In 1936, Group Captain Ralph Cochrane, on loan from the U.K. Air Ministry, had been brought out to New Zealand to review the country’s air defences, which the government had decided were woefully inadequate for the political climate of the times.
Cochrane made his review and tabled his recommendations in March 1937, outlining a plan for a major expansion and reorganisation of what was then the New Zealand Permanent Air Force, under the control of the Army. The government was so pleased with his work that they adopted his suggestions and invited him to stay on for another two years to help implement them.
In one of the first steps, the PAF was replaced by a new independent service, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and Cochrane was appointed Chief of Air Staff.
Another key element of Cochrane’s plan had been the acquisition of a long range bomber capability, for defence of the Dominion, maritime reconnaissance, potential air co-operation with Australia, and the ability to assist in the defence of Singapore. In May 1938 the New Zealand Minister for Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, announced that the government had placed an order for 30 of the brand new Vickers Wellington medium bombers at a total cost of £750,000.
Plans were made to deliver the Wellingtons by air from England to New Zealand, something that had never been attempted before. Five flights, each of six aircraft, were to be flown from England to New Zealand via Singapore and Australia, a trip of 13,000 miles.
The crews were to be made up of New Zealanders where possible, and the RNZAF called on some of its most experienced pilots to lead the project.
Squadron Leader Maurice Buckley, MBE, at that time on an exchange posting as a Flight Commander with 38 Squadron RAF, based at Marham, was appointed to head up the new unit, and to lead the first ferry flight out to New Zealand.
Buckley had served in the First war, in the Royal Naval Air Service and later with the Royal Air Force. After his return to New Zealand he became chief pilot for the New Zealand Aero Transport Company, Timaru, and was involved in several aviation “firsts”, including first flights to Stewart Island, over Mount Cook (13,000 feet), and to the West Coast of the South Island. In 1921 he and a fellow pilot were the first New Zealanders to be charged with the offence of unauthorised “trick-flying” (aerobatics) under the new Aviation Act introduced that year! In 1926 he was appointed as an instructor at the PAF’s flying school, and in 1929 was promoted to Commanding Officer of the Wigram air base.
Flight Lieutenant Cyril Kay was selected as Buckley’s second in command, with the role of Navigation Officer. Kay had considerable experience in long ocean flights. In 1930, while serving with the RAF as a navigation specialist, he and fellow New Zealander, Flying Officer Harold Piper flew a tiny Desoutter monoplane from Croydon to Darwin in an attempt to break the England-to-Australia record. In 1934 he competed with S/L Jim Hewitt in the 1934 MacRobertson centenary air race from England to Australia, and later that year, again with Hewitt, made the first flight from England to New Zealand, the pair becoming the first New Zealanders to cross the Tasman Sea by air. Kay joined the NZPAF in 1935 and became chief navigation instructor at Wigram Flying School. He left for the UK by sea and then by air from Sydney, arriving at Southampton on 30 May.
In April 1939 volunteers had been called for from the significant number of New Zealand officers already serving in England on short and medium service commissions in the RAF, plus from any at the end of their term, now on the reserve. Any NZ’er in the RAF holding the rank of airman pilot was also eligible, and, if selected, they would be commissioned as pilot officers before leaving for the Dominion. In return, they were required to stay on for a fixed term, an effective way for the RNZAF to repatriate some of its best and brightest.
At the same time, RNZAF airmen were sent to England for specialised training in maintenance and servicing.
And so a group of officers and airmen was assembled in England in June, July and August 1939, for three months training in preparation for the first delivery flight of the RNZAF’s new Vickers Wellington Mk. 1 bombers back to New Zealand.
An RNZAF unit was established in England on 1 June 1939 for the purpose of assembling and working up these delivery flights, as announced in the New Zealand Gazette: “A temporary unit in the United Kingdom is formed, to be called the New Zealand Squadron, with headquarters at the Royal Air Force Station, Marham, King’s Lynn, Norfolk.”
Some confusion has surrounded the name of the unit, often referred to down the years as the New Zealand Flight.
The official parent unit was the New Zealand Squadron, and it was set up to oversee the formation and training of a series of ferry flights, originally referred to as Mobile Flights. With the intervention of war, only one of these was ever formed up, variously referred to as the “1st New Zealand Mobile Flight”, “No. 1 (N.Z.) Flight”, “1st Flight”, “1st Wellington Flight”, and more commonly as time went by, “the New Zealand Flight”.
