Circe mystery solved 72 years later
The Short S-30 Empire flying boats were operated by Imperial Airways and Qantas as well as TEAL. This example, the 37th to be completed, was originally ordered by Imperial Airways for Qantas in 1937 and launched in April 1939, but delivery to New Zealand was delayed until March 1940. The aircraft carries the standard civil aircraft wartime colours with large blue/white/red stripes on the fuselage and fin.
The mystery of the disappearance of the Qantas Empire Flying Boat Circe has been solved 72 years after it disappeared en route to Java. One of the crew members was New Zealander Mervyn Bateman who learned to fly at Bridge Pa in the early 1930s before moving to Australia to follow an aviation career.
Circe was carrying 16 passengers from Tjilatjap to Broome on 28 February 1942 when it vanished without trace. Both the Australian and US governments have long maintained that there is no evidence Circe was shot down by the Japanese.
But 72 years to the day after it was lost, the Civil Aviation Heritage Society (CAHS) revealed the results of February 2013 research showing it was definitely lost to enemy action.
“Through recent research in Australian and Japanese archives by aviation historians Phil Vabre and Osamu Tagaya it can now be confirmed for the first time that Circe was shot down by a Japanese Betty bomber based at Denpasar, Bali,” a news release states.
“The Betty, flown by Flight Petty Officers Yamamoto and Ashizawa of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was on a maritime patrol when it spotted and engaged Circe some 200 miles (320 km) south of the Java coast.”
Although unarmed civil aircraft, the Qantas flying boats were at this time being employed on charter to US military forces to fly vital supplies and personnel into Java. When loads permitted, they were used to evacuate mostly civilian personnel from Java on the return flights to Broome. Still owned by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), Circe was operated at the time by Qantas under an interchange agreement.
Circe was the second Qantas flying boat to be shot down by Japanese forces, sister ship Corio having been shot down off Timor a month earlier.
Early in the morning of 28 February 1942, the last two Qantas Empire Flying Boats on the regular service between Java and Australia taxied from their moorings at Tjilatjap. The two pilots, Capts Stephen Howard in Corinthian and William Purton in Circe, had received instructions from Qantas that they were to evacuate as many persons as possible from Tjilatjap to Broome in Western Australia. Corinthian flew off first at 8.38 am AEST (Australian Eastern Standard Time) and Howard observed Circe leaving its moorings for takeoff just two minutes later.
On board Circe were 16 Dutch nationals and the four crew members: Capt William Bloxham Purton, New Zealander F/O Mervyn William Bateman, radio operator Herbert George Anzac Oates and purser James Lionel Hogan. All were employees of Qantas, engaged in the business of civil aviation, on duties connected with the operation of aircraft for a purpose relating to the prosecution of the war. Purton and Bateman were also members of the RAAF Reserve.
At 10.00 am AEST Howard heard Purton transmit a radio message to Broome concerning his aircraft’s loading and he instructed his radio operator to contact Circe. However, despite trying them at half-hourly intervals, they were unable to contact the other flying boat.
According to Howard, the weather on the day of the flight was quite clear apart from a slight haze near the island of Java and Corinthian did not encounter any enemy aircraft during the flight. However, it was possible that the occupants of Circe had not been so lucky, as enemy aircraft were known to be operating over Java.
Qantas alerted Allied aircraft flying over the area to keep a lookout for Circe and also conducted an extensive search for the missing aircraft. No wreckage or bodies were ever seen or recovered.
- Report by Paul Harrison, photography from the NZ Aviation News Archives.
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