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Kenneth Royce (Ken) Sands (1917–1997)

by Adam Lunney

This article was published online in 2023

Ken Sands, by Laurence Le Guay, c.1944

Ken Sands, by Laurence Le Guay, c.1944

Australian War Memorial, MEA1403

Kenneth Royce Sands (1917–1997), air force officer, was born on 15 July 1917 in Perth, Western Australia, one of four children and second son of South Australian-born Harold Alfred Sands, commercial traveller, and his Victorian-born wife May, née Watson. Ken was educated at Perth Technical College, and was an active young man who joined the City of Perth Surf Life-Saving Club and the West Australian Hunt Club. After completing schooling, he was employed in sales at the Goodyear Tyre & Rubber Co. (Australia) Ltd, and subsequently in a clerical position with the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd. He enlisted in the 35th Fortress Company, a Citizen Military Forces unit, in May 1939, and, following the outbreak of World War II, enrolled in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Reserve in June 1940, before joining the RAAF at Perth on 7 October. After undergoing flying training in Australia, in June 1941 he was commissioned as a pilot officer. The next month he embarked for Egypt and was posted to No. 112 Squadron, Royal Air Force, which flew Tomahawk fighter-bombers.

In December 1941 Sands was shot down over the desert, but was protected by members of an Arab caravan before being rescued uninjured by a British scout car unit. That same month he was promoted to flying officer, and posted to No. 450 Squadron, RAAF, then based at Quassasin, Egypt. The unit was reforming as a fighter-bomber squadron, and became known as the ‘Desert Harassers,’ a name derived from a taunt broadcast by the Axis propagandist William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw.’ Sands flew Kittyhawks on sorties across North Africa against German and Italian ground targets. After flying one hundred operational sorties, he was posted in September 1942 to non-operational positions as an instructor. In April 1943 he rejoined No. 450 Squadron, now flying in support of Allied ground forces engaged in the final battles for Tunisia. He was promoted to flight lieutenant in June, and went on to fly a further 101 operational sorties over North Africa, Italy, and Yugoslavia.

The fair-complexioned Sands created an immediately favourable impression with those around him, presenting as a confident and cool-headed officer in the execution of his duties. In December 1943 he was granted the acting rank of squadron leader and placed in command of No. 450 Squadron, then based in Italy at Mileni, and later at Cutella. The many attacks he led, particularly on shipping, resulted in the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross on 18 February 1944, followed by a bar to his DFC on 24 March 1944. In April he relinquished command of his squadron, and joined 83 Group Support Unit of Second Tactical Air Force at Redhill, England. The Allied air offensive over north-western Europe was building up to the Normandy landings, and he gained experience flying Spitfires, Mustangs, and Typhoons. On 12 June 1944 he crossed to Normandy where he assisted in directing fighter operations from a forward airfield, working closely with No. 453 Squadron, RAAF, based at Longues-sur-Mer, before returning to Britain the following month. He recorded a talk with the British Broadcasting Corporation about his Normandy experiences for the ‘Calling Australia’ series.

In October Sands’s acting rank as squadron leader was terminated. The following month he returned to Australia, and from May 1945 spent five months as an instructor at No. 2 Operational Training Unit at Mildura, Victoria. He married Grace Patricia Voller, a section officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force, on 13 October 1945 at St Thomas’ Church of England, Toowong, Queensland. His appointment with the RAAF ended on 7 May 1946. For the remainder of his working life he was a marketing executive with Shell, moving from Perth to Sydney and finally to Melbourne as his career progressed. He kept up his flying skills as an active member of the Royal Aero Club of Western Australia who participated in air races, and in his retirement was a keen golfer. Sands died on 4 July 1997 at Hawthorn, Victoria, survived by his wife and their four sons and one daughter, and was cremated.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. AWM65, SANDS Kenneth Royce 406265
  • Lunney, Adam. Ready to Strike: The Spitfires and Australians of 453 (RAAF) Squadron over Normandy. West Geelong, Vic.: Barrallier Books, 2018
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, SANDS K R
  • National Archives (UK). AIR 27/873/1

Additional Resources

Citation details

Adam Lunney, 'Sands, Kenneth Royce (Ken) (1917–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 18 July 2024.

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