ACT News


Life and times of flying Dalys

John Daly comes from a long line of military men and has seen a lot of changes over the years, DAVID ELLERY writes

Many people make a study of history but John Daly of Lyons grew up with it, has been a witness to it and, in his own quiet way, helped make some of it.

The son of a WWI fighter pilot who was responsible for keeping fresh planes up to the RAF during WWII, John learnt to fly at the controls of the impounded German trainer his father, George, used for personal transport during the war.

He watched the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, the Blitz that followed and then the Vengeance weapon (V1 buzz bombs and V2 rockets) assaults of late 1944 and 1945 from his boarding schools in Kent and Berkshire. John also witnessed at first hand the devastation wrought by the German bombers on London during stopovers in the city on trips home from boarding school. He later became one of the RAF's first generation of jet pilots, flying Vampires, Sabres, Hunters, Venoms and Canberras.

John, the ninth generation serving officer in a family whose military history goes back almost as far as the Battle of Blenheim and the War of the Spanish Succession, says his father, Air Vice-Marshal George Dermot Daly, was a remarkable man.

Between them the father and son lived through man's very first attempts at powered flight to the space age and unmanned probes that are now reaching out beyond the solar system.

During WWI George Daly flew machines crafted from wood, wire, fabric and glue. These included the legendary Sopwith Camel. John, who served with the RAF for two decades before spending four years with the RAAF, flew some of the most advanced and fastest jets conceived by man up until the early 1960s.


George, whose own father, Major General Arthur C. Daly, was to become Inspector-General of what is now Iraq in the 1920s, was fascinated by all things mechanical with particular emphasis on the motor car. Born in 1898, he left school early to work for a car company in Dieppe, France. The city was already the home of the French Grand Prix.

Cars are in the family's blood. George owned a precious Lagonda open wheeler between the wars and John went on to own exotic machinery including an ex-German SS Mercedes 230, an MG TD and a Jaguar XK 150S. At 83 he remains a keen driver and is passionate about his Volkswagen hot hatch.

When WWI broke out in 1914, George Daly was nearly 16. He joined up as soon as possible and had earned his wings with the Royal Flying Corps by his 18th birthday. John said his father had to negotiate a long and convoluted road to realise his dream of flight.

''You couldn't just join the Royal Flying Corps,'' he said. ''First you joined the Royal Engineers, then you applied for the air wing and, if accepted, you did flying training. If you survived that - and it was a big if - then you went to the RFC.''

George brought two major assets to Britain's embryonic air force; he was an excellent mechanic who could fix a plane if it broke down in transit (after landing it first) and he could speak fluent technical French. The powers that be made good use of him. He became a ferry pilot, flying newly built or repaired planes from workshops in England to the combat airfields in France.

''Because he was a good mechanic he could fix a plane if the engine stopped and he was forced to land in a paddock,'' John said. ''Because he could speak French he could ask the farmer for the wire, chewing gum or whatever he needed to fix it.''

When 43 Squadron, the famous ''Fighting Cocks'', lost five planes in one disastrous day George was one of the designated replacements. Although an experienced pilot he had little knowledge of combat but proved a fast learner.

''He told me he shot down four planes, although I can only find official records for three,'' John said. One more would have made him an ace.

A veteran of the jet age when radio communications and near supersonic and supersonic speeds were commonplace, John has the highest regard for the ability of his father's generation. He recalls, as a small boy, coming across a leather pouch in the attic of the family home. It contained lead weights and colourful streamers. ''My father told me it was his message pouch,'' he said. ''If you were flying along and you saw the enemy on a hill or somewhere you wrote a note, put it in the pouch and then dropped it to your own troops. The streamers made it easy to find.''

George Daly stayed on in the RFC, which later became the Royal Air Force, after the war and had been posted to Iraq by 1920. It was here that he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. ''One of his mates' plane stopped while they were fighting insurgents and he had to make a forced landing in the desert. The downed plane then came under attack. My father landed next to it, the pilot clambered up into the cockpit - it was a tight squeeze apparently, and they flew off.''

