Basil Spiller was born in New Guinea in 1923. His father was a trader and coconut plantation owner. Basil’s mother died when he was one year old. He and his sister were sent to Perth, Western Australia, to be raised by their grandparents. Basil’s sister was tragically drowned while Basil was still a toddler. In 1934 he rejoined his father in New Guinea. He attended boarding school at Charters Towers in Queensland, returning to New Guinea for the longer school summer holidays each Christmas.
In 1942 with the Second World War raging throughout Europe, northern Africa, Asia, Australia and the Pacific, Basil Spiller, then eighteen years of age, joined the RAAF in Brisbane, Australia, and began aircrew training. In 1943 he was sent to Britain where he was trained as a navigator. Along with other Australian airmen, he joined an RAF heavy bomber squadron, No. 102 Squadron, and became a member of a Halifax crew of exceptional quality. On his nineteenth operation, a bombing mission over France, he was severely wounded but continued to navigate his plane and its crew to safety. At this time he was promoted to Pilot Officer and six months later to Flying Officer. Basil’s outstanding crew flew the last of the thirty-five operations required to complete their first Tour of Duty on the 18th of November 1944. When the war ended Basil and three of his original crewmates had also completed eight operations of a second Tour.
To the right: London, England. c. January 1945. Portrait of 417235 Flight Lieutenant W. F. Rabbitt DFC of Crystal Brook, SA (left), and 426177 Flying Officer B. G. Spiller DFC of Samarai, New Guinea (right) taken at RAAF Overseas Headquarters in Australia House.
Basil Spiller participated in a total of forty bombing operations over occupied Europe and Germany. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery and his superior navigational skills.
Following are extracts from the book Halifax Navigator, an oral and extended history of Basil Spiller’s years at war.
While we were here a mid-upper gunner and a flight engineer were assigned to our crew. John Allen was the engineer and Charlie Hood was the mid-upper gunner.
Circuits and bumps and cross countries
The first flying we did was the usual Circuits and Bumps where Bill could become acclimatized to a four-engine bomber from a two-engine bomber. The last aircraft he had flown was a Wellington which had two engines and he was converting to a Halifax with four engines so naturally he had to get used to it. That was what Circuits and Bumps was all about.
When we did Circuits and Bumps, although the pilot was the only one in training, the full crew had to assume their positions in the aircraft. So we lived through all of Bill’s Circuits and Bumps. There were many of them. There is a whole page full in my log. You can see from the time that they were short trips in the air.
These would have been familiarization exercises for the pilot. Bear in mind that Bill was converting from the Wellington, a twin engine bomber, to the Halifax, a four engine bomber. We would have been doing circuits and bumps. Deliberately stalling an engine would have been one of the exercises.
And there we did a practice bombing with cutting out two motors to convince ourselves that a Halifax would fly when we lost two motors. It was pretty hairy! You only had two motors instead of four. We knew that we were flying on two motors because we could hear over the intercom the pilot’s instructions from the bloke who was examining Bill.
Bill wasn’t alone in this. He had a “second dickie” training pilot alongside of him. The plane felt differently with two motors. It was sluggish and Bill would have had to struggle to control the plane. On one exercise, maybe that one, they took us up to twenty thousand feet and put us in a deliberate stall. When you stall an aircraft, you cut the throttles back until she just hangs in the air because it has no more lift. The engines are throttled back ‘til they can’t withstand the pull of gravity and the nose comes down and you go into a screaming dive. They did it deliberately because various aircraft behave differently in a stall. The instructing pilot wanted to show Bill how a Halifax behaved in a stall. So he deliberately stalled it.
We were twitchy because the aircraft was just hanging in the air and you felt the nose come down and you went into a screaming dive. Then the instructing pilot increased the throttle speed and the engines picked up and you got back to normal flying conditions and they pulled it out straight and level. It was jus an exercise to see how a Halifax behaved in a stall. Bill could fly all right!
