Brian Caddy, OAM. Recollections of Donald Campbell, 1964.
There was great excitement in the community of Barmera, South Australia, when it was announced that Donald Campbell had selected Lake Bonney for the World Water Speed Record attempt in his boat “Bluebird K7”.
As President of the Barmera Water Ski Club, I was asked to contribute my local knowledge in the attempt. My principal role was to drive the Command Boat with Leo Villa, Chief Mechanic and a Police Diver. Our job was to station ourselves in the middle of the course and monitor the water conditions and through radio advise Donald when to make his runs.
Our day would start at approx 2:30 am with breakfast at Gertie Bishop’s Cafe. Gertie, hair in rollers, dressing gown and fluffy slippers would serve the Bluebird team bacon and eggs etc while we waited for the latest weather report from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) to come in. If conditions were favourable, we would report to our respected posts and prepare for the run. To our surprise, many hundreds of cars would be lining the foreshore of the lake to watch the spectacle. Some onlookers would have travelled from as far as Adelaide and Mildura, a distance of over one hundred and fifty miles!
Many people were disappointed with the early runs when the water condition was perfect, for Campbell didn’t seem to put the throttle down. What they did not realise that this was the first time the Bluebird had been in the water since 1959! Also, Donald had earlier, in July, broken the Land Speed Record on Lake Eyre and he had to re-acclimatise himself to driving on water, which is totally different to land. As a former speed car and race boat driver, I was well attuned to the process that Donald was undertaking. Many days were spent out in the middle of the lake, some in extreme heat and many a time we went over the side for a dip to cool off. We spent a lot of time talking and listening to Leo recounting his life with the Campbell’s. The Police Diver was Peter “Pedro” Warman. He too had had an interesting life. He was a founding member of the South Australian Police Recovery Unit and was a most respected member of the Force. There is a Police rescue boat named “Pedro Warman” after him.
Inclement weather plagued the operations and it wasn’t until 23rd November that runs resumed. As we were about to leave to take our station in the middle of the course, a Newspaper reporter handed me his camera. He said, Brian, just point the camera and shoot as much as you can. That is how that photo of the Bluebird K7 on that day was taken. It wasn’t until 2013 that I saw that photo!
On the first run, the Bluebird was heading straight for us at over 200 mph, I glanced at Leo, who had a frown on his face and with perpetual cigarette hanging on his lips which was jumping up and down and then I felt movement in the boat and turned to see “Pedro”, suited up, ready to dive overboard to get away from the pending collision. I of course had been looking through the camera lenses and hadn’t realised how close the Bluebird was to us, but I could see a devilish glint in Donald’s eyes as he sped past us less than 50 feet away. I knew then, that he was relaxed and ready to do business.
Sadly the elements were against us again. The snow had melted in the Snowy Mountains some five hundred miles away and the Murray River was in flood. Lake Bonney from the air looks like a foetus, with an umbilical cord (Chambers Creek) connected to the River about eight miles away. The rising river water was being forced into the north of the lake through the narrow Nappers Bridge. This was creating a pressure wave of water which slowly came from north to south. It was unable to be detected by eye, but when the Bluebird was travelling at over 200 mph, it was like a car on a corrugated dirt road, causing the Bluebird to bounce across the top of the water every 50 yards, a very dangerous situation. Lake Bonney was proving to be unsuitable and time was running out, as Donald was keen to break both land and water records within the same calendar year. An urgent call went across Australia for a suitable lake for a renewed attempt. Dumbleyung answered the call.
Lake Dumbleyung, Western Australia.
At eight miles long and six and a half miles wide, Lake Dumbleyung is the largest permanent fresh water lake in Western Australia.
Project Manager, Graham Ferrett was sent to Dumbleyung to see if their lake would be suitable. As I had an intimate knowledge of the requirements that were needed for a record attempt, I was asked to accompany him. Further to that, I was put on the payroll! We flew First Class, a new experience for me, arrived in Perth and the next day hired a car and travelled to Dumbleyung some 155 miles South West of Perth.
On arriving, we met the Shire Council together with members of the Water Ski Club. We were made most welcome and were shown a map of the lake with the pertinent access points etc. We were informed that the lake was full of water and the Ski Club was located about the middle with an excellent boat ramp to launch the Bluebird. I indicated that unfortunately we could not use the ramp as we had to avoid creating waves across the lake, so we had to launch at one end and go straight down the middle to the other end, then turn, restart and come back to where we had started, all within one hour. It was suggested that we all go out to the lake and have a look for suitable sites.
