Catch any bus out of Perth’s Esplanade Busport that runs along Mounts Bay Road, and get off at the main stop for UWA. Walk down through the campus to the Swan River. A little way to your right, you’ll find this small memorial to a group of men who should be far better known for the skill and courage they displayed during World War 2.
The plaque bears a story that is remarkable enough in itself. But this is only the beginning of the tale.
With the fall of Singapore in 1942 the Japanese empire cut the main trunk of communication between Australia and England. Established by QANTAS in 1943 The Double Sunrise Service carried vital wartime messages to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and later on to Karachi in India.
Some flights carried passengers. In all, more than 6oo people became members of the Secret Order of The Double Sunrise. Their membership was acknowledged with a special certificate.
Passengers included British MPs and Rupert’s dad, Keith.
Rex Senior recalled his experience flying Double Sunrise missions for a documentary in 2013. Taking off, with the Catalina loaded to its maximum and beyond, was a white -knuckle affair.
Rex Senior also wrote about his Double Sunrise experiences.
Two bunks were fitted in the cabin and these were primarily to enable rest period for the off duty crew members. Occasionally a passenger would occupy one of the bunks, and usually this was quietly accepted.
Three chairs were installed in the blister compartment to provide passenger accommodation and a small toilet was fastened to the rear wall, regrettably with little privacy available.
One of those British MPs who flew the Double Sunrise was Baroness Edith Summerskill. A formidable and forceful lady, apparently – there’s no reason to believe she would have been shy about answering nature’s call in such circumstances.
Pilot Ivan Peirce recalled other discomforts.
Because they could not refuel and weight meant fuel spent, the Catalinas were stripped of comfort… Mr Peirce said temperatures sometimes plummeted to minus 14C – so cold that brushing the metal walls meant losing skin.
Just to add that extra spice of adventure:
Guns were a luxury Double Sunrise Catalinas did without.
No atheists in foxholes or Catalina cockpits, presumably. Weather warnings were likewise deemed superfluous. The Catalinas flew under strict radio silence, with only one brief message from Perth every 24 hours.
The Double Sunrise operation was top secret throughout the war and this caused some difficulties for the QANTAS crews. Rex Senior was rebuffed when trying to buy cigarettes – the shopkeeper told him ‘Go and join up. There are no cigarettes for bludgers.’ On another occasion he was handed a white feather – the ultimate symbol of cowardice.
Later – much later – the service of these brave men was acknowledged. But the planes they flew were not considered worthy of preservation.
All five of the Double Sunrise Catalinas were scuttled.
Photos not taken by myself were sourced here.
The video clip above is taken from the short documentary The Double Sunrise Flights. Available as a download, or in DVD format with interesting extras.