Cook Islands’ U-boat hunter

Saturday June 27, 2020 Written by Rod Dixon of Mangaia. Published in Weekend
Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown visits Alexander Brown’s grave in Kiel, Germany and leaves a memento of home. 20062628 Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown visits Alexander Brown’s grave in Kiel, Germany and leaves a memento of home. 20062628

Prime Minister-in-waiting Mark Brown’s great-uncle was a U-boat hunter in the Battle of the Atlantic. 

Alexander Brown was born in Oneroa, Mangaia on 1 January 1920, the second to last of 13 surviving children born to Rakiki Tipoki.  His father, George Brown, died in 1922 when Alexander was just 2years old.

Alexander attended the local Oneroa primary school and then the Avarua Primary school in Rarotonga.

At the age of 14 he travelled to New Zealand to study first at Otaki Maori College, then Napier Boys’ High School. Sergeant Alexander Brown, with his three stripes and a single winged air crew brevet on his left breast. The brevet carried the letters ‘WAG’ inside a laurel wreath, reflecting his dual role as a ‘Wireless/Air Gunner.’ 20062624/20062625

At school, Alexander’s interests included music, swimming, football, cricket and tennis.

He evidently had a good head for maths and, after leaving school, found work as a book-keeper at Kohupatiki Pa, Clive, Hawke’s Bay.

His employer was Ike Robin MBE, an Anglican lay preacher, a former Australia and New Zealand professional wrestling champion and an important Maori leader.

On the outbreak of war, Air Force entry was open to men aged between 17½ and 28 years who were “unmarried and of good physique.”

Standing 5 foot 5 inches, a sportsman, and still unmarried, Alexander applied and was accepted for aircraft crew training on his 20th birthday.

A rigorous selection process was followed bya year-long educational course, then Air Gunner training at RNZAF Levin in 1941.

In February 1941 he embarkedon HMT Awatea for Vancouver, Canada, completing 24 weeks of wireless training at the No 3 Wireless School, Winnipeg.

This was followed by four weeks of airborne gunnery at RCAF Fingal, Ontario.On September 1, 1941 he graduated with an Air Gunner’s badge and received his aircrew ‘brevet’ and Sergeant’s stripes.

Arriving in wartime Britain, disembarking an Atlantic convoy ship, the young Cook Islander was assigned to the newly formed 489 Squadron RNZAF(18 Group), Leuchars airfield, Scotland.

In the spring of 1942, the Squadron moved to Thorney Island in Hampshire and, early in May,began anti-submarine patrols over the Bay of Biscay.

A few months later the squadron moved to RAF Skitten, Caithness, Scotland, tasked with carrying out torpedo attacks on enemy shipping along the coast of German-occupied Norway. 

In his book New Zealand at War, Kenneth Hancock writes that 489 Squadron crews “had to fly 400 to 500 miles over seas to Norway and do the job in the face of opposition from flak escorts, Focke Wulfs·and Heinkels, Junkers 88's, Blohm and Voss three-engined flying boats.”  

In the summer, the Squadron’s role expanded to anti-submarine patrols in the North Sea, as part of the ‘Battle of the Atlantic.’

As wireless operator/air gunner, Alexander was the “eyes, ears and voice” of the aircraft,communicating with headquarters, reporting progress, sending and receivingweather reports, and assisting the navigator with triangulation ‘fixes’ to plot their course.

In the search for U-boats his role involved intercepting wireless signals from German submarines, to reveal their underwater location.

Under attack he used the plane’s rear upper twin Vickers machine guns to fight off enemy aircraft. His gun position was in the dorsal or upper fuselage – literally the ‘top gun’.

One of 489 Squadron’s first missions was the hunt for the German battleship Lutzow reported off the southern coast of Norway. 

In August 1942, Alexander’s crew was involved in a group sortie that torpedoed a 3000-ton merchantman off the Norwegian coast and downed a Nazi fighter – the Squadron’s first hits.

On Monday 14 September, 1942, having recently returned from two weeks leave, Alexander set out on another patrol in search of enemy U-Boats north of the Shetland Islands.

Returning to base, nine hours later, he signalled that his aircraft (Hampden TB I AD795/K) wasbattling head winds, depleting their remaining fuel –“0217, short of petrol. May have to ditch.”

At 2:20am he sent out an SOS radio call:“Will have to land in the sea.”  The Handley Page Hampden bomber– Alexander’s top rear gun position is seen on the upper fuselage or dorsal.  489 squadron wore the XA code. 20062627

He continued to transmit SOS calls for seven more minutes – then there was silence.

A rescue team plotted the crash site at 60 miles east of Rattray Head in Aberdeenshire. At first light, eight search aircraft were scrambled. 

Survival time in the North Sea at that time of year is between two and 40 hours.

Intensive searches over the next few daysyielded no trace of the aircraft or crew.

Sometime later, the body of one of the crew, Sgt Douglas Newman from Dunedin, was located near Husum, Germany.

Subsequently the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that Alexander’s body had washed up on the island of Sylt on the German coast.

He was buried by the islanders in the English section of the List cemetery. In July, 1947, his remains were exhumed by the RAF and identified by his Sergeant’s Chevron identity disk.

His remains and those of Sgt Newman, were reinterred at the RNZAF War Cemetery in Kiel, Germany

At the time of his death Alexander had flown 172 combat hours. He was awarded the Atlantic Star (Battle of the Atlantic), the 1939-45 Star, the War Medal 1939-45, the New Zealand War Service medal and the New Zealand Memorial Cross.

A FAMILY REUNION FAR FROM HOME

For many years Alexander’s grave lay unvisited. Then, in 2012, his Cook Islands family “found him, and my motherjourneyed to Germany to seek out the Uncle she never knew.”

“I found Uncle Alexander's grave in Kiel, Germany on the 10th September 2013,” writes Cassey Eggelton. “Uncanny ...it was five days short of the anniversary of his death. I was his very first and only visitor (according to the Registry) after 72 very long and cold years!

“It was a very emotional time for me as my mind flashed back to all his Brown siblings that had all passed on and especially my mother, his sister, Jessie-Mary.

“She would often talk about him to us, as he was her youngest brother. My mother died in the year 2000, never knowing where exactly he was buried. Now that I have visited his well-maintained grave, it gives a sense of closure for us, his family. May he now, forever, rest in Peace.

1 comment

  • Comment Link Poroa Arokapiti Sunday, 28 June 2020 21:42 posted by Poroa Arokapiti

    Awsome famous story for Mangaia born Alexander Brown. You done great for your Country and you mostly deserved reconition for your Service. God Bless for service well done. Your family and Sippling very very proud of you, and without knowing your cousin Cassey has been Member of Parliament and and very very soon your great nehpew Mark Brown will become the Cook Islands New Prime Minister in September.

    Alexander Brown a born Warrior from Auau Enua that migrated through New Zealand Airforce to protect the safety of his Country and that of the Cook Islands. Congradulation Mangaia Warrior.

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