More than 70 years since first taking to the skies for his country, Katikati pilot Guy Robertson returned to the air this week to fly to London to be honoured for his contribution to New Zealand aviation.
Guy, now 96, flew out on Tuesday to receive the Jean Batten Memorial Trophy from the British-based Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators – an honour for his contribution to New Zealand aviation.
Katikati’s aerial top-dressing pioneer Guy Robertson with a model of the first Fletcher plane he brought into New Zealand. Photo by Elaine Fisher.
Talking to Sun Live earlier when he was named the award’s recipient Guy was “very humbled and honoured” with the great compliment of the award and was determined to make the London presentation on October 23.
Growing up in the Waikato he had been fascinated by the pilots in the Great War, so was quick to sign up when he had his chance.
Guy was a gifted pilot and had his flying talent recognised early in his career when he was asked to stay on after his three months training at Tairei Air Base to be an instructor where he trained new recruits for two years, before heading into conflict in 1943 for the first of three tours of duty with 18 Squadron RNZAF in the Solomon Islands. (Below he shares a tale below from his Solomon’s campaign serving as squadron leader, taken from a hand-written diary).
After the war Guy was a pioneer in aerial topdressing, starting Robertson Air Services in 1950 with one Tiger Moth, before being the first to bring a Fletcher topdressing plane into New Zealand in 1953 – eventually growing his fleet to 15 Fletchers.
At one point the company held the record for spreading 150 tons of super in one day using two Tiger Moths.
Looking back he remembers lots of early morning starts, happy hill country farmers who could now topdress their pasture, and plenty of fun times amongst the hard work.
Guy gave up flying more than 40 years ago, replacing his love for the air with a passion for boating. After selling the topdressing business in 1987 he shifted from the Waikato to Great Barrier Island to develop a property and now, with wife Elaine, runs a bed a bed and breakfast outside Katikati.
Exerts from Guy’s diary:
Excerpts from a hand-written diary account by No 18 Squadron leader Guy Robertson’s Solomon’s campaign, after arriving in Bougainville in late January 1944.
After leaving from Whenuapai Aerodrome on January 7, 1944, Guy Robertson set off with No 18 Fighter Squadron – flying in a group of 12 P40 planes island-hopping to Espiritu Santos. First stop was Norfolk Island, then New Caledonia’s Tontouta airfield, before landing at Espirtu Santos where bad weather delayed them for a week before they could fly to Guadalcanal.
Most of the time on the “heavenly” island was spent doing drills and target practising in preparation for enemy contact. Following is a summarised account of his first active mission.
Empress Augusts Bay, Bougainville, Torokina Fighter Strip
31 January 1944
“We have now been at Torokina for four days. The Americans hold only a small bight of this island, about three to four miles in diameter. Yank troops are firmly dug in all the way around the perimeter of the beachhead with the Japs opposing them with frequent clashes.
“The morning after our arrival here we went on our first strike to Rabaul escorting 24 Mitchell medium bombers on a strike on Lakunai airfield, Rabaul. This strike was to prove the squadron’s most exciting and grim sortie. Our squadron was providing 12 Warhawks as bottom cover while the Americans provided 12 Hellcats as medium cover and 12 Corsairs as high cover.
“Up above at 25-30,000 feet we could see the Corsairs above us, while at about 15,000 feet the Hellcats kept their station, just below us the bombers flew in excellent formation. About one hour’s flying over the sea brought us in sight of New Ireland, also Jap-held, and shortly afterwards we passed just out of range of the AA guns on Cape St George and headed up St George’s Channel.
“When within a few miles of the target we dropped our belly tanks and soon afterwards the radio jumped into life as the Yanks above us started reported bandits and yelling advice and instructions to each other. By this time we were weaving frantically over the bombers and endeavouring to keep station.
“I managed to sneak a glimpse around me how and then and saw several groups of Jap fighters high above us hanging like black specks in the sky and waiting their chance to pounce on us. I had very little time to look round as I was very busy weaving with my opposite e number Sgt Roy Reardon.
“The Jap ack-ack defences then opened up and we were treated to a display of fire that our more experienced pilots said beat anything that they had seen. Large black puffs of smoke began to appear all around us and it did not seem possible for anything to get through it. The explosions frequently rocked my plane. For hundreds of yards I could see nothing but a level sea of black smoke puffs and yet miraculously none of our aircraft was shot down.”
After the Mitchells dropped their bombs and turned away for home, the Japanese Zeros made a made an effort to get to the bombers.
“I had my first close-up glimpse of a Zero as one dived through our formation releasing a phosphorous bomb as he went …He went down almost vertically and passed within a chain or so of me at a terrific speed. The phosphorous bomb burst ahead of us and hung in the air like a huge white octopus with its falling tendrils of burning sulphur.
“Ron and I continued to weave rapidly, guarding each other’s tails, until we were attacked by a large number of Zeros. The first indication I had was a burst of tracer which passed under my port wing. Ron turned across violently to shoot this bird off my tail and in so doing disrupted our weave and I lost sight of him. By this time we had become separated from the rest of our formation and I found myself alone. “
A continuing series of Zeros speed past him, coming down from high up, while he was moving violently to throw them off their aim. Then a few Zeroes goes together and tried to gang up on him – gaining ground in what was looking bad for him.
“They were gaining on me rapidly and were almost within range. I really was pretty desperate by that time and felt sure my number was up… Just as I was expecting the Japs to open fire and to my great relief, I spotted two of our own fighters a – a Corsair and P40 weaving their way homeward and I dived towards them and joined in their weave. The Zeros, thwarted of their prey, sheared off.”
No sooner had he got of trouble than he saw another P40 in a “desperate plight’ being tailed by two Zeros. He peeled off, signalling his two new flying mates to follow, diving steeply then opening fire to down one of the Zeros.
They then turned for base eventually arriving back 20 minutes after the others, who were beginning to think they were not returning.