Air Commodore Gordon Steege D.F.C. D.S.O. M.i.D.
Born October 31st 1917, Chatswood, New South Wales. Died September 1st 2013. Age 95
Air Commodore Gordon Steege, the Australian fighter ace, scored his first successes flying biplanes in Libya in late 1940. Steege was one of the flight commanders of No 3 (RAAF
) Squadron when the unit was sent with its Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters from Australia to the Middle East in May 1940. After deploying to an advanced landing ground at Gerwala, the squadron went into action for the first time on November 13.
With the withdrawal of some RAF fighter squadrons for operations in Greece, it fell to the Australians to support General Wavell’s advance in the desert. Steege had his first success on December 10, when he shot down one Italian Fiat fighter and probably destroyed a second. Though often outnumbered, the aggressive Australians managed to achieve their successes with few losses.
But that changed on December 13, when six Gladiators took off to intercept an Italian bomber force approaching Sollum. Steege soon accounted for a Savoia S-79 bomber; he then probably destroyed another. The intervention of Italian fighters, however, resulted in the loss of five of the Gladiators, only Steege returning to base.
Later in the month he led eight Gladiators in support of the 6th Australian Division’s advance on Bardia, shooting down an S-79 and damaging a second.
In late January 1941 the squadron was re-equipped with the Hurricane, and Steege was soon adding to his fighting reputation just as the Luftwaffe appeared in the theatre. On February 18 he led three Hurricanes from Tobruk as they bounced a formation of Stuka dive-bombers. The three Australians accounted for eight of the enemy aircraft, Steege being credited with three.
As Rommel’s Afrika Corps advanced, No 3 had to fall back, and the air fighting became more intense. On April 3 the squadron met a large force of German dive-bombers and its heavy fighter escort. Steege engaged the Messerschmitt Bf 110 escort, shooting down one and damaging three others. A few days later he was awarded a DFC .
Gordon Henry Steege was educated at North Sydney High School. He joined the RAAF in July 1937 and trained as a pilot, joining No 3 (RAAF) a year later to fly Demon fighters. Following the outbreak of war he was appointed adjutant of a new unit, No 11 Squadron, that was equipped with flying boats at Port Moresby in New Guinea. He returned to No 3 when it departed for the Middle East.
With the expansion of the RAAF forces in the Middle East in the spring of 1941, Steege was put in command of a new squadron, No 450, equipped with the Kittyhawk. He saw action in Syria before returning to the desert to escort bomber forces and provide local air defence, using the desert airfields at Gambut and El Adem.
In March 1942 the squadron moved in support of the actions around Tobruk. Steege shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and damaged an Italian fighter. These were to be his final air combat successes. He was mentioned in despatches.
Steege returned to Australia on his promotion to wing commander in May 1942 and filled a number of air defence sector posts. In October 1943 he took command of No 73 Fighter Wing, with three squadrons of Kittyhawks and squadrons of Spitfires and light bombers operating from Kiriwina in New Guinea. During General MacArthur’s advance through the south-west Pacific islands, Steege led three Kittyhawk squadrons in strafing operations against the airstrip at Gasmata on the south coast of New Britain three days before the Allied landings at nearby Arawe in December.
In March 1944 the Allies carried out a daring move into the Admiralty Islands in the Bismarck Sea in an operation to isolate Japanese forces at Rabaul. Steege took his three Kittyhawk squadrons to Momote airstrip at the western end of Manus Island to form No 81 Wing. His men had to live and work in the most primitive conditions. Based close to the front line, they were soon attacking Japanese forces with bombs and cannons. On occasions they were bombing just a few hundred yards ahead of American troops.
With the end of organised Japanese resistance on Manus, the isolation of Rabaul was achieved. Steege and his three squadrons continued their attacks in support of the Army in Dutch New Guinea until the end of 1944. He was awarded a DSO for his ‘outstanding leadership’.
He returned to Australia to fill a number of senior appointments, but resigned his commission in late 1946 and joined the New Guinea Administration as a patrol officer and assistant district officer.
In 1950 he rejoined the RAAF, and a year later left for Korea to take command of No 77 Squadron, equipped with the Meteor jet fighter. After encounters with Chinese MiG 15s, he considered the Meteor outclassed in air-to-air combat and suggested it would be better used in the ground-attack role. This view did not go down well in some quarters or with some of his pilots. His Chief of Air Staff supported him, however – only for the aircraft to be given a role escorting bomber formations. Soon after Steege left, the squadron was reassigned to ground-attack missions.
Steege held a number of senior appointments in Australia and on the planning staff of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). He later commanded two of the RAAF’s largest airbases: at Amberley in Queensland, and at Butterworth in Malaysia. After serving as the senior air staff officer at HQ Operational Command he retired in 1972.
In 1983 Steege became the Australian consultant for the large American aerospace company Martin Marietta Overseas Corporation.
He was a staunch supporter of the 450 Squadron Association, and in 1994 he addressed the RAAF History Conference in Canberra, when he discussed Middle East operations.
Gordon Steege married, in 1946, Joan Tait. He is survived by his second wife, Jennifer, and by a son and a stepdaughter.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.