The Middle East was to feature strongly in the family's life between the wars. When George's father became the Inspector-General of Iraq he accompanied him as his aide de camp. ''It was probably the toughest job he [George Daly] ever had,'' John said. ''But he survived that.''

George had married John's mother, Dorothy, in 1927. ''I am the one and only [child],'' John said. When war broke out in September 1939 then Wing Commander George Daly was at the RAF base at Aboukir, Egypt, the site of the Battle of the Nile between Nelson and the French fleet in 1798. He was overseeing hot weather trials on the recently introduced Spitfire and Hurricane fighters under conditions of intense secrecy.

''As soon as the war broke out he and my mother were flown back to England on a Short Sunderland flying boat,'' John said. ''Because there was no room to bring anything home with them, all their possessions - my father's open wheeler Lagonda sports, the family silver, the china, the linen and the furniture had to be sent home by sea.''

Needless to say this was a recipe for disaster. ''Everything, included the Lagonda, was put on board an eight knot merchant ship at Alexandria. It chugged its way across the Atlantic to America where it picked up more cargo and, eventually, chugged into port at Southampton.'' All of the family's treasures, including the magnificent car, were then unloaded on to the docks.

''That was one of the nights the Germans decided to bomb the port,'' John said. ''They [the family's effects] were all gone and, because they were no longer on the ship, and had not yet been put on a train there was no insurance.''

John spent the war at boarding school. His first, The New Beacon in Kent, had an acerbic WWI veteran as its headmaster. He referred to the enemy as the ''Bosche'' (cabbages or blockheads) and frequently told his students ''the only good German is a dead German''.

The latter part of John's education was completed at Wellington College, which opened in 1859, in Berkshire. The school is now part of the Rugby Group. ''After I had been there for a year I was able to join the Air Training Corps as a flight cadet,'' John said. ''The army wasn't for me.'' This led to his trying his hand at the controls of the delightful little Messerschmitt Bf108 trainer his father used to fly around the RAF bases of England. ''It was a three-seater with dual controls and had belonged to the German ambassador. It was beautifully finished inside.'' It had a top speed of more than 300km/h.

John, who had been born at Wandsworth in London in 1929, followed his father into the RAF in 1946. He was to serve for 20 years before moving to Australia with his wife, Joanna, in the mid-1960s for a four-year stint with the RAAF after which he moved into private industry.

The couple had met at an RAF mess party in Cyprus while John was stationed there. By the time they came to Australia they had two children, Simon and Harriet. The family has now grown to include four grandchildren.

John spent the first four years of his RAF service completing an engineering apprenticeship. He went to the RAF College at Cranwell in 1950. It was here he met James Coward, the Battle of Britain veteran who died at Yass last year, after retiring to the ACT in the late 1960s. The men were close friends in their Canberra years.

John undertook his initial flying training on the Percival Prentice before graduating to the Harvard, a radial engined type that had seen combat during the war. ''I loved it; you sat in the centre, it was like a fighter,'' he said.

From here it was off to advanced flying school. ''I was dead lucky; I was chosen for fighters.'' His good luck continued. ''Instead of the Meteors [which were almost all based in the UK] I was posted to Vampires which were DFGA [Day Fighter Ground Attack] and based in Germany.''

Despite its short endurance (roughly 40 minutes in the air) and diminutive size, the Vampires were loved by their pilots. ''They were tiny, you climbed into the little cockpit and 40 minutes later you were out of fuel - the same as the Sabre,'' he said.

The American-designed Sabres, built by Canadair, came later and were the UK's interim capability until the arrival of the homegrown Hunter, another great plane (despite a lack of speed, weapons and manoeuvrability in comparison to the Iron Curtain competition).

John subsequently moved across to Canberras, where he became an acknowledged expert in photo-reconnaissance and was based in Cyprus.

He recalls his later years with the RAAF with great fondness and is still in close contact with the friends he made at that time. ''They all ended up Air Vice-Marshals,'' he said. ''We still get together regularly to swap war stories.''