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18 (NEI) SQUADRON
FLIES UNDER THE SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE
DURING WW2

 

The following story is from 18th (NEI) Squadron Newsletter of July 1994:-

The story as told by Nicholas Dijkstra about his life and about the bridge.

I was visiting a friend, Oscar Drijber, residing in Ontario (Canada) when Oscar showed me your October '93 Newsletter. Two small items in your column "Around and About" tickled my fancy. These were in reference to the fact, whether or not, somebody flew under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Any time when I tell an old or a new Australian friend that I flew under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, not once, but twice, they give me a funny look and usually they tell me that I am a bloody liar. But I did - with a number of others, during May 1942.

But first, about myself. I was born in the Netherlands and I joined KLM in September 1937. I was meant to go abroad for KLM, but as war drew closer and prospects for a job abroad became doubtful, I became attached to the Flight Division at Amsterdam Airport, where I studied for my navigator-licence.

When WWII broke out, the Amsterdam-Batavia (Djakarta) service was interrupted. Three of KLM's DC3 aircraft were stranded in Naples, Italy, from where the crews and passengers continued their journey from the Far East en route to the Netherlands by train.

I was dispatched to Naples on 19.09.'39 and left Amsterdam by train, accompanied by three crews and a number of ground-personnel (mechanics and aircraft specialists) and via Munich, the Brenner, Bologna and Rome, we reached our destination 21 days later.

I was supposed to stay in Naples for 3 or 4 weeks, to help and restart KLM's Far Eastern Route, with Naples as the European turnaround terminal (Italy was not at war at that time). So it was that I found myself stranded in Naples on May 15, 1940 when Holland surrendered to Germany after the invasion of their small nation by the Germans on May 10, 1940. At the time we were told that we should wait in Naples for about three to four weeks by which time the war would be ended (won, of course, by the Germans) so we had nothing to worry about (sic)!

With a number of my country men we held a meeting that night and we decided to try and reach England. One of our DC-3's was still at Naples airport and apart from myself there were about 7 or 8 mechanics. But, we lacked a pilot!

It so happened that a few days earlier, on the island of Capri, I had met an Australian airline pilot by the name of Allan Cameron, who was accompanied by an Australian airline stewardess, Lauree Steele. Both were at the time with A.N.A. and had been in the Netherlands on an exchange program with KLM. I had first met Allan in the Netherlands, and when we suggested to Allan in Naples that he should fly our remaining DC3 in our escape plan, Allan immediately accepted our proposal. The alternative would most likely have been internment in a camp.

The next morning we took off from ‘Capo de Chino’ Airport and after following the coastline we reached Marseille. After a brief stop we continued on to Bordeaux where we made a night stop. The following morning we continued flying in a northerly direction, flying at low level, till we reached the French coast near the Channel Islands. From there we went to Shoreham (Brighton, Hove and Weston Airport) where we landed.

I found out later that Allan Cameron joined the RAF and was shot down over the Thames during the 'Battle of Britain’. Lauree Steele, I believe, stayed in England and if I am well informed returned to Australia soon after the war ended.

Whilst in England it appeared that my days with KLM would come to an end and that I would have to join what were the remnants of the Dutch Forces who had managed to reach the British shores. But then a message arrived to say that my knowledge was required in Java serving with KLM and KNILM. There did not seem to be any way to leave England at that time. However, I managed signing on with the Merchant Navy and after following a short gunnery course with the British Navy in Avonmouth, near Bristol, I was placed aboard a Dutch ship ("Nigerstroom") and we sailed in convoy (of 18 ships) across the North Atlantic, until we left the convoy and sailed via Capetown to Calcutta. Yes, we were attacked by a German submarine, and escaped, and in the South Atlantic we had drifted for two days to avoid meeting a German raider.

From Calcutta I flew with KLM to Java, where I took charge of the navigation office KLM/KNILM under René Wittert van Hoogland who was Chief of the Flight Division. That was in November 1940.

And then came the Japs. I participated in some evacuation flights from Sumatra and Singapore to Java. At the end of February 1942 I flew with Captain Jan van Balkom in a Lockheed-I4 via Surabaya to Broome, WA.

We were lucky enough to be in Broome a few days before the Japanese attack and continued via Cloncurry and Brisbane to Sydney.

For the first few months we continued flying with aircraft and crews belonging to KLM/KNILM, ferrying supplies from Archerfield, Brisbane, Queensland to USA bases in Northern Australia. I was a member of a flight on our DC5 from Archerfield to Townsville - this aircraft received a lot of attention from US personnel at the airport, so, after unloading the supplies, we organised a walkthrough of the aircraft (of which only a few were built), at one US dollar a head, and we managed to collect quite a bit of loot, which was split between the crew members!

