In late January 1970, 77 Sqn flew north to Tindal for the aptly named ‘Operation Castor Oil’. Tindal is a little south of Katherine in the Northern Territory, and a little over three hour’s drive from Darwin on the Stuart Highway. While it is now a major RAAF base it was not so in the 1970s. It was for most of the year an uninhabited airfield with minimal infrastructure.
We slept on camp stretchers in tin huts with concrete floors, most likely with overhead fans. The airmen’s mess was little more than a concrete slab with a roof. It may well have been possible to put up the shutters if required but I remember it as being pretty exposed to the weather. One meal the bloke opposite me lifted the last fork full of beans off his plate which left a cockroach scurrying for cover.
We spent 10 to 12 days in this tropical paradise with only one chance to get into Katherine – not that there was anything of note to see back then. I do recall swimming in a water hole or river which may or may not have been part of the famed Katherine gorge. And that was the only time we had for relaxation and enjoyment.
One of my few memories of that time was a spectacular lightening display one night. It went on for hours.
For the duration of the exercise 77 Sqn attacked Darwin around the clock. And the powers-that-be wanted everyone to experience day work and night work. To achieve that we would start work at a different time each day. I have long tried to remember how this worked, but it must have meant working 14 hours straight with 11 off with a one hour shift changeover. Needless to say, by the end of the exercise we were well and truly stuffed.
So when it was over we celebrated – long and hard. I was pretty tanked before I started on the bottle of vodka and I remember nothing of that, other than waking in the morning with the empty bottle next to my bed and clear evidence that my body had rejected the contents thereof.
Exercises to the top end were a regular part of squadron life at Williamtown. Operation Castor Oil is definitely the most memorable.