The life and work of Tom Fitzgerald - header


War years - 'Conjunction of the highest pleasure with the other job'

I began proceedings [to enlist] in about March ’42. It wasn’t until November, ’42 that I was sent, to Kingaroy Queensland, for my initial training course in the RAAF. I thought at first I would demand to be a pilot and I took co-ordination tests and all sorts of so-called intelligence tests and I was advised unanimously that I should apply to be a navigator. Now being a navigator meant you only had half a wing on your breast and that was by no means satisfying to one’s vanity. And I argued with my course instructors that I was going to be a pilot. But they worked hard on me and when the review committee of Senior Wing Commanders flew in to interview us at Kingaroy near the end of the course and I had to march in and smartly salute and stand to attention, to the amazement of my instructors, when the Wing Commander asked me what did I propose to be I’d decided to say navigator. And there was a great relief and they all sat back.

So navigator it was. And there were very rude names about the navigator. He wore an ‘O’ for Observer. And that was it. A navigator. We went on to further courses at Port Pirie in South Australia, Parkes in New South Wales. And then I was a Pilot Officer in about the middle of 1943. [1]

Tom recounts how he met Gough Whitlam at the embarkation depot in Bradfield Park.

  Tom Fitzgerald, Norman Beaver and Cam McCall, Chicago ,  1943

1943 saw Tom Fitzgerald in North America to train under the Empire Air Training Scheme

JJohn Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald, Lt Norman Beaver (R.A.N.), Cam (Cyril) McCall; Chicago c. Sept 1943. JCPML00720/76


Tom Fitzgerald was chosen to go to Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme - a streaming he considered 'personally lucky, but nationally regrettable'.


Then it was off to America and my first taste of that great country. We came into San Francisco, I suppose this was August or so 1943, from a ship ... we’d no sooner got onto the street ... the pavement from the ship, than passing motorists one after another picked us up and took us into town, insisted on that. And as young people, members of a herd, we all went to various bars to drink. We were not able to pay for any of the drinks in the bars.

A great experience in America. I and my closest friend, Cam McCall, Cyril McCall but he hated Cyril, travelled together through Winnipeg, Minneapolis, Chicago. We were offered and took the opportunity to ride from Minneapolis to Chicago on huge food trucks that hurtled through the night at about eighty miles an hour. [2]

Tom and his friends featured in a Chicago Sunday Times article of 10 October 1943 with the unlikely caption Tickety Boo! Tom sent a cutting with his next letter to his sister Tess and exhorted her 'to treasure it carefully as the one occasion in my life when I was dubbed handsome'!


Tom Fitzgerald goes bowling in Chicago, 1943
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Original print for one of the Chicago Times photos, 1943. JCPML00720/73

Tickety Boo!
"Down under" is a strange land to us. The "states" is a strange land to them. They have kangaroos; we don't. We have bowling; they don't. A group of Australian officers, visiting Chicago, have an evening of fun at the Service Men's Center Officers' Club in Auditorium Hotel. After bowling and jitterbugging, they are ready to trade a boomerang for a bowling ball. But, Pilot Officer Tom Fitzgerald had to stop for repairs to his thumb. Gisella and Trudy Schneider give the first aid while the injured Aussie is comforted by his buddy, Lt. Norman Beaver of Royal Navy.


Tom opted to take his 'absolutely final training, which was the Operational Training Unit, OTU, in the Bahamas' on the promise that this would get him 'into operations more quickly'.


I duly completed my course in the Bahamas and did go on to Coastal Command. And I was flying out of Cornwall just before D-Day. We were patrolling the channel and sometimes going into the French mainland for small distances. Patrolling the Channel mainly for submarines, other craft sometimes.

Then when the D-Day operation was completed we were transferred to a place in Scotland which requires you to cough as you pronounce it, Leuchars, Leuchars, in Fyfeshire, which is between Dundee and St Andrews. And the rest of my war was spent flying out from Leuchars, always using the Bell Rock, the famous Bell Rock as our landmark coming home.

And we flew various parts of the ocean. Towards the end of the war for some reason Coastal Command sent us into rather more risky missions, into the Baltic .. Sea. And there were some moments there of being open-eyed. And then the war ended.

I mean, you know, you kept on the alert. To go through the Scagerrak when our radar could tell us that there were German fighters patrolling it we would go as low as possible, we would almost skim the water to get under their radar screens. We did it successfully. And I mean you kept wide-awake, you didn’t go to sleep as on some of the long patrols one almost tended to do. There were two navigators.