Lake Dumbleyung is approx 12 miles from the town and we arrived at the Western shore after driving through some wheat paddocks. There was quite a steep incline to the water’s edge and it was considered that the lake level was some 5-6 feet higher than normal. Having walked down to water’s edge, I took off my shoes and socks, paddled out a bit and declared that this looks like a suitable site to launch from. The Dumbleyung crew were a bit taken back, saying how you are going to get the Bluebird into the water with no ramp and with numerous dead trees in the water blocking the way to the open water. I asked if the Shire had a bulldozer and if there was a Railways Settlers Gang nearby, then we could construct a ramp. But the question came up about the trees, how could a laneway of 100 yards be made? I suggested that the WA Police Diving Team could cut the trees off at ground level and we would then attach a pontoon on the outer edge of the trees to house the many batteries etc to start the Bluebird for its runs. In 1964, such things were possible.
To their credit, the Dumbleyung crew accepted my suggestions and set about immediately to put everything in place. Graham Ferrett returned to Adelaide and left me to organise the site. As logistics manager for the record attempt, I had just a week before the Bluebird K7 arrived at Lake Dumbleyung.
The next problem was buoys to mark the course. As it happened, 500 gallon farm storage tanks were being introduced onto farms. The fuel company sponsor had yards full of them ready to be assembled. Anchor points for attaching legs to the tanks proved useful as we put anchors on those and they then became buoys.
Next the need to establish a camp with accommodation, toilets, canteen and a cookhouse arose. The locals provided caravans, the Australian Army provided tents, canteen and cookhouse together with a 240 volt lighting plant. Not sure where the toilets and communication centre sprung from, but the Shire and all of the community just dug in. Of course the WA Government was also right behind the project and I had many visits from visiting MPs. The WA duck season was opening in a two weeks, right when we would be making some runs, so the Government declared that Lake Dumbleyung be a sanctuary. My immediate reply was that “you will have all the ducks in WA on the lake” and so it was.
I didn’t witness the Bluebird’s arrival in Dumbleyung as I was out at the site, but heard that the town and community gave it a right Royal welcome. The Media arrived as well and I had to accommodate them in what was happening.
The unloading of Bluebird went smoothly as the Shire and railway settlers had done an excellent job of the ramp. After some testing, Donald made his first early morning run, duck opening day, with ducks flying in all directions Donald was fearful of having a bird or two sucked into the jet engine and wrecking it and his chances of achieving the “Unique Double”. So, word was sent to the Shire for a meeting with the local Game Wardens, to see if there was a solution in moving the ducks away from the lake. I didn’t know what the arrangements were, but received a rather terse message over the two-way radio that the two wardens were waiting at the Shire Office for the Bluebird team for the scheduled meeting at 10am. It was now 10.30, so I set off to rouse Graham and Evan Green to remind them. Because of the early 3am rise, both were sound asleep and I tried to wake them without success, so I had no alternative but to wake Donald who was not very happy. He got me to apologise and plead with the wardens and asked them would they mind very much if they could come out to the camp, which they agreed to. Meanwhile Donald had his two Lieutenant’s awake, standing at attention and he was giving them a real dressing down. I crept out of the away very smartly.
The two honorary game wardens, brothers, Tom and Ern Brown arrived at the camp and wearing a look on their faces that indicated that they were not very happy. I thought to myself that this is not going to go well. However, Donald met them with charm and invited them to look at his collection of firearms. Within five minutes he had them smiling and shooting at sticks in the lake. Shortly after I was instructed to get the command boat and take Donald and his new found friends out to the centre of the lake to show just what the problem with the ducks was. A few shots were fired; a couple of ducks were captured and sent to Perth to see why they were not flying away from our boat. It turned out the birds were Australian Shelduck and there were a number of young who had yet to develop their flying wings. Donald was able to get permission to run two or three boats up the course firing shot guns in an attempt to scare all the ducks away just before the Bluebird started its run. It worked! The ducks were not stupid and soon learnt to avoid all the noise of the guns and the Bluebird. This exercise clearly demonstrated the calibre of the man, Donald Campbell.
The generosity of the Dumbleyung community was outstanding; someone had given Leo Villa and his wife Joan a lobster. It was while we were still staying at the Dumbleyung Tavern. Leo and Joan had a lovely suite complete with kitchen and they invited me to join them for dinner. I remember Joan asking me would I eat a sauce made from the lobster gut. I replied I would anything that she made as she was a very good cook.
A couple of farmers invited me to go duck shooting, they supplied the gun and ammunition and I had a great morning, