He qualified as a Service Pilot on the 27th of July 1940, just as the Battle of Britain was beginning in the UK.
As Hal Thomas left New Zealand he began writing a letter to his family that would become a diary of his voyage. His daughter Julie has kindly supplied a copy of the letter, which we can now read here to get the story in his own words:
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
I’m sending this diary back to New Zealand with a steward who will post it for me in Auckland sometime before Christmas; that’s if the old Akaroa is not held up enroute and makes it safely back. I have no doubt that most of my previous letters home have been censored but this missive should be safe enough so I will try to describe our trip in some detail.
August 10th 1940
The Akaroa left Lyttleton at 6am, this morning, Sunday August 10th 1940 and it was with mixed feelings that we watched the shores of New Zealand disappear over the horizon an hour later. For many it was a sudden moment of truth, saying goodbye to weeping loved ones and not knowing if, or when, we would see them again. There was not a great deal said during that last hour as we stood on the deck in the chilly mist and rain, all eyes glued to the fast receding hills of Lyttleton harbour. Although we were excited by the adventure that lay ahead and keen to get on with the job awaiting us in England, we all felt that the greatest thrill of all lay in store, namely the day when our homeland was sighted again on the horizon. I have settled in very well and am delighted to find about five of the chaps I went to school and Varsity with are here. Some are bound for Spitfires, some for Lancasters and some for Fleet Air Arm.
August 17th 1940
The ship was ploughing through a storm for the first five days and the Captain told us that such weather invariably puts 75% of the passengers to bed. However not one pilot was ill and there was no sign of a meal missed, much to the steward’s amazement. There was a severe system of fines for missing meals at our table and that may have had something to do with our outstanding sea legs!
Shipboard life is a doddle compared to the exhausting eight months we’ve spent in camp at Blenheim, months of continuous flying and difficult exams, and we all agree that this is probably why the time at sea passes very slowly. We may have needed a bit of a rest but we’re also fit young men on our way to fight a war.
I spend much time up on the bridge and have taken several shots at the sun with a sextant; this marine navigation is as fascinating as our own aerial branch of the subject. Last Sunday was Harry Dobbyn’s 21st birthday and as we crossed the 180° meridian that day, we had two Sundays and Harry had two birthdays!
August 21st 1940
Sam, Bob and I were in the chart room just before Pitcairn Island appeared this morning and it was a memorable sight to see this little rock, just a mile square, appear right over the nose of the ship after steaming for eleven days and covering 3500 long miles.
What can I say about Pitcairn? I sent a letter home just for the novelty of using the Pitcairn envelope I’d purchased from a native for seven pence. The island is a desolate spot with little apparent vegetation, although the oranges grown here are simply delicious. The natives barter their carved wooden ornaments, fruit, walking sticks and other goods for money or anything you’ll exchange with them. I bought a curious walking stick for Grandpa and a good supply of oranges. We all found it most amusing to see natives paddling out to the ship wearing pullovers and scarves made of Air Force Blue and knitted by none other than Mrs Caldwell and her lady friends in Blenheim. She used to give all the pilots pullovers and scarves and of course the boys who’ve gone ahead of us by this route have apparently traded their surplus woollies for fruit.
We left an Englishman and his wife and young child there. He is going to be a temporary Commissioner for six months and we certainly felt sorry for his wife, who is a wonderful woman, as she was lowered over the side of the ship in a sling to begin an exile on that bleak spot. The sea was a magnificent royal blue, as a result of the colossal depth, about five miles apparently, and this combined with a glorious tropical sunset did provide an unforgettable vision as we sailed away.
August 25th 1940
After leaving Pitcairn the weather has settled and becomes hotter each day. There is a sudden abundance of flying fish and they make a remarkable show on a calm sea. The arrival of brilliant sunshine has heralded the long awaited start of sunbathing and swimming in our fine tiled pool. In fact, the sunshine is slowly turning me a chocolate brown colour! We are also playing a great deal of deck tennis (at which Sam and I remain undefeated champions) deck bowls, golf and other games. Each day is our own apart from a half hour of physical training in the morning and we spend extra time in the gymnasium and doing some turns around the deck, a complete circuit of the promenade deck equals a mile. The ship has a first class library and I do a tremendous amount of reading. Sam, Bob and a Wellington lad and I play contract bridge every night, I have acquired a certain amount of skill and find it a most enjoyable game. We’ve had three movie nights which were very well attended and hope for more. The Akaroa is a wonderful sea boat and a most comfortable vessel. I have a great cabin with all conveniences and I’m treated in the best manner by a most attentive steward. We feast on a continuous supply of ice-creams and pineapples and agree it is, so far, a most remarkable trip.
August 31st 1940
We sighted land early this morning and spent the rest of the day running up the gulf. It was a welcome sight to see the lights of Panama in the twilight as we sailed past the town. We were so close we could see the people dancing in the hotels! Balboa is really an American suburb of Panama and it was here, in the muddy entrance to the canal, that we tied up.
It was very disappointing not being allowed ashore, the New Zealand government apparently being afraid of trouble, although the American Consul had arranged for us to be escorted around the town. A local American sent four barrels of light American beer to the boat and we had a lively party tonight. We have a Maori boy with a wonderful singing voice and quite a few guitars and as a result there was a great deal of singing, much to the delight of many of the Americans who came down to hear our songs and witness our attempts at the Haka. The heat is intense and we were all bathed in sweat due to the beer we consumed. I have to say I couldn’t live in the tropics and I spend my nights sleeping on deck in a deck chair.
September 1st 1940
We entered the canal at 11am and began one of the most interesting days of the trip to date. In the early stages the place had a deceptively quiet appearance and we passed many beautiful golf courses. However I know that it’s one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world and as we passed forts of American soldiers, one having a complement of 5000 men, and heard large bomber planes roaring overhead, I realised that the place was alive with activity. Forty American marines boarded our ship and searched for cameras etc. and also made sure that not so much as a matchbox was thrown overboard enroute. I can understand America protecting the spot as it is certainly one of the most strategically important zones in the world. The system of locks is an amazing engineering feat and the speed with which we went through was impressive. The artificial lake still has trees showing above the water line and it is a strange sight to see huge liners sailing around in a valley where formally little villages thrived. I counted thirty ships passing each other in the canal in a trip of 40 miles that took 8 hours.
When we reached Colon we were met by an American battleship, searched again and the marines disembarked. We saw the Rotorua beside us and were delighted to think that our Panama mail would be on its way home to loved ones. Colon is the port at this end and the Americans have their own city adjacent, named Cristobel. We are staying here only long enough to take on 30 Frenchmen who mutinied a few days ago. Apparently their Captain is a Nazi and when France fell he issued orders to sail the ship to a French port and demobilize. But the crew, being staunch patriots, cut his throat and proceeded to Colon and placed themselves in the hands of the British Consul. They’re now going home to join General de Gaulle whom they hail as the saviour of France. I look forward to brushing up on my French!
September 3rd 1940
We have spent two sweltering days in the Caribbean Sea. We now have a complete black-out in place and the heat at night is unbearable as no air can get into the ship so we all sleep up on deck. A German raider has been spotted in this area so we are zig-zagging all day and proceeding at full steam as we have no escort.
September 4th 1940
We arrived at Willemstad on the island of Curacao early this morning and spent the day taking on oil, 4000 tons apparently, which took 10 hours. This island is not much bigger than Waiheke and about the same shape. However we had our first shore leave and drove into town, about 8 miles away, in a procession of taxis. The cars were driven by natives who raced each other and drove most of the journey at around 115 kilometres an hour (about 75 miles). This is a Dutch town and the people refused to accept sterling so our helpful driver changed our English money at the rate of 4.5 Dutch gilders to £1 instead of the usual rate of around 8.