Then, in May 1942, came the end. Our aircraft (DC-3's,DC-5's,Lockheed Electra’s) needed maintenance and spare parts which only the Americans could supply but were not willing to do so. KNILM management negotiated a handover of the aircraft to the US Air Force. Our crews, based in Sydney and Brisbane, were very upset about this decision. It meant that a useful service came to a sudden end, whilst the future of the crew members remained uncertain. Still, in my opinion this was not the reason that five aircraft of KLM/KNILM flew a few days later under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

On a beautiful Sunday in the month of May 1942, two US 'Kittyhawks' flew under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I was in Elizabeth Bay at the time, or near there, and saw them. Traffic on the bridge came to a full stop and people were excited. The following day it was the main item of conversation - everybody thought that it was a great stunt. Nobody had done that before!

So on the following Wednesday or Thursday when five aircraft of KLM and KNILM were being prepared for the final flight to Wagga Wagga, we were also talking about it.

We were to make a short flight over Sydney for a final check of the aircraft. Some people of the ground staff suggested that it would be nice to come along for the short flight, so at the end close to fifty people, ground staff personnel, waiters and waitresses from the restaurant at the airport as well as kitchen staff, were taken on board ready for take off. Then one of the pilots suggested that we could do better than the two US Kittyhawks and all five planes fly in formation under the bridge. A KLM radio-operator, Joe Muller (he had previously been shot down at Carnot Bay, W.A., with KLM Captain Ivan Smirnoff in the DC3 PK-AFV "Pelikaan") was asked to go to the control-tower to ask permission to fly under the bridge. Watching from the tarmac we could see Joe Muller talking to the personnel in the control-tower. After a few minutes he came out to the walkway alongside the tower, Joe Muller looked in our direction and then raised his thumb in what we took to be the ‘OK’ signal. And off we went...

I do not remember which Captains were in charge of the five aircraft, but I went with KLM Captain Jan van Balkom, and then there were KLM Captains Dirk Rab, Pieter Deenik and perhaps E.J.G.Te Roller. Also KNILM Captains 'Fiets' van Messel, Eddy Dunlop and others, as well as radio-officers and engineers of both KLM and KNILM. Radio-officer Joe Muller and some others stayed behind.

The five aircraft took off and eventually took up formation approaching the bridge from the Sydney Heads. Still in formation we flew under the bridge, pulled up, made a wide turn and then flew in single line again under the bridge and then returned to Kingsford Smith Airport.

After we landed and taxied to the ramp, there was hell to pay! Anybody with some kind of authority was there. It then became clear that Joe Muller had not asked for permission to fly under the bridge. He explained to us that his thumbs-up signal only meant that the aircraft looked fine! The authorities did not have much to nail us down with, but we heard later that an order had been issued, forbidding to fly under the bridge and that anyone doing so, would be fined one hundred pounds ($200) for every person aboard.

And that was it. The five aircraft took off again - this time with only a skeleton crew on board - destination Wagga Wagga. The others, amongst which myself, returned to the City wondering what we would do next?

Most of the flight crews joined either 18 or 19 Squadrons. A couple of guys went to the West Indies (Curaçao) where KLM still had a network. Captain Evert van Dijk (the same Evert van Dijk who long ago had accompanied Kingford Smith in his epic flight across the Pacific) went to the USA to join 'Ferry Command' and finally it was decided that I should go to the USA (Jackson, Mississippi) to join the R.N.M.F.S. to join the pilots course. I was informed that I was to travel to the USA by ship which was expected to arrive soon.

In the meantime I enjoyed R.& R. at Bondi Beach - two other former KLM crew members and myself shared a small apartment on Bellevue Hill and in due course I had also become a member of the Bondi Beach Club. Several of us were also members of the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Union Club. Before the war I had played as left three-quarter for the Dutch National side - but our standard was very moderate.

And so I was invited to Play for Eastern Suburbs. My first game was with the top team - the following week I was selected for the Seconds and the week after I was dropped to the Thirds...But I made a lot of friends and I enjoyed my games. In the meantime I was still waiting patiently for this ship which was to take me to the good US of A.

In November '42 I met in Sydney a high ranking Dutch Air Force officer who knew me and he suggested that I should join 18 Sqdn. as navigator. This suggestion was endorsed by the Dutch Consul General and whoever was left of the KNILM management team. Most of these had in the meantime departed for the USA. I was to report in Melbourne to the NEI Forces Recruiting Officer at H.Q. in St.Kilda Road.