The outbreak of war, and subsequent discussions on what to do with the unit may have changed the way officialdom viewed such a small, sub-operational entity. As New Zealand Liaison Officer to the Air Ministry S/L Sid Wallingford said in January 1940, “the New Zealand Squadron which existed at Marham prior to the outbreak of hostilities cannot be considered a squadron as defined in the R.A.F.” He goes on to say “the unit which is now termed the New Zealand Flight has continued to train with these aircraft at Harwell”. Perhaps it made more sense to refer to a Flight when distinguishing between the original unit and the anticipated expansion into an operational squadron, but whatever the reason, the term “Flight” is used frequently in high-level communications through this period, right up to the levels of the Air Ministry, the Chief of Air Staff, and NZ’s Prime Minister Peter Fraser.
Buckley himself used the term “Flight” in a letter written on 29 May 1940, to mark the establishment of “B” Flight, No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron. It was titled “Formation of No 75 (NZ) Squadron from the New Zealand Flight”:
“Today, 29 May 1940, the New Zealand Flight is officially changed from a Flight to a fully established Squadron and I wish to place on record the merits of the original NCO’s and airmen who formed the New Zealand Flight at Marham almost a year ago on 1st June 1939.”
However Buckley consistently signed himself off as “OC The New Zealand Squadron” right through to March 1940, so it seems clear that the name of the parent unit did not change.
Buckley began training in May, along with another hugely experienced New Zealand aviation pioneer, S/L Sid Wallingford, who was originally nominated to lead the third Flight. Wallingford held the position of NZ Liaison Officer at the time, and it appears that he had to return to his duties in London in June, presumably as the situation in Europe worsened.
That month (June) Buckley was joined by three other NZ pilots who had been on short service commissions with the RAF, A/F/L Aubrey Breckon, F/L Charles Hunter and F/O Arthur Greenaway.
Buckley himself checked out each pilot on Wellingtons as they arrived – his summary of Monthly Flying Times has him clocking up 23.15hrs as Captain in June – and then Breckon joined him, registering 4hrs as Captain that month, 12.10hrs in total.
Buckley’s 2 I/C “Cyrus” Kay arrived at Marham in June, newly promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader.
Seven more pilots arrived in July, all New Zealanders – F/O John Collins, F/O Jack Adams, and P/Os William Coleman, Trevor Freeman, Fred “Popeye” Lucas, Neville Williams and Bill Williams.Buckley certainly led by example, clocking up another 53.45hrs as Captain in July, while Breckon accumulated 43.40hrs. Greenaway (10.20hrs) and Collins (9.05hrs) were the next to move into the training Captain’s seats.
In anticipation of the ferry flights, six RNZAF wireless specialists had been sent to England to train with the RAF earlier in the year, and four of these arrived at Marham in July; AC1 Ron Anderson, AC1 Donald McGlashan, AC1 Joseph White and LAC Edwin Williams. They had trained with No. 99 Squadron RAF which also operated Mark 1 Wellingtons.
Two more specialists, Corporals Thomas Read and William Steven, had arrived earlier, transferred from the NZ Navy cruiser, the HMS Achilles, where they had been employed servicing Supermarine Walrus aircraft.
The unit was only intended to have a life of 12-18 months, mostly RNZAF-staffed and administered, but co-located for convenience with an RAF Wellington squadron. It was made up of a small team of administrative and technical staff, many who had been recruited from RAF personnel with experience on Wellingtons, sufficient to manage a rolling intake and outflow of aeroplanes, pilots, aircrews and associated wireless and engineering specialists, as each flight of six aircraft and crews was received, equipped, trained up and then ferried back to New Zealand. Stores and equipment were loaned or hired from Maintenance Units and the parent station, RAF Marham.
New Zealand government representatives in England took delivery of the first Wellington on 27 April, and all six Wellingtons (serial numbers NZ 300 to NZ 305 inclusive – later re-serialed as L4311, L4330, L4340, L4350, L4355, and L4360) were delivered by the end of May.
Wellingtons NZ 300-304 were all fitted with dual control conversion sets for training purposes. A wonderful photo survives of the cockpit of the first Wellington, NZ 300, with dual controls and the manufacturer’s data plate clearly visible.
However by the end of August, there were only five Wellingtons on strength, NZ 301-305.
NZ 300, re-serialed as L4311, went on to do service with the Central Gunnery School, so perhaps she was damaged, or faulty, and was sent away to a Maintenance Unit, or back to Vickers for repairs.