However we didn’t buy much, instead Sam and Bob and I hired a taxi and drove 80 miles around the island for 1Guilder each. We had a most enjoyable day seeing the magnificent homes of the Dutch people and also the Shell Oil Plant. The homes are built of red brick and have lovely gardens. It seems Shell just about owns the island. The oil is brought from Venezuela (about 30 miles away) and refined at Curacao. It’s a romantic old port with a cosmopolitan appearance, having been originally Spanish, then British (in the days of Morgan the buccaneer) and finally Dutch. Dozens of small boats sail over from Venezuela and sell fruit and trinkets in the open market, of course we were all robbed left and right by the unscrupulous traders who asked exorbitant prices for anything when they saw us coming. We arrived back at the ship very tired and hot, laden with coconuts and happy to sail at 4pm for Bermuda.
September 5th 1940
I am proud to report I have made excellent progress with the Frenchmen and have talked with them for hours. Tonight we passed through the channel between Haiti and Puerto Rico. I’m told this is a favourite spot for raiders to lie in wait. With a complete black-out being mandatory and everyone very quiet, we felt fairly safe. First of all an American destroyer stopped us and this caused tremendous excitement as none of us knew that she was a neutral ship until she was right alongside. An hour later I was sleeping on deck and awoke to see a ship loom up out of the dark. It had no markings and flew no flags. We immediately reversed course and went at full speed in the opposite direction. She chased us for about an hour but we got away finally. Nobody knows what that ship was, although the fact that she chased us indicated a raider.
September 8th 1940
Early this morning we arrived at Bermuda and anchored in the Roadstead seven miles from the township of Hamilton. Everyone is very exited as we get shore leave here! The Americans have just acquired a naval base and we saw an American battleship. Then the old Diomede came out to us and it was like seeing an old friend again.
September 11th 1940
The days in Bermuda will live in my memory for many years. The population is only 3000 and the local people explained that they felt they were not doing much for the war and consequently took this opportunity to entertain us on a scale so lavish that it was almost embarrassing. Of course there were no American tourists in town so they threw open their huge nine story hotels to us, we lived in suites worth about 50 shillings a day for nothing. The island itself is simply beautiful, there is no other word to describe it, and they’ve set themselves up to develop a peaceful, old-world atmosphere, banning any motor traffic. All good things must come to an end and tomorrow we set sail for our final destination, and war.
September 12th 1940
At 6am we left in a convoy of 14 ships, escorted by an armed merchant ship about the size of the Monterey. There’s not a great deal of danger at this stage although very strict blackout rules are in place.
September 17th 1940
The convoy from Halifax joined us today. It was a magnificent spectacle to see this convoy of 30 ships appear on the horizon and when they joined us there were about 44 ships, all proceeding in even lines about 300 yards apart. Occasionally an unidentified ship appears and everyone watches eagerly as our escort dashes out to investigate it with guns all manned. She has five 6 inch guns and is a veritable fortress.
September 20th 1940
We’ve commenced doing four hour watches on top of the bridge for submarines; it‘s so tiring, scanning the sea constantly! Every course of pilots that has gone to England since May has been attacked by submarines; in the convoy that arrived a month ago four ships were lost. The convoy we just missed by a few hours in Bermuda was attacked three days ahead of us and two ships went down. We had been steering the same course but immediately changed to give that spot a wide berth. Having said that, the Skipper told us that there were eight subs operating in our new area, accordingly today was slated to be the most dangerous day and we were all prepared for the alarm during the attack times, 3am to 6am and 5pm to 7pm. When the alarm did go off we all arrived at our stations in time as we’ve done dozens of lifeboat drills and we’re more than ready. However it was discovered that a large black whale had been sighted at 500 yards and it looked just like a sub. We have the boats permanently slung over the side and wear life belts all day wherever we are.
September 22nd 1940
We saw the most welcome sight of the trip today when our destroyer escort arrived. There were many sighs of relief when they appeared belching smoke and we feel reasonably safe although we’ll not be out of danger until we sight Belfast.
