A Great Australian: Wing Commander Noel Constantine Remembered

Posted on Tuesday 25th July 2017


A Great Australian: Wing Commander Noel Constantine Remembered

A forgotten Spitfire Ace inspired the Allies’ fight for air supremacy in Burma


On 29 July 2017 it will be the 70th anniversary of the death of Wing Commander Noel Constantine – one of Australia’s most outstanding fighter pilots and leaders of the Second World War. A Red Cross Dakota aircraft on loan from India, in which Constantine was a pilot, transporting medical supplies to Indonesian forces fighting for independence, was shot down by Dutch air force fighters. Constantine and his wife Beryl died in the crash near Yogyakarta. As a consequence Constantine’s remarkable service has been little recognised and largely forgotten.

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At 30,000 feet in the skies above Calcutta on 20 January 1944 a veteran fighter pilot of the Battle of Britain looked down on two huge formations of Japanese fighters and bombers. Estimates at the time put their number between fifty and a hundred. Undaunted Australian Squadron Leader Noel Constantine led his nine Mark VIII Spitfires of No 136 Squadron RAF, onto the massed enemy fighters some 10,000 feet below. In the confused and chaotic engagement that followed, and on his eighth diving attack, Constantine found two of Japan’s new ‘Tojo’ Shoki (Demon) fighters on his tail.

I went into an inverted spin and blacked out completely. I came to, thought I was in hospital and remember calling for tea.

Seconds after recovering some control of the Spitfire, Constantine passed out again.


When I recovered the second time, I was very near the jungle, and found the two Japs were firing immediately ahead of me. At treetop height I darted down some gullies and luckily lost them.

Although the Nakajima Ki-44 ‘Tojo’ was not quite as agile as other Japanese fighters such as the Nakajima Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ and the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen ‘Zero’, it was developed to be a more powerful and fast climbing interceptor of the US strategic bombers. While it was rated to reach 16,405 feet in 4 minutes and 17 seconds, Constantine had tested the Mark VIII Spitfire in a simulated battle climb to 20,000 feet in only 2 minutes and 48.5 seconds. The ‘Tojo’ had a service ceiling of 36,945 feet and a maximum speed of 376mph. In comparison the Mark VIII Spitfire’s service ceiling was as high as 44,000 feet, with a top speed of 416mph.

Despite being vastly outnumbered the Spitfires made good use of their clear edge in performance. In the ensuing dogfights, lasting about twenty minutes, Constantine’s pilots claimed five victories, four probables and six damaged. Five days earlier on 15 January Constantine’s 136 Squadron had claimed eight enemy aircraft destroyed and nine probables or damaged, out of a total of fifteen victories that day by all fighter squadrons. One British newspaper caption declared – ‘RAF 15, Japan 0!’

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 Australian Flying Officer Noel Constantine was a fighter pilot in the RAF. He was born in 1914 in Moama, New South Wales, and later lived with his widowed mother on Phillip Island, Victoria. His parents, Alexander and Victoria Constantine, had moved to NSW from New Zealand, where Noel’s grandparents had settled in 1865 after emigrating from Greece. After studying pharmacy at Melbourne University, in 1937 he travelled to London, where in 1938 he joined the RAF on a short service commission.

Throughout the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, and the following winter, Constantine served with No 141 Squadron RAF. On one occasion he baled out, only to have his parachute caught up in the branches of a tree, where he hung until the morning brought rescue. He was also shot down over the North Sea, pulled from the waves by a Royal Navy destroyer, on which he survived further attacks by U-Boats, before reaching port in Rosyth, Scotland.

In late 1941 Constantine was promoted to Squadron Leader, with orders to embark for the Far East, and after the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Burma in December 1941, was posted to command No 273 Squadron RAF in Ceylon reaching there in March 1942. In mid-1943 he was appointed Squadron Leader of No 136 Squadron, based close to Calcutta in India. It was one of the squadrons selected to convert to Spitfires. They and other Spitfire squadrons would lead the fight to wrest air superiority from the Japanese air force.