That was the only time we did that. It was pretty scary! He only let it fall just momentarily. As you fall you build up speed anyway. The pilot would have increased the throttle pressure and built up revs and pulled it out. That’s why we were so high, to allow room for us to go into a dive without diving into the ground. Up there at twenty thousand feet it was very quiet. Very still, depending on the weather. It was okay. I got used to it. At twenty thousand feet we were flying on oxygen. Harry Brabin, in his book, talks about Sandy getting blood in his oxygen mask from nose bleeds. Sandy suffered from nosebleed. Maybe he had a cold.
We also did Command Bulls Eyes. That was a simulated air raid on London. It was a mixture of bombing and navigational exercises. Don and I would get them to London. Then Don would do a photographic bombing run on a certain park. We would then navigate back to our base at Marston Moor. It was purely a bombing and navigational exercise.
There was no problem with friendly fire when we were doing Command Bulls Eyes. They would know that the exercise was going to happen. We were equipped with IFF, Identification Friend or Foe. It was a signal. In the nose of a Halifax there were twin things about as big as saucers. They were built into the perspex and they emitted a signal that the ground people picked up. It was like a radio signal. All allied aircraft were fitted with IFF. That was standard procedure. The chances of them firing at us were pretty remote. Remember in was broad daylight and they could easily identify us by the roundels we had painted under each wing.
On the 28th of April 1944, we had been on a Command Bulls-eye over London and we were coming back to Marston Moor. Things started to go wrong half way back. We lost a motor.
We were petrified when this happened. Suddenly a motor went to full revs and locked there and the aircraft went into a screaming dive with the motor screaming its guts out, so much so that we couldn’t hear Bill tell us on the intercom to bail out. But we didn’t need to be told. With great difficulty, I stood up and my seat collapsed against the fuselage like it does but I managed to open up the escape hatch which was immediately under my seat. That was where the escape hatch was positioned in the nose of the Halifax. Don and I clipped on our parachutes and we were ready to jump, when we got the word from Bill that he had control again.
I was feeling panic-stricken. That would have been the first time I had jumped with a parachute and it was going to be in a Halifax that was out of control in a steep dive. When something goes wrong in the air all you want to do is get out and we were going. Suddenly, Bill was able to bring the aircraft under control and we were flying straight and level.
It was the Constant Speed Unit from one of the inner motors that was the problem. He cut the fuel from the engine and it stopped but John, our engineer, couldn’t control the wind-milling of the propeller. When you feather a propeller, instead of being like that (at an angle) to the airflow, the blades turn and lock that way (parallel) to the slipstream so it decreases the drag on the aircraft. If you fail to lock the propeller in the lock position it continues to wind-mill and that increases the drag on the aircraft and causes it to stall.
When it was clear that we had to do an emergency landing, Don would have moved from the navigational section to the second pilot seat to assist Bill with the landing.
So we were under control and flying along on three motors with one wind-milling propeller and unable to feather the propeller. Suddenly the same thing happened on the other inner motor. Bill was prepared for it because he’d just experienced the previous one and the same thing happened. Luckily the two outer motors continued to operate normally but both the inner engines continued to wind-mill and refused to lock in the propellers into the lock position. This increased our drag so much that we were unable to control our height. We would have to get down somewhere otherwise we crash. Because we were unable to maintain our height, we were in a slow glide downhill. Luckily we recognized the country and we were very close to Lichfield which we’d only left six weeks before. So we flew over Lichfield aerodrome and requested permission to land, which was given to us fully. Bill told them that we were in trouble and had only two motors and the propellers refused to lock. They gave us permission to land. By then we were at a thousand feet and going down rapidly.
When Bill tried to straighten up on the runway, he dipped his wing - that affected the lift. If you know anything about flying, when you dip the wing you decrease the lift so we side-slipped in from a thousand feet. We slid in sideways from a thousand feet and Bill was skilful enough to straighten up the aircraft and do a perfect landing. But we were doing one hundred and fifty miles an hour, probably double the normal landing speed. By then all the crew were in crash positions behind the main spar bracing ourselves for any trouble that might occur.