At present we’re a long way north of the usual Atlantic trade route and are on the latitude of the north of Scotland. Accordingly the climate is much cooler and most of the boys sleep fully clothed. Everyone has a little bag packed with personal possessions which we’re allowed to take with us into the boats. A huge Sunderland flying boat arrived overhead at about 7am and immediately commenced circling over the convoy. At 11am the first sub was sighted by the flying boat and we could see her signalling and circling over the spot about a mile and a half astern. Three destroyers rushed at top speed to this spot and immediately dropped three depth charges. Even at this range we could feel the ship shake so I can imagine the sub would be rather shaken. We expected to see a ship go up in smoke at any minute at that stage! I don’t know whether they sunk that sub or not although I should imagine so. Two more were sighted by the flying boat and depth charges were brought into action.
September 23rd 1940
Last night all the ships stopped from midnight until 5am and this gave the destroyers a chance to use their sound detectors, it felt very strange. This morning a Hudson bomber roared overhead and stayed with us for a few hours. We’ve also commenced machine gun watches which will be maintained around the clock.
September 27th 1940
It’s now 9am and we’re running down the channel between Ireland and Scotland. The strait is only about 13 miles wide here as we’re about opposite the Clyde River. Last night was our last night at sea and we celebrated in traditional style with all the unpopular passengers being dunked in the baths. When I awoke this morning and saw good old Ireland on one side and Scotland on the other I experienced a real thrill and when we arrive in England it will be an unforgettable experience.
September 27th 1940
We duly arrived in the Lough Belfast at 11am this morning and anchored about nine miles from Belfast. Ireland looked exactly as I had always imagined it, very green and dotted with small farms about five acres in size and neatly marked off by hedgerows. Apparently they’ve had trouble in Northern Ireland with British troops so we’re not allowed to land in Belfast. Nevertheless we’re very relieved to be here as four ships from our convoy, which had gone straight to Liverpool last night, were bombed and sunk in the middle of the Irish Sea! We’ve come to Belfast because our gear for repelling magnetic mines is out of order and has to be repaired before we cross the dangerous Irish Sea. Right beside us in the Lough I can see a ship which was sunk a week ago by a magnetic mine and only her masts are showing above the water. It’s a sobering reminder! Apparently German bombers raided Belfast last night and dropped dozens of magnetic mines by parachute into the harbour. Hurricane fighters and RAF bombers roar overhead all the time. Liverpool has been bombed every night for about a week now and of course we’re expecting a raid over us at any time.
September 29th 1940
We sailed this afternoon and commenced the most dangerous part of the whole trip as the sea is full of magnetic mines and submarines. At the moment Sam, Bob and I are listening to a description on the radio of the raid going on over Liverpool. We should arrive there in about six hours; however we’ll stop outside the harbour until daylight and hope to get in during the day. Bob and I did the first anti-aircraft watch tonight for two hours and it was very exciting, two planes roared overhead and fortunately turned out to be our own. We will get up at about 3am tomorrow morning to watch Liverpool; they say the anti-aircraft fire is like a fireworks display. We should be able to hear it anytime now. I’ve just been out on deck and we’re passing the Isle of Man. The ship is proceeding at full speed and zig-zagging all the time, while there is not a light to be seen or a sound to be heard anywhere. Living under such conditions and being so far away from home has given me a new perspective on life. I realise that the family circle and home mean so much more than fighting and the sooner this war is over the better. All the New Zealand boys are of the same mind and the topic of conversation has often reverted to the subject of what we shall do “when we get home”, but for now there is a job to do.
8am September 30th 1940
So this is England! We’ve arrived in Liverpool early this morning and what a sight, flames and smoke are belching into the sky with thousands of balloons in the air above! They had a terrible raid here and a ship alongside us was blown to pieces in the harbour. Soon we’ll be going ashore, all so relieved to have arrived safely and have the last week over and done with. Ahead of me are my first RAF station, the mighty Spitfire, and a chance, at last, to play my part in the defence of this Grand Island.