IN 1941 the Western Desert of North Africa provided a stage for a many colourful characters and certainly none more ebullient than Flt Lt Clive Caldwell of the Royal Australian Air Force. Though older than the average fighter pilot he was fully equipped with all the aggressive spirit, dash and skill of the traditional fighter ace, plus a brash and cocky confidence which made him the very spirit of Oz. In a few weeks he achieved the five victories which made him an ace, the speed of which earned him the nickname of 'Killer'.
I was commanding No 73 Fighter Squadron RAF, operating in the same area, and our two units often combined for sweeps against the enemy. I got used to hearing 'Killer' Caldwell's voice splitting my earphones as he sighted Messerschmitts above us (our aircraft were much inferior in performance to the Germans').
He was an ideal pilot for the rough desert war; tough, adaptable, inspirational, good-natured, and an excellent poker player. On 5 December 1941 he shot down five Stuka dive-bombers in one day, and his final total was 281 2 aircraft, gathered in North Africa against the German and Italian air forces, and in the Australian theatre against the Japanese.
Caldwell was educated at Trinity Grammar School in Sydney. From there he entered the New South Wales Bank, the tedium of which caused him to join the Royal Aero Club of New South Wales. He went solo in 1938, and in 1939, seeing the onset of war, he joinod the RAAF. As he was nearly 30 he lied about his age, and further economies with the truth were necessary to get him into a fighter squadron. He had no intention of serving in any capacity other than that of a fighter pilot.
In 1941 he was posted to the Western Desert Fighter Wing, as a Flight Commander in No 250 RAAF Squadron, flying Tomahawks. This aircraft lacked power at altitude and was slower in the climb than the Me 109s. Caldwell gained his victories by taking the enemy by surprise, closing to point-blank range, and hanging grimly on to his victim until he had blown him apart. By the time the RAAF recalled him to Australia he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, commanded No 112 RAAF Squadron, and was the outstanding ace of the Desert War.
The RAAF 'rested' him by putting him to work training pupil pilots, plus an assignment to test a fighter aircraft designed and built in Australia. He did not endear himself to the Air Staff by reporting on it as useless for operation. He was given command of No 1 and then No 80 RAAF Fighter Wings, first at Darwin and later on the island of Moretai. He gained eight more victories, against Japanese aircraft, and was awarded the DSO for outstanding leadership.
It was there, at the end of the war, that his flying career ended under bizarre circumstances. Though considerate to those below him, he had always held senior officers in a breezy distaste, and at Moretai he became involved in a dispute about strategic policy, and then in a light-hearted traffic in hard liquor, carried in the aircraft of his fighter wing. Though at the time a group captain and Australia's most distinguished airman, he was court-martialled in 1945 and reduced to the rank of flight lieutenant. He left the RAAF in February 1946, after a party that is still remembered in Sydney.
Undismayed, he set up an import /export business, and much to the surprise of his friends made an excellent living from it. He never flew an aeroplane again.
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