(It’s possible that the unit was restored to six aircraft on 3 September, the day war was declared, when Breckon and Lucas flew to Weybridge and collected another Wellington, Mark 1A serial number N2869, originally intended to be NZ 306. However this aircraft doesn’t show up in subsequent records, so may not have been taken on strength).
The others, NZ 301-305, are listed at the end of August as being fitted with “full flotation gear and jettison gear, overload tanks, front and rear turrets and oxygen attachments. No wireless or guns.”
Mark 1 Wellingtons were fitted with Vickers gun turrets, front and rear, with limited manoeuvrability and, despite the government’s description of the aircraft as ‘heavily armed’, only a single 0.303 machine gun in each. Any unnecessary equipment had been removed for the long flight, but it is assumed that wireless equipment would have been installed before they left.
A list of the first group of six crews and their allocated aircraft was advised by the NZ Liaison Officer on 15 August, a mix of officer pilots, air crew and technicians needed to service the aircraft during the trip, and on arrival in New Zealand. Some of the unit’s RAF technicians had volunteered to fly out with the aircraft and stay on in New Zealand to take part in familiarisation and training of RNZAF personnel.The historic photo at the top of this page comes from the archives of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand at Wigram, Christchurch, New Zealand. It shows the original 12 pilots of the 1st Mobile Flight, seated in front, from left to right:
P/O Trevor Freeman, P/O WMC “Bill” Williams, F/O John Adams, F/O John Collins, F/O Arthur Greenaway, F/L Charles Hunter, S/L Maurice Buckley, S/L “Cyrus” Kay, F/O Aubrey Breckon, P/O Neville Williams, P/O William Coleman, F/O Fred “Popeye” Lucas.
Behind them stand 17 airmen, probably 17 of the 18 NCO’s and airmen listed in the schedule of crews.
Eighth from left, the shorter man with moustache directly behind S/L Buckley, is LAC Edwin Williams, RNZAF, later to gain fame as the Wireless Operator on Aubrey Breckon’s epic flight to Narvik, Norway in April 1940, for which he earned a DFM. Williams appears to have served two tours with 75 (NZ) Sqdn, from 6 June 1939 all the way through to September 1942. He went on to become a Squadron Leader and flew as Navigator on Mosquito ferry flights to New Zealand after the war.
10th from left, directly behind S/L Kay, is AC1 Ron Anderson, RNZAF, also a Wireless Operator. Sadly he was killed on 20th July 1940, age 26, flying with 75 (NZ) Squadron as W/Op in the SMM Watson crew during a raid on Horst, Germany.
12th from left, at rear, above Breckon, is another NZ Wireless specialist, AC1 Don McGlashan, RNZAF. McGlashan earned an MiD for his service with 75 (NZ) Squadron up to May 1941, and another for service with the RNZAF in the Pacific, rising to the rank of Squadron Leader.
Far right, at rear, is AC1 Joseph T. White, Wireless Mechanic.
Members of the 1st New Zealand Mobile Flight:
Squadron Leader Maurice William “Buck” Buckley, RNZAF NZ1005 (Commanding Officer)
Squadron Leader Cyril Eyton “Cyrus” Kay, RNZAF NZ1011, 22223 (Navigational Officer)
Flying Officer John “Jack” Adams, RNZAF NZ1027
Flying Officer Aubrey Arthur Ninnis Breckon, RNZAF NZ1025, 70016
Pilot Officer William Harcourt Coleman, RNZAF NZ2526, 39781
Flying Officer John Noel Collins, RNZAF NZ2513
Pilot Officer Trevor Owen Freeman, RNZAF NZ1026
Flying Officer Arthur Beale Greenaway, RNZAF NZ1034
Flight Lieutenant Charles Campbell Hunter, RNZAF NZ1023
Flying Officer Frederick John “Popeye” Lucas, RNZAF NZ1056
Pilot Officer Neville Williams, RNZAF NZ1068
Pilot Officer Wilfred Maurice Chalk “Bill” Williams, RNZAF NZ1057
AC1 Ronald Alexander John Anderson, RNZAF NZ36139, Wireless Operator
AC1 Donald Charles McGlashan, RNZAF NZ37161, Wireless Operator / Wireless and Electrical Mechanic
Cpl Thomas Richard Read, RNZAF NZ34151, Metal Rigger / Airframe Fitter
Cpl William Douglas Steven, RNZAF NZ34153, Fitter Aero Engines
AC1 Joseph Thomas White, RNZAF NZ37178, 70235 (arrived 28 Aug 1939), Wireless Operator / Wireless and Electrical Mechanic
LAC Edwin Peter Williams, RNZAF NZ38235, Wireless Operator
N.B. Colin Knight won a DFM with 99 Squadron RAF in December that year, the first decoration for the RNZAF of WWII, and was eventually posted to the New Zealand Squadron in early 1940, receiving his decoration at Feltwell from Hon. Bill Jordan, High Commissioner for New Zealand, on 21 March.
