The Yarra Brothers of No.453 Squadron, RAAF
When I was a small boy in the early 1970’s I was given a record player and some children’s records to play on it. One of the songs was “Two Little Boys”…
“Do you think I would leave you dyingLyrics by Edward Madden
There’s room on my horse for two
Climb up here Joe, we’ll soon be flying
Back to the ranks so blue
Can you feel Joe I’m all a tremble
Perhaps it’s the battle’s noise
But I think it’s that I remember
When we were two little boys”
The song tells the story of two brothers who go to war. During an action, one has his horse shot out from under him and becomes separated from his troop. His brother comes to rescue him, echoing an event from their childhood where one lets the other ride his toy horse. It’s an old song, written in 1902 and while now dated it still well represents the bond brothers can have for one another.
John William Yarra was born to Alfred and Harriet Yarra in 1921 in Stanthorpe Queensland, followed by his younger brother Robert Ernest Yarrra in 1923, and finally James Yarra in 1925 . Later, the family moved to Grafton in New South Wales where the brothers attended High School and their father worked at the town’s newspaper, the Daily Examiner. At around 600km north of Sydney, Grafton at the time was a small coastal town with a population of around 10,000 with its economy built around farming and the nearby copper mine.
One can imagine a typical childhood for the brothers in Grafton, and a correspondingly typical mother’s pride as they became young men. One can also imagine her fear, even dread, when after war broke out in Europe, John and then Robert enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and soon thereafter went overseas. It wasn’t only her boys going off to war, Mrs. A.E. Yarra of Grafton, NSW was at war too.
The following is an excerpt from the speech transcript of the Australian War Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony for Flight Lieutenant John William Yarra DFM, No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, KIA 10 December 1942. Jack’s story was delivered at the ceremony on 4 September, 2013.
After initial training in Australia in April 1941, he was sent to Canada where he qualified as a pilot. Promoted to sergeant, he was sent to Britain where he joined No. 232 Squadron, Royal Air Force in October and then No. 64 Squadron, RAF, the following month. Flying Supermarine Spitfires, Yarra’s first operational flights were fighter sweeps over German-occupied northern France. In January 1942, he was promoted to flight sergeant and posted to No. 249 Squadron, RAF, destined for Malta.
In March 1942, Yarra was among the first Spitfire pilots who flew off the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle to reinforce the island’s hard-pressed defenders. A few weeks later he was posted to No. 185 Squadron, RAF, flying Hawker Hurricanes and then Spitfires.
The air war over Malta was relentless; Yarra claimed his first victory on the night of the first of May; the first of a series of victories. In just over three months, Yarra destroyed 12 enemy aircraft and damaged six others. In early June he was commissioned as pilot officer and a few days later he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
In mid-July, Yarra was posted back to Britain and joined No. 453 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force in September. He had “a fine reputation” and was one of the most experienced pilots in the squadron. His younger brother Sergeant Robert Yarra was also in the squadron. Their time together was brief. On the 10th of December, John Yarra was shot down and crashed into the sea off the coast of Holland while attacking a small convoy of German merchant vessels and a flak ship. His body was not recovered. He was 21 years old.Australian War Memorial, Last Post Ceremony, 4 September 2013
The Squadron’s war diary provides more detail on how he was killed.
War Diary 453 (RAAF) squadron- // – Time up / down 11.00 and 12.40 hours Unfortunately it was necessary to record the loss of Flt.Lt. JW Yarra and Plt. Off. MHI de Cosier or B-Flight. They were one of three sections, which went on shipping reconnaissance in the area Blankenberge – Flushing and at about 11.45 hours four merchant ships, each of 700 – 1000 tons and protected by a Flakship, were sighted some 10 miles north-west of Flushing and all were heavily armed. The attack had good results! One of the merchants was heavily damaged and left burning fiercely, a large pall of black smoke rising to 150 feet being seen in the short time the departing aircraft had it under observation. The aircraft of Flt.Lt. Yarra and Plt.Off. the Cosier were both hit! Plt.Off. the Cosier stalled and dived into the sea, while he was trying at a very low speed to gain height. Flt.Lt. Yarra climbed to approximately 1000 feet and bailed out but hit and became caught in the tailplane and his parachute came out but streamed behind the aircraft. The pilot became disengaged before the aircraft hit the sea in flames and was seen to fall into the water with the parachute streaming behind him unopened. Neither body has been recovered and therefore the official report is Missing believed Killed. It must be said, however, that not the slightest hope for either can be entertained. The other sections were concerned Plt.Off. EAR Beau, Plt.Off. RJ Darcey and Plt.Off. LJ Han-sell and Sgt. G. Stansfield. All pressed home their attack with vigor and special credit must be given to Plt.Off. Beau, who took command after Flt.Lt.Yarra had been shot down, and brought his four aircraft safely back.Original source unknown, see references
The Germans’ after-action report provides the alternate perspective;
December 10, 1942 In the course of the morning, six Spitfires from No.453 squadron performed an armed recce along the sea area between Blankenberge and Walcheren where arrived at northwest of Walcheren – attack was carried out on the minesweepers M 3401 , M3405 , M 3411 , M 3416 and M 3417 .On board the ships, five people were killed and seven were seriously injured and five were slightly injured but the success was fought hard! Two Spitfires from this Australian squadron turned nor did they return to their base and their pilots have remained missing to this day.Google translation from the original German. Original source unknown, see references
Jack’s loss was reported in the Grafton Daily Examiner five days later on 15 December, 1942. The full transcript can be found here; the following is its description of how Jack won his DFM;
“Additionally, as a result of great gallantry and flying prowess, he won the Distinguished Flying Medal and promotion to the rank of Flight-Lieut, at Malta. The Incident for which the awards were made resulted from Yarra’s shooting down of one, and probably two, Messerschmitts off the Malta coast where a dogfight apparently resulted in some of Yarra’s fighter mates going down int0 the sea. Three enemy planes attempted to continue to attack the defenceless men in the water during their rescue by a speed launch from Malta, but Yarra, although he had used up/every bullet and cannon in his Spitfire, daringly and successfully, at great risk, made a number of feint attacks by which he held the enemy awav from the launch for three-quarters of an hour. After beating the enemy off, Yarra had just sufficient petrol left to land his plane on Malta.”