When I reported to the Recruiting Officer at H.Q. in St. Kilda Road I discovered that this particular 'gentleman' was a personal enemy of mine and I therefore did not expect any co-operation from him. This assumption proved to be correct - he informed me that 18 Sqdn. could not use me (in spite of what the C.O. of 18 Sqdn. had told me!) and referred me to the Personnel Officer of the Dutch Navy - next door! I went for a walk to think matters over - but I had no choice - I was broke and there was no possibility to get in touch with influential friends. I did not even know where I would sleep. So down to the Dutch Navy I went. It was obvious that the personnel department of the Navy had been forewarned and I was told that I could become an ordinary seaman - I accepted.

About two months later a Dutch princess was born in Ottawa, Canada (Princess Margriet on 19.01.'43) and in Melbourne the occasion was celebrated with a parade by members of the various Dutch Forces in Australia. To my pleasant surprise Ivan Smirnoff was present as a guest of the Dutch Rear Admiral and after meeting Ivan and informing him of my plight, Ivan wasted no time to take up my cause. Two months later I was sworn in as a Lieutenant 3rd Class, and two months after that I was transferred to the Intelligence Service (which was located at Domain Road, South-Yarra) as Communications and Coding Officer for NEFIS III, the operational arm of the Dutch Intelligence Service, part of the Allied Intelligence Bureau under U.S.Command (S2 General Willoughby, Chief of Staff for General MacArthur). Later I was transferred to Camp Columbia near Brisbane, where the US Forces had their H.Q.

In the meantime I had met in Melbourne my future wife and we were married in March 1944, in Melbourne. Ivan Smirnoff was supposed to be my best man, but he could not obtain leave of absence at the time and he in turn requested Captain Piet André de la Porte to do the honours. I knew André de la Porte very well from our KLM days earlier.

Five months after my wedding (24.08.'44) Piet and his crew were shot down by ack-ack near Larat on the island of Jamdena, located in the group of Tanimbar Islands. They all got out of the B-25,but were captured and beheaded by the Japanese.

During my NEFIS III days I had often contact with 18 Sqdn. as their aircraft often supported our Intelligence parties operating in Japanese occupied territory in the sphere of operations under attack by 18th Squadrons B-25's.

In 1944 I was promoted to Lieutenant 2nd Class. After the Japanese surrender I went with my group to Java and in July 1947 returned to the Netherlands on board a Dutch ship and was appointed for the duration of the ships's journey as Senior Navy Officer in charge of a Dutch Marine Company, responsible for the safe transport of 500 German Prisoners of War, 24 Dutch Navy officers (former POW's of the Japs) and I500 liberated Dutch citizens who had been interned by the Japanese.

Upon arrival in the Netherlands I was given two months leave, and then appointed Intelligence Officer at the Dutch Naval Base in den Helder. I was promised promotion to Commander, if I would make the Navy my career. But I intended to return to civvy street.

Since October 1945, KLM had kept in touch with me, promising me to try and obtain my discharge from the navy. I finally succeeded and on February I, 1948, the Navy released me and I reported to KLM.

However, by then KLM did not really know what to do with me. The good jobs abroad had been filled by now and back to the Flight Division I went. For a period of nearly six months I filled my time by reading the newspapers, drinking copious cups of coffee and waffling to old friends.

Of course I got fed up with all that and then, by chance, I met somebody in the top ranks of Unilever, and he offered me a job near Lagos (Africa) as manager of their local operations. However, when the founder of KLM, Dr. Plesman, was informed about this he objected strongly to the fact of me leaving KLM.

I was then based in the Netherlands for approximately one and a half years, interrupted by a five months senior management course and a three months stay in Germany to make an evaluation of KLM's organization in that country, followed by two years as Commercial Director in Italy (Rome), then six years in Buenos Aires as Sales Director for Argentine, Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay and was then transferred to Montreal, Canada. In July 1964, after having been informed that I would be transferred to KLM's Head Office in the Netherlands, I resigned from KLM and got the job as Director of Eastern Airlines for Canada and Western New York State. I retired in January 198I, but remained with 'Eastern' as a Consultant for another year.

My wife unfortunately died shortly before Christmas 1985 - early 1986 I buried her in the family grave, Boroondara Cemetery, Kew, Victoria, Australia.

This is mainly the story of myself, but also why a retired Dutchman living in Canada, flew twice under the Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 1942. I am aware what René Wittert van Hoogland and Otto Ward have written about this 'stunt' way back - I own copies of their books, e.g. 'Het Vergeten Squadron' and ‘De Militaire Luchtvaart van het KNIL in de jaren 1942-1945', all I wish to say is that I do not write this from hearsay- I was there, I took part in it. (Nicholas Dykstra, 255 Rose Alma, Rosemère (Qué) Canada, J7A 3B9 tel:(514) 621-6519.

 

Flying under the Sydney Harbour Bridge
during World War 2

Details of other flights under Sydney Harbour Bridge

 

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This page first produced 2 January 2000

This page last updated 13 January 2017