More than 70 years after his brother’s death in a secret RAAF flight, Hampton man Ian Litchfield OAM is fulfilling a long-time dream to visit Borneo for Remembrance Day commemorations.
For more than than 35 years, no one in the family knew what had happened to 20-year-old Flight Sergeant Eric Mileham Litchfield, Ian’s older brother by 22 months. Their parents passed away in the 1970’s, never aware of the details of his mission.
“Mum and dad never knew what had happened to him. Dad tried to find out, he went to a lot of effort to find out, but he couldn’t get any information. That’s a pretty sad thing,” Mr Litchfield said.
Eric was part of the RAAF 200 (Special Duties) Flight. Its purpose was to carry out secret reconnaissance missions into territory held by Japanese forces as well as dropping Z Special Unit personnel, stores and equipment into the region, using specially modified B-24 Liberator bombers.
As 200 Flight was under the direction of the Service Reconnaissance Department, its movements and actions were kept a close secret.
“The whole idea was coming out of clandestine operations, that's why we knew so little. Everyone was sworn to secrecy,” Mr Litchfield said.
“It was all formed very quickly. The Americans requested it in January and it was formed in March, 1945, so they got to work very quickly.
“We never knew where he was – we didn’t know where he was based. He wasn’t allowed to tell anybody – he wasn’t allowed to tell mum or dad where he’d been or anything. It was absolute secrecy,” Mr Litchfield said.
Eric, a tail-gunner, left on board the A72-191 captained by distinguished airman Squadron Leader Graham Pockley DFC. It was one of three Liberators to take off from their base at Leyburn in Queensland on March 17, 1945. More on page 6.
They based themselves at the US McGuire Airfield on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines.
At that time, Mr Litchfield was serving in the Australian Navy attached to the 7th Fleet in the Philippines.
On March 19, Pockley’s crew made a reconnaissance flight to a proposed drop zone for Z Special Unit in an area of Sarawak, Borneo. Two planned missions to make the drop on March 21 and March 22 were abandoned due to heavy cloud.
According to reports, the men were given a few days to relax before a third attempt, which went ahead on March 25. The two Liberators involved made two runs, flying at 1000 feet, first to drop the men and then supplies. Apart from landing in a swamp and being covered in leeches, the four Z Special Unit men dropped by Pockley’s craft landed without incident.
The two planes circled the drop zone before parting ways in thick cloud.
That was the last time anyone saw or heard from Pockley’s crew. The entire crew, including Eric Litchfield, was lost.
Mr Litchfield said no alarm was raised immediately, as the plane had plenty of fuel. However, when it failed to return in the evening, a large-scale search was organised.
“The only possible evidence was the sighting of three oil slicks two miles south west of Balambangan Island, 30km north of the northern most tip of Borneo,” he said.
“But there is no evidence to confirm that this had anything to do with the Liberator.”
While the flight and its end was kept secret for decades, the men involved in the missions did not forget.
Major Tom Harrison DSO, who was in charge of 200 Flight’s very first mission, went on to make his home in Borneo and carved a wooden plaque in memory of Pockley and his crew. He placed it high on Bukit Batu Lawi, a peak so tall it had been used as a landmark during flights.
In 1987 the timber, which had deteriorated, was replaced with a bronze plaque by an Australian Army project team.
Due to the secrecy surrounding the missions, Mr Litchfield said the men and their flights were “virtually forgotten”. There was no recognition of the 138 airmen who served in 200 Flight. A total of 34 RAAF crew and 14 Z Special Unit men were killed.
A memorial was erected for the men in 1987 in Leyburn, Queendland.
Mr Litchfield was finally put on the trail of 200 Flight after hearing an interview with author Lynette Ramsay Silver on Macca’s Australia All Over one Sunday morning, discussing her book on Sandakan and the death marches. He reached out via letter to Ian McNamara's listeners about his brother’s disappearance and found himself in touch with other family members of RAAF servicemen who served with 200 Flight.
He eventually was able to find the full story, complete with photographs, in Phil Dynes’ book ‘Leyburn's Liberators and those lonely Special Duties Air Operations’. Mr Dynes had served with Eric Litchfield.
Mr Litchfield has been invited by the Office of Australian War Graves to attend the Borneo service on the island of Labuan as a special guest.
He said he was looking forward to the opportunity, for which he has been waiting.
“For the last four years I’ve really been thinking about it,” he said.
“It's something I’ve very much wanted to do.”
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