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Sykes, Stephen Joseph (1920–1957)

by Peter Burness

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Stephen Joseph Sykes (1920-1957), by unknown photographer, 1944

Stephen Joseph Sykes (1920-1957), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, UK1566

Stephen Joseph Sykes (1920-1957), air force officer and grazier, was born on 21 April 1920 at Goulburn, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Charles Ignatius Sykes, grazier, and his wife Mona Mary, née Purcell. The family had been on the land since George Sykes, the son of a convict, was granted 100 acres (40 ha) in the early years of local settlement. Educated at Currawang Public School and St Patrick's College, Goulburn, Steve studied woolclassing, worked on the family property, served (1940-41) in a troop of the 7th Light Horse Regiment (Militia), and played tennis.

On 23 May 1942 Sykes enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He trained in New South Wales, embarked for Canada, topped his pilot's course in May 1943 and was commissioned. Promoted flying officer in November, he reached Britain next month. In May 1944 he was posted to No.455 Squadron, R.A.A.F., successively based at Langham, Norfolk, and at Dallachy, Scotland. The twin-engined Bristol Beaufighters, with which the squadron attacked enemy shipping and shore defences, suited his ability and aggressive flying. He was 'a skilled pilot and remarkable shot who forced home all his attacks with the utmost determination and effect'.

Sykes was popular and respected. In the air he was cool and resolute; on the ground he was 'a quiet and thoughtful man who kept largely to himself'. He flew forty-two sorties in one year of operational duty, attacking twenty-eight enemy ships, as well as gun-emplacements and a radar-station. His aircraft was often damaged. On 12 September 1944 he took part in a raid on shipping near Den Helder harbour, the Netherlands. In spite of 'fierce fire from the enemy defences', he came in so low that part of a trawler's mast was embedded in the nose of his Beaufighter. Undeterred, he then engaged enemy shore positions. With his compass shot out and other damage to his plane, he followed another aircraft to base and made a crash-landing. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On 4 April 1945, during a series of attacks on heavily defended shipping in Norwegian waters, Sykes led eight aircraft against a merchantman in Aardals Fiord. His Beaufighter was hit on its approach, but he remained in formation. Closer to the target, a shell burst in front of his cockpit, blowing out the pilot's window: he received thirteen wounds, including a fractured arm and injuries to his leg. When he managed to pull the plane from its dive, his navigator Flying Officer H. W. Pearson dressed his wounds, administered morphia, and assisted at the controls. Despite the extreme cold, Sykes flew the aircraft 400 nautical miles (741 km) and made a one-handed emergency landing at Sumburgh, Shetland Islands. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his 'courage, fortitude and devotion to duty'. Sent to a rehabilitation centre, he soon recovered, but did not fly operationally again. In May he was promoted flight lieutenant. On 3 January 1946 he returned to Australia.

Back in the district in which he had been raised, Sykes took up a soldier-settlement property, named it Dallachy, and established himself as a progressive grazier. At the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Goulburn, on 8 September 1948 he married with Catholic rites Kathleen Anne McGrath; they were to have a daughter and four sons. He took part in returned servicemen's activities, retained his interest in flying and played golf. In 1953 he became foundation president of the Goulburn Aero Club. On 19 January 1957, while he was instructing a pupil in the club's newly delivered Chipmunk trainer, the machine spun into the ground, killing both of them. Survived by his wife and their sons, Sykes was buried in Spring Valley cemetery, near Goulburn.

Select Bibliography

  • Victory Roll (Canb, 1945)
  • F. Johnson (ed), R.A.A.F. Over Europe (Lond, 1946)
  • J. Herington, Air Power Over Europe, 1944-1945 (Canb, 1963)
  • I. Gordon, Strike and Strike Again (Canb, 1995)
  • Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 21 Jan 1957
  • RAAF biography records, AWM 65 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Burness, 'Sykes, Stephen Joseph (1920–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sykes-stephen-joseph-11813/text21137, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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