Sadly, Jack Langridge never made it to the squadron, and was killed on 12 April 1940, aged 21, flying as a Wireless Operator with 149 Squadron.]
Sgt R P Colbourne, RAF 564590, Instrument Maker
Cpl A. Colville, RAF, Fitter
LAC A E Emery, RAF 518344 , Wireless Radio Mechanic / Flight Mechanic
Cpl Alexander Duf Gordon, RAF 564496, Wireless and Electrical Mechanic
Sgt H. Mees, RAF, Fitter
Cpl P.S. Parker, RAF
AC1 L E T Pearce, RAF 539947, Flight Mechanic
Cpl W. Pomeroy, RAF, Fitter
LAC J Renshaw, RAF 538744, Flight Rigger
Cpl W J Rider, RAF 564496, Wireless Radio Mechanic
Cpl J.A. Swetman, RAF, Fitter
AC1 J White, RAF 544650, Flight Rigger
As the schedule reveals, the first batch of Wellingtons received by the NZ Squadron were NOT the aircraft designated to make the first ferry flight, it was the second batch – NZ306-312 that are listed to make the trip. Most likely the dual-control aircraft were to be kept in England for training of the subsequent Flights.
The first Flight was expected to leave the U.K. on 1 October 1939, and arrive in New Zealand on the 26 October, the last leg to be flown direct from Sydney to their new home, a brand new station under construction at Ohakea, near Palmerston North. There they would form the basis of No. 1 Squadron RNZAF.
Two huge new reinforced concrete hangars were under construction at Ohakea, capable of holding 9 Wellingtons each. Land for Ohakea base had been purchased in mid-1937, one of the first implementations of Cochrane’s plan. The RNZAF’s existing airfields were too small for the new bombers, and round-the-clock construction was underway, expected to be finished just in time for the 1st Flight’s arrival, and slightly ahead of another new base being built to accommodate a second medium bomber squadron (No. 2 Squadron RNZAF) at Whenuapai, near Auckland.
Following RAF practice, it’s likely that 12 aircraft would have been operated by each squadron, with the other six kept as reserve airframes. According to press reports of the day, No. 1 Squadron would retain the first 15 aircraft to arrive, and the next 15 would go to Whenuapai.
Meanwhile the Commanding Officer of the second Mobile Flight, F/L Ronald “Nugget” Cohen, RNZAF, had already arrived at Marham and started training by August, along with another 2nd Flight pilot, F/O Ian Morrison. They were expected to assemble their crews to start training by 1 October, just as the 1st Flight was leaving. The 3rd Flight was to form for training on 1 December, and the 4th on 1 July 1940. The leader of the fourth Flight had already been named, S/L James Findlay, however as with Wallingford, events overtook his posting.
Once the last flight had left (expected to be October 1940), the unit would have been closed down, it’s members either having flown out to New Zealand to assist in the setup of the two new RNZAF bomber squadrons, or returned to service with the RAF.
However as the situation in Europe worsened and war became inevitable, the New Zealand government could see that the Wellingtons would be more valuably employed in England, and made the decision that they, along with the unit, should be absorbed into the RAF. Wallingford advised Buckley on 28 August, a week before war was declared:On 4 September, the day after Chamberlain declared war, Wallingford confirmed suspension of the order for 30 Wellingtons and associated spares, and equipment required for the ferry flights.
New Zealand’s decision to turn the Wellingtons and crews over to the RAF, negated any plans for recruiting and replenishing personnel for the subsequent Flights, leaving the unit frozen at less than half-squadron strength, with its men in limbo while the NZ Government and the U.K. Air Ministry discussed their fate.
References: Archives New Zealand, Papers Past (National Library of New Zealand), “The Restless Sky”, by A.V.M. Cyril Kay, C.B, C.B.E, DFC., “Forever Strong”, by Norman Franks, “Vickers Wellington – The Backbone of Bomber Command”, Key Publishing 2013, Dave Homewood and David Duxbury (Wings Over New Zealand forum and personal communications).
Thanks to the Air Force Museum of New Zealand for permission to reproduce the main photo.