In the first half of 1944 when the Japanese invaded India, the Spitfire squadrons were thrown into a desperate ‘last ditch’ battle against the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF). As in the Battle of Britain they were the last line of defence as they fought for ascendancy in the skies above the crucial battles, first of the Admin Box then Kohima and Imphal. Constantine’s No 136 Squadron became the highest scoring fighter squadron in the Burma campaign. In late March 1944 in acknowledgement of his courageous leadership Constantine was promoted to Wing Commander Tactics at Far East Command HQ.

In his lead role in gaining air superiority over the JAAF, Constantine was one of the most influential leaders in winning the air war in Burma. The eventual air supremacy gained over the JAAF enabled Allied ground forces to be supplied totally by air, putting the Japanese at a decisive disadvantage. It also allowed Allied air forces to eliminate air reconnaissance by the JAAF, minimise enemy interception of Allied air reconnaissance flights, and intensify their air-to-ground offensives against the Japanese army.

Wing Commander Constantine made one of the most vital contributions to the Allies’ defeat of Japan in the Burma campaign. Only the hard won air supremacy established by Allied air forces in 1944, allowed General Slim’s Fourteenth Army the essential logistics and air protection, to drive back into Burma, and finally recapture Rangoon in May 1945.

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Noel Constantine survived the war and resigned from the RAF in December 1946. On the afternoon of 29 July 1947 near Yogyakarta in Indonesia, Noel Constantine was piloting a C-47 ‘Dakota’ (VT-CLA) transport aircraft on a flight from Singapore into its final approach to Maguwo airfield. Constantine was accompanied by his wife Beryl, whom he had first met during the war, when he was based at RAF Fairwood Common near Swansea in Wales UK. Constantine’s Dakota was carrying medical supplies from the Malayan Red Cross for the Indonesians fighting for the recently declared Republic of Indonesia, and its independence from the Dutch East Indies colonial power.

Constantine was accompanied by another pilot, Squadron Leader Roy Hazelhurst, and on board in addition to his wife Beryl, there were three senior officers of the fledgling Indonesian Air Force. The consignment of medical supplies was well over 1,000 lbs and a value shown of $3,104, a significant sum at the time. It included cotton wool, bandages, lint, Flavin tablets, Sulphatiazol tablets, Sulphanamide, Permanganate, Pennicilin, Anaesthetic, First Aid and burns dressings.

A movement signal of the flight’s route to Yogyakarta, was sent from Air Traffic Control (ATC) Singapore to ATC Batavia (Jakarta), who acknowledged the signal. Mid-flight however two Dutch P-40 Kittyhawk fighter planes intercepted the Dakota, and for a time flew alongside observing. It had appeared to be a routine patrol. Now suddenly in the final approach to Maguwo, machine-gun tracer fire zipped past the Dakota’s wingtips. The two Kittyhawk fighters of the Dutch East Indies air force had fired at Constantine’s aircraft. What happened next is unclear, but it is reasonable to assume that Constantine and Hazelhurst may have taken some evasive action.

Earlier events at Maguwo were probably unknown to Constantine before he took off from Singapore. On that morning of 29 July, aircraft of the newly founded Indonesian Air Force, Angkatan Udara Republik Indonesia (AURI), returned to Maguwo airfield after attacking Dutch army positions in Semarang, Ambarawa and Salatiga. Two hours later two Dutch Kittyhawk fighters strafed Maguwo airfield and Yogyakarta.

Soon after being fired upon by the Kittyhawk fighters, Constantine’s Dakota crashed in a village near the Maguwo airfield. Eyewitnesses said that the defenceless Dakota had lowered its under-carriage for landing, when the Kittyhawks fired upon the Dakota, and destroyed the port engine. One witness to the tragedy, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Radcliffe of a London press agency said, ‘Without question this is the most cowardly and brutal single action of folly, that I have ever seen…’.

Those killed in the immediate impact of the crash were the three AURI members, Deputy Commodore A. Adisutjipto, Commodore A. Saleh, and P. Adisumarno, Roy Hazelhurst, flight engineer Bidha Ram, the Indonesian Consul to Malaya, Zainal Arifin, and Noel Constantine. It was reported that passenger A. Handokotjokro and Constantine’s wife. Beryl, were taken to hospital, where only Handokotjokro survived. Multiple bullet wounds from the Dutch fighters’ attack were found in the victims’ bodies.

AURI stated that the aircraft carried Red Cross markings but the Dutch said that it did not, and that they had not been informed of the flight. The Dutch also claimed that the Kittyhawk fighters were under orders to force the Dakota to land at the nearest airfield and that, after warning shots had been fired, the Dakota hit a tree and crashed.

The destruction of the Dakota, and the deaths of Constantine and other occupants on a humanitarian flight, caused a flurry of international outrage and allegations involving Australia, Britain, Netherlands, India, Indonesia, Malaya and other countries. The Netherlands Government in 1951 agreed to pay an ex gratia payment of compensation for the loss of lives and the plane. By inference one can assume that they did this to bring closure to the claim, since they had no grounds for defending the actions of their fighter pilots.

That day, 29 July, has since been marked by the Indonesian Republic as Indonesia Air Force Dedication Day. The three AURI crew members killed in the crash, A. Adisutjipto, A. Saleh, and P. Adisumarno, have had airports named after them in Yogyakarta, Malang, and Surakarta. Wing Commander Alexander Noel Constantine, his wife Beryl Constantine, and his co-pilot, Roy Hazelhurst, were buried in a cemetery in Yogyakarta where an AURI memorial commemorates their deaths. After many years when it was thought that Constantine’s grave had been lost, Michael Kramer of the Australia/Indonesia Association and the nephew of Noel, Geoff Constantine, in 2016 arranged for a headstone to be erected.

For nearly five years Constantine had flown fighters in some of the toughest combat operations of the Second World War, including the Battle of Britain, before leading the highest scoring fighter squadron in the skies of India and Burma against the ferocious and fanatical JAAF. Just to survive such knife-edge conflicts was in itself remarkable. Now, while flying a humanitarian mission, fate had caught up with him.

Noel Constantine had joined countless other pilots who had lost their lives in the skies of India and Burma. In the book Wings of the Phoenix: The official story of the Air War in Burma by the British Air Ministry, first published in 1949, Constantine was described as ‘a great Australian and an inspiring leader…’. In a letter to Constantine’s sister, Daphne, on 10 October 1947, the author of Wings of the Phoenix, Wing Commander Leslie Kark, wrote that Noel, ‘…was a great and well-loved friend…one of the finest fighter pilots of the Burma War... so genuine and grand a person’.

Because of his death in 1947, it meant that Constantine never received the wider recognition he deserved for his outstanding service during the Second World War, and his support for the Indonesian independence struggle. He became like so many others just another statistic, of whom most people know nothing. Perhaps with some of his story now retold here in Air Battle for Burma, by Bryn Evans (Pen and Sword Books, Nov 2016) a little of his sacrifice will become better known.

wRITTEN BY BRYN EVANS
image
Squadron Leader Noel Constantine seated in the centre on the wing of Spitfire Mk Vc HM-E, with four pilots of 136 Squadron RAF, January 1944. From left: Flying Officer D J ‘Barney’ Barnett (RAAF), Flying Officer Frank E Wilding DFC (RAF), Squadron Leader A N ‘Noel’ Constantine (RAAF), Flight Lieutenant A G ‘Gordon' Conway DFC (RAF) and Flight Lieutenant Dennis E W Garvan DFC (RAAF). (Private collection of Noel and Geoff Constantine, and Interservices Public Relations Directorate, India, Pen 547)

Further Reading


Air Battle for Burma
(Hardback - 251 pages)
ISBN: 9781473858923

by Bryn Evans
Only £25.00

After a long series of crushing defeats by the apparently unstoppable Japanese air and ground forces, the eventual fightback and victory in Burma was achieved as a result of the exercise of unprecedented combined services cooperation and operations. Crucial to this was the Allies’ supremacy in the air coupled with their ground/air support strategy.

Using veterans’ first-hand accounts, Air Battle For Burma reveals the decisive nature of Allied air power in inflicting the first major defeat on the Japanese Army in the Second World War. Newly equipped…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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