By Pamela Harrison
80th anniversary of the crew lost at sea
There were at least 160 military aircraft crashes or mishaps in WA during WWII.
Planes were shot down by enemy fire, crashed during training exercises, and some disappeared over the ocean while protecting WA’s coastline from enemy ships.
One aircraft that disappeared was a Beaufort Bomber A9-317, it took off on September 9, 1943 from the RAAF Base in Busselton with five crew on-board and never returned.
Eighty years after the plane vanished, its whereabouts still remains a mystery to this day, and it is the only documented casualty connected to the Busselton base.
A commemoration service will be held on the 80th anniversary of the disappearance of the A9-317 Beaufort Bomber at the Busselton War Memorial from 11am on 9 September 2023
Busselton airbase. Image supplied by Peter Dunn.
Busselton RAAF Base was constructed in 1941, providing landing, service and refuelling facilities for seaward reconnaissance aircraft.
In 1943, Busselton was made an Operational Base Unit, its main function was to fuel and service Beaufort Bombers and Tiger Moths that staged through or operated in the Busselton area, along with other aircraft and civilian planes that also used the base.
In Western Australia, Beauforts belonged to 14 Squadron which formed at Pearce airbase in 1939 as a General Reconnaissance-Bomber Squadron. These planes flew hundreds of patrols from Pearce.
One flew around the coast to Albany via Cape Leeuwin and another flew around the coastline from Albany to Pearce. They looked out for enemy ships, as well as reported shipping movements in and out of Fremantle, the Eastern States and around the South-West. Other Beauforts patrolled the coastline from Pearce to Geraldton, and further onto Exmouth.
The Beaufort A9-317 was on patrol when it disappeared with four crew and one passenger.
Missing crew from the A9-317 Beaufort Bomber that departed Busselton and never returned: Arthur Aitken, Harry Kolbig, Peter Hastie and Cedric Sutton Richards (top left to bottom right).
The crew consisted of two Western Australian lads, flying officer Arthur Matthew Aitken who was born in Narrogin on January 6, 1920 and flight sergeant Peter Douglas Hastie who was born in Pinjarra on January 27, 1922.
Also on board were flying officer Cedric Sutton Richards and flight sergeant Alexander Emerson who were both from Victoria, along with a passenger, Army temporary captain Harry Donald Kolbig who was from SA and with Unit 5 of the Australian Air Liaison Section.
The aircraft, piloted by Aitken, left the Busselton Base at 11.50am to carry out Patrol 'N ' on a seaward clearing scan from D 'Entrecastreaux Point to Rottnest Island before it went onto Pearce where it was due to land at 4.30pm.
The plane was sighted at 12.02pm from a Volunteer Air Observer Post at Darradup.
At 2.30pm, the radio officer reported sighting motor vessel Nordnes approximately 45 nautical miles due west of D'Entrecastreaux Point. She was on-route from Melbourne to Fremantle.
When the plane was overdue at 5.30pm, attempts were made to contact it but were unsuccessful.
An emergency procedure was initiated, extensive searches were carried out that evening by 14 and 25 Squadrons RAAF and 52 Squadron US Navy aircraft, which continued on September 10 and 11, covering the coast from Fremantle to Albany extending 20 miles to seaward.
A more intensive search was carried out 120 miles west of Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste, and further south to Albany and the American Navy instructed all seaward patrols in the area to keep a look out for the aircraft but nothing was found.
When the Nordnes arrived in Fremantle the next day, the captain was interrogated. He advised that he saw the plane carry out a normal approach procedure, and having identified him, turned north climbing, and was last seen heading south which would have brought him back on to Patrol 'N' track.
The captain said the aircraft gave no indication of being in any difficulties and appeared to be flying normally. Nothing more was seen or heard of the aircraft again.
As there was strict radio silence at the time, no further communication was received from A9-317.
At 12.15pm on September 11, 1943, the freighter Duke of Sparta spotted an empty yellow rubber dinghy approximately 85 nautical miles off the southwest coast of WA and slightly off course of the patrol.
Having circled the area for an hour, and finding there were no bodies in or around the dinghy, the Duke of Sparta continued on her way, failing to pick up the dinghy which would have had identification of some sort. It is considered this dingy was in all probability from A9-317.
On the day the aircraft disappeared, there was a report of a possible submerged enemy submarine in the area 20 miles from Rottnest Island, despite an extensive search by naval vessels and aircraft nothing was found. The idea of the crew being picked up by an enemy submarine was too remote.
Flight plan of the A9-317 Beaufort Bomber. Image supplied.
The Australian Beauforts had been plagued with a mysterious problem and no-one would listen to those who reported problems with their planes, which resulted in more than 90 aircraft crashing and the avoidable deaths of many of its crews. The planes were nicknamed “flying coffins.”
It wasn't until Captain Learmonth was on patrol with two other Bristol Beauforts' and US naval ships off Rottnest, that an answer was found.
When his plane began to shake violently Learmonth realised that the shaking was driven by the tail of his aircraft and despite facing possible death, he broke radio silence calling the pilot of one of the other Beauforts to fly closer and observe the tail.
The pilot could see the control rod to the elevator trim tab on Learmonth's plane was hanging down. It had separated from the tab, allowing the tab and elevator to oscillate and drive the violent shaking of the whole aircraft. Learmonth advised the crews of the other Beauforts by radio what was happening.
Shortly after, the trim tab flicked to the extreme up position overpowering Learmonth and forcing the aircraft to descend rapidly. Less than a minute later Learmonth's plane crashed into the sea killing him and his three crew members.
As a result of Learmonth's radio commentary, a problem with the Australian built Beauforts was traced to a component in the elevator trim actuating unit.
All RAAF Beauforts were grounded until the problem was eliminated and Learmonth was given credit for supplying vital information that solved the problem.
The Beaufort Bomber, also known as a Bristol Beaufort, was designed in the UK as a torpedo-bomber but flew more often as a level bomber. Because of Japan's involvement in the war, and close proximity to Australia, these planes were being assembled in Melbourne.
It was reported that the Melbourne-based engineers who assembled the planes were misreading the plans and had assembled part of the controls incorrectly.
Is this the answer to the disappearance of A9-317?
Could those on board have endured the same terrifying and horrific ordeal that Learmonth and his crew suffered? As did many others in other planes that crashed because of the fault. Were all their lives unnecessarily wasted?