A Valiant Deed Off Rottnest Gave Learmonth Its Name
Some wartime Beaufort pilots were incensed re cently when a Melbourne newspaper suggested that Learmonth might be re-named Truscott after the fighter pilot "Bluey" Truscott. "Let us call the new oilfield Truscott field and the new town there Truscott before someone pins an un-Austra lian name on it," the news paper suggested. Apart from the fact that the name of "Bluey" Truscott had already been perpetuated in a Wartime strip in the North Kimberley, the ex-airmen were upset because they knew the little publicised story behind the naming of Learmonth. There is certainly nothing un Australian about it. It preserves the memory of an heroic and fearless young airman who, while diving to certain death at Perth's doorstep, coolly sent out vital information over the radio that probably saved the lives of scores of other airmen. He was Wing-Commander Charles Learmonth and he was only 26 years of age when he met his death ten years ago this month. He came to Pearce at the end of 1943 from New Guinea, the
By H. W. BAKER and BASIL ATKINSON veteran pilot of the famous bomber "She's Apples" and wearing a D.F.C. ribbon for his outstanding leadership in 136 sorties made in that area. W/C. Learmonth was awarded a bar to the D.F.C. posthumous ly later for having completed 159 sorties and "displayed tac tical ability amounting to genius." His parents lived at Portland, Victoria, but he had married a West Australian. A Terror Fresh from the Bostons on operations in New Guinea, W/C. Learmonth settled in at Pearce as commanding officer of No. 14 Squadron, made up of Beauforts used on coastal patrols and training flights. The Beaufort had been a sweet enough aircraft in England but the Australian-made version was then proving a terror. Beaufort after Beaufort had crashed and for no accountable reason. The Beaufort training field at Sale in Victoria had be come a graveyard for scores of crews. Then, on the afternoon of January 6, 1944, W/C. Lear month took off from Pearce
leading a flight of three Beau forts that were to take part in an exercise with ships of the United States Navy near Rott nest. His crew mates were Fly ing-Officer C. G. Moore, Pilot Officer D. R. Cullen and Flight Sgt. F. E. Chidlow. The aircraft were flying in tight formation at about 1,000ft. about 18 miles north-west of Rottnest when suddenly W/C. Learmonth's aircraft began to shudder violently. Facing Death While he grappled with the controls, W/C. Learmonth gave orders for the formation to break but then called on the radio his No. 2, Flight-Lieut. Ken Hewitt, of South Austra lia. "Close in and have a look at my tail," he said as he battled against the vibrations of his aircraft. 'That's where the trouble is." F/L. Hewitt banked his Beau fort to get a close view of the convulsing tail but then W/C. Learmonth's aircraft defied all his efforts to keep it flying by settling into a dive at an agle of 70 to 80 deg. and crashing into the sea. But it had been observed that the trim tab elevator was jam med in the "fully up" (nose down) position. From the start of the trouble until the plane hit the choppy sea less than a minute elapsed but all the time W/C. Lear month was talking on the radio telling of his efforts to recover normal flight and giving reasons why he thought the trouble was in the tail-plane. He knew he was meeting his death but he kept on with his commentary until he crashed. Weakness In Pin The U.S. submarine salvage vessel Chanticleer was nearby and dashed to the scene of the ditching but there were no sur vivors. Grappling only produc ed small sections of the wreck ed plane. A court of inquiry-made up of W/C. A. Brunkhurst, an en gineering officer, F/L. A. V. Holland. an experienced Beau fort pilot (now living in Stirling highway, Crawley) and a legal officer-was convened immedi ately and took evidence from other airmen and Americans who had seen the crash and heard W/C. Learmonth's com mentary. The court went to sea for three days in the Chanticleer hoping
to recover the tail assembly that was thought to be the cause of the trouble but the part slipped back into the sea just as it was being raised to the deck. It was never found again. Exhaustive tests were then car out on parts of the Beau fort tail-plane and finally the trouble was traced to the eleva tor trim actuating unit. A weak ness was found in an 8in. pin about 1/2in. in diameter. It was made of soft steel instead of hardened steel. All Beauforts were grounded and modifications were carried out to the pin. That put an end to the tragic chapter of mysterious Beaufort crashes. Full credit was given to W/C. Learmonth for the infor mation he gave so coolly when death was certain. " Potshot" No-one appreciated this more than Air-Commodore R. J. Brownell, then Air Officer Com manding Western Area, and now a Perth stockbroker. The joint American-Australian base at "Potshot" at Exmouth Gulf had flourished and the name of "Potshot" originally a secret code name, was no longer a secret. Landing strips in the north of Australia were then being nam ed after members of the R.A.A.F. who had rendered conspicuous service to their
country. (There was, for ex ample, a Truscott field north of Broome). "Potshot" needed a new name; with the valiant deeds of W/C. Learmonth in mind, Air-Commodore Brownell suggested that it be called Lear month. The Air Board approved and so the base was named. And even a new oil city is un likely to change it.