have said anything at all about their service could have imperilled the lives of those who flew the service and their passengers. Even when Qantas crews contracted tropical illnesses overseas they were unable to tell their doctors where they had been so the matter could be effectively treated. Nothing could be allowed to compromise the secrecy of these flights!
Even though Qantas was able to avoid contact with the Japanese on these services, one Qantas Catalina crew were attacked by the Japanese. On 15 March 1944, Captain Russell Tapp and his crew flew one of the Catalina's to Cocos Island to collect a naval officer and then deliver them to Lake Koggala. While on the water refuelling with four gallon tins at Cocos Island the crew heard an aircraft approaching. A Japanese 'Betty' bomber, saw the Catalina and dived to attack, dropping several bombs. Luckily neither flying boat or its crew suffered damage or injury and the Japanese bomber left without making a second attack.
In November 1943 it was decided to extend the Qantas service up the east coast of India to meet the British Overseas Airways Corporation service at Karachi. This second leg of the route added a further 1490 nautical miles to the service.
These 'Cats' made 271 safe crossings of the Indian Ocean right through to the end of the war in the process delivered 860 high priority government and military passengers microfilmed mail and urgent war related freight. The very last Catalina service departed from Sri Lanka for Perth on 17 July 1945.
Passengers who flew on these flights were given a commemorative certificate signed by their aircraft's captain. The 'Secret Order of the Double Sunrise' was a remarkable souvenir and treasured possession for passenger who had the opportunity of seeing two sunrises appear on their secret flight!
Sadly, when the war ended, these five remarkable aircraft, lent to Australia under the provisions of the 'lend lease' scheme had to be destroyed as part of that agreement. Four of them were towed out to sea and scuttled off Perth. The fifth met the same fate outside Sydney Harbour. As he had previously tried to do, Hudson Fysh again recommended official awards for the Qantas crews who flew this important wartime service. The government again refused to acknowledge the courage and skills of Qantas crews.
As Qantas operated this vital air service as part of the allied war effort, it was only paid a token profit of 100 Sterling per year for its efforts. No one could accuse Qantas of profiteering from its wartime role! In fact, Qantas was almost destroyed as a result of its participation in the war. With all but one of its pre-war Empire flying boats destroyed, some of its crews killed and no modern aircraft left, it took a number of years for the airline to recover and to re-establish itself.
Air Graph Letter
In July 1943 Qantas began a highly secret high priority mail and passenger service from Lake Koggala, Ceylon across the Indian Ocean to Perth, Western Australia.
As weight reduction was critical, all mail carried on these flying boats was microfilmed as 'air graph' letters. Only after arrival at their destinations were the microfilms converted to paper. This 'air graph' was carried on the first Qantas Indian Ocean crossing and sent to Lester Brain from Captain Bill Crowther, who was responsible for managing the new service from Perth.
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