I flew in Liberator aircraft, superb aircraft. Four engines, built by Mr Pratt and Mr Whitney and I always want to salute Mr Pratt and Mr Whitney, they were excellent. It was said the planes could fly on any two of those engines. Luckily we never had to test it beyond any three. A very good aircraft.

A mixed squadron, 547 Squadron. It was a British squadron but with Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders on it. A very interesting study was possible of the way young people...young men of those nationalities did or did not fit into the British climate. The Canadians...fine people, terrific people individually, were the least comfortable, New Zealanders the most, I suppose. But the Australians got on quite easily and it was a very happy time.

And again this sense of identification with the working people. My pilot and skipper [Cec Boxall from Melbourne] was a carpenter. My co-navigator or second navigator [Bill Simpson] …was a tiler. They were both commissioned, as I was, and those men were every bit...both...were just identical with oneself. Except they didn’t have the same tastes, reading and so on but there was no difference they were all extremely competent members of the crew. And so it was right across the board.

[The pilot and the other navigator] were Australian…we had several Englishmen, a magnificent, what was called a WOM, a wireless operator/mechanic. Wonderful young man, subsequently killed very soon after the war. The casualties in Coastal Command were nothing like as bad as in Bomber Command but there were casualties. I remember we came back from one of those trips into the Scagerrak and when we came back for our meal after the flight another crew having their meal ahead of us were absolutely astonished, they were sure they’d seen us shot down. It was another aircraft shot down.

  Tom Fitzgerald in the Bahamas, 1940s

Tom Fitzgerald, centre back row, on final training in the Bahamas.

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald in the Bahamas, 1940s. JCPML00720/69


At the end of the war the London Times...I’m being very selective and grasshopperish... the London Times published a strange account of the results of a visit by a small delegation of members of the House of Commons to Germany at the end of the European War. And they came back and reported these strange concentration camps. was one of the very few occasions when I cut out the report in the Times. I’ve kept it. It was so totally astonishing that the Germans would have done that. But these were only the concentration camps, not the extermination camps. The unexpectedness of it. I think everyone was the same. Everyone I knew was the same. Extraordinary experience.

We were...because we flew Liberators and because Liberators were thought to be...well they were very useful aircraft in the Pacific zone, they had good long range, they could cover long distances of ocean, carry quite a load of bombs, we were rather hastily assembled and shipped out to go to America, pick up a Liberator and fly it out to Australia and go into operations.

I might say that we played hooky one night, our crew, after the European War was over we were assigned the job of seeing that certain German naval vessels, cruisers and destroyers mainly, which had been told to go to designated ports to be taken over by the Allies for the time being...our job was to watch that they did the job and if necessary report any deviation from their instructions. We did that, it was a very mild job. But we had a bit of petrol left and the sun hadn’t set so we played hooky and flew over Germany.

And what I remember particularly was Hamburg, the port of Hamburg. It was razed to the ground to such an extent that as we flew over it dusk was settling, a motor-car, a single motor-car was approaching Hamburg from the East and as it entered the city it switched on its headlights and those headlights appeared to us to...uninterruptedly to beam right across the city. That’s no doubt an exaggeration. The place was so destroyed.

Just before.we left Brighton where we’d been assembled to...before the embarkation to cross the Atlantic the announcer on the BBC said something to the effect that a new bomb had just been dropped on a place called Hiroshima in Japan and its explosive force was equivalent to all the bombs that had been dropped during the war on Hamburg. Extraordinary thing to have heard that. [3]

For Tom Fitzgerald, the war was a mixture of best and worst - a wonderful world trip taking place against a backdrop of war - a 'conjunction of the highest pleasure with the other job'.

  Tom and Margaret Fitzgerald on their wedding day, November 1945

Tom and Margaret Fitzgerald on their wedding day, November 1945

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom and Margaret Fitzgerald, wedding portrait, November 1945. JCPML00720/83


Margaret and I met at Victoria Barracks in Sydney before I left for the war. And we became engaged during the war. I sent the ring, much against her prudent wisdom, by post. It was an idea to do that sort of thing when you were a long way away, you didn’t know what future there was, to take the positive view. And the ring turned up alright and we were married very soon after I got back. We were married in November, 1945. [4]


1 - 4. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the National Library of Australia. Interview of Tom Fitzgerald, 01/02/1988 - 3/09/1988. JCPML00658/1. Original held by National Library of Australia TRC 2247

Investigating John Curtin home
Influences in youth - 'A succession of enthusiasms'
Writing for a living - 'One of the very first Australian Orwellians'