Bill deliberately put the plane on an angle and lost lift to try and line up with the runway. He slid in like this and before he hit the ground he was able to right the aircraft and do a three point landing. He realized straight away that he was going too fast and there was a canal at the end of the runway, so he pulled the wheels up. We shot off the runway and went into the grass and whatever was growing there. If he hadn’t pulled the wheels up we would have gone into the canal and we would all be dead.
I think he said we were halfway down the runway because he had no control over the aircraft when it side-slipped in like that.
Next thing we knew we were bumping along like on a corrugated road. I did a foolish thing then. We had an escape hatch just forward of the mid-upper turret that had a permanent ladder up it in a fixed position all the time. I moved from my crash position and I climbed up the ladder, opened the escape hatch and looked out. There we were going though, mowing down the small trees and leaving a path of petrol behind us and the ambulance and fire truck were racing along parallel to us. Eventually the aircraft came to a stop and all bomb bays were torn out of the aircraft and the fuselage was full of twigs and soil and whatever. We’d lost the bottom out of the plane.
As luck would have it we went off the runway so no sparks flew up and ignited the petrol that we were leaving in a track behind us. The petrol tanks were pierced and we were leaving a trail of petrol that showed our path over the grass.
We were still going. I should have waited ‘til the aircraft came to a halt. I wasn’t trying to get out. I was curious because we were bumping around all over the place, being thrown all around the floor of the aircraft by the bumpiness of the ground that we were tearing over. They didn’t have seatbelts then like in a car. We were in a crash position behind the main spar. We braced our feet against the main spar and leant back and put our hands behind our heads.
Three of us, me, Sandy and Harry, climbed up the ladder and pissed off as fast as we could go. After about thirty yards we all stopped and thought, “What about Bill and Don?” They were still in the cockpit of the plane, so we started to run back towards the plane. We saw the canopy open up and they climbed out and ran along the fuselage and jumped over the rear turret and joined us.
They could open the cockpit in two ways. It opened half to port and half to starboard.
There would have been a lot of talk about the incident at Lichfield but we were too preoccupied with our own miseries to be concerned with and talk about it.
Harry Brabin in his account of the crash mentions some funny things that he said to the rescue team that came out to the plane. That’s right! We went to the sergeants’ mess. We were all sergeants at that time except Bill who was a pilot officer. I think he came with us to the sergeants’ mess. It was just about lunchtime. I can remember that we all got the shakes when we tried to eat some soup. Our hands were going like this. (Basil’s shakes his hands.) Delayed reaction! I don’t know whether it was Harry or I or Don but we asked one of the WAAFs who was serving in the sergeants’ mess, “Is there a dance on here tonight?” It’s true!
We were expecting to spend the night there but they packed us up on a train and we went back to Marston Moor. Bill was ferried back by plane. Immediately he rang through to the base at Marston Moor and told them that we had pranged and they sent a crew down there immediately. They took him back to Marston Moor by plane. He was an officer and captain of the aircraft and in charge of the aircraft when it crashed. They would have been anxious to talk to him.
They did a full investigation of the crash and pulled the engines apart and found that a vital part had been left on the workbench of the mechanics who had just completed a five hundred hour inspection of that plane. It had done five hundred hours of flying time and mechanics had to inspect it. It is like taking your car down for a twenty thousand kilometre service. The difference is that they pull the engine right down and rebuild it. In the course of doing so they had left a vital part out of the Constant Speed Unit of both inner motors. I don’t know whether the mechanic tried to cover up the omission but he was discovered and court martialled. But that’s beside then point. We all survived. We were lucky. It was pretty hairy! We all owe our lives to Bill. He got a Green Endorsement in his log book for the way he handled that event. The Green Endorsement was the highest commendation. The authorities thought he had done an exceptional job.