In mid-1942 Jack had written a letter to his mother which was to be sent only in the event of his death. It read:
“I entered this war with the knowledge that I had a rather small chance of coming out of it alive. I was under no false impression, I knew I had to kill and perhaps be killed. Since I commenced flying I have spent probably the happiest time of my life … Above all, Mother dear, I have proved to my satisfaction that I was, at least, a man.”John Yarra, 1942
One can’t imagine Harriet Yarra’s grief at this news (and the letter it triggered) combined with the knowledge that another of her boys was flying in the same squadron, in the same aircraft, on the same missions that just claimed the life of her eldest son.
Unfortunately, there was to be more tragic news for Mrs. Yarra less than eighteen months later.
When Jack Yarra arrived at 453 Squadron his younger brother was a new pilot with the squadron having taken much the same path Jack had taken two years previously. It’s a safe assumption that as a very experienced pilot, Jack would have taken Bob under his wing and looked out for him as best he could.
At the time, the Squadron was engaged in “Ramrod” missions over the Netherlands and Belgian coastal regions. These were patrols hunting for ground targets of opportunity, either on land or water. The Squadron’s Mk.V Spitfires weren’t especially suited to this mission, however as the most effective fighter in the RAF’s arsenal they were put to this use nonetheless.
It must have been devastating for Bob when Jack was lost only a few months after joining the Squadron.
Sixteen months later in April 1944, Bob was the Intelligence Officer for the Squadron and as such involved in planning operations which now included “Noball” sorties to attack the V-Weapons launch sites in Northern France. It’s likely that he had a role in planning the operation scheduled for Friday 14 April, 1944
By now, the Squadron was flying Mk.IX Spitfires armed with various arrangements of a 250lb bomb on each wing and a 500lb bomb on a fuselage bomb rack as seen on the picture below.
The photo above was taken exactly one year after April 14, 1944, the date Spitfires of No.602 RAF (which included the French ace Pierre Clostermann) and No.453 of the RAAF were to attack the V1 launch sites near Ligescourt on Operation Ramrod 735. The two attacking Squadrons were given air cover by No.132 Squadron RAF.
The weather was fine for the time of year with clear skies which would have made the trip over the channel, and on to the target area a pleasant flight taking not much more than twenty minutes or so.
The operational plan called for 602 to attack first, with 453 following immediately after. Each Squadron fielded twelve Spitfires and they began their dives at around 7,000ft in line astern. 602’s attack went well and without loss, but by the time the Australian 453 Spitfires began their dives the defenses had not only been alerted to the attack, but had had time to sight in their 20mm and 37mm AA weapons. This proved fatal for Bob when his Spitfire was hit several times during his dive by 20 mm or 37 mm shells and it disintegrated in the air before crashing on the ground. Pilot Officer Robert Yarra had no real chance to bail out of his stricken aircraft and was killed on impact, if not before. His body was recovered by the Germans and he was buried in the cemetery at Abbeville.
Soon after at her home in Grafton, Mrs. Harriet Yarra would have received another telegram telling her that another of her boys had been killed in action. She must have wondered how much more would she be asked to bear in this war? There is no apparent record of James, her third son and what role he may have played in the Second World War. One can hope that that means he played none, and Harriet Yarra wasn’t asked to give any more to the war effort – she’d given enough, surely?
John and Robert Yarra are commemorated in at the Australian War Memorial in the Commemorative Area alongside the other twenty-six Australians who lost their lives serving with No. 453 Squadron, RAAF.
In March and then in September 2010, the site of Bob’s crashed Spitfire was excavated by a French team of amateur archaeologists, “Somme Aviation 39-45.” As Bob’s body had been removed by the Germans soon after the crash, the site is not considered a war grave. Bob’s Spitfire was found based on information provided by Philippe Leconte who, as a nine year old boy living in the village of Ligescourt, had remembered seeing “a plane that crashed on the territory of [the] village.” The excavation uncovered several artifacts from Bob’s Spitfire; pictures of many of them can be found on the group’s excellent website.
The Models; Two 1/48 Scale Spitfires
Hasegawa’s Mk.Vb with Eduard’s Mk.IXc
Hasegawa Spitfire Mk.Vb Gallery
Eduard Spitfire Mk.IXc (Late) Gallery
References and Credits
- The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (402823) Flight Lieutenant John William Yarra, 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, Second World War. AWM.
Copyright: I claim original work and Copyright 2020 for the text in this article and the photos of the models except where noted (typically, italicised text denotes quoted content). As usual though, I am indebted to the producers of the material used in research as listed above in the References and Credits section, particularly the resources at the Australian War Memorial website. Except where noted otherwise, I sourced all other images and photos from the internet and are used under fair-use. Any copyrighted images will be removed or credited forthwith upon request by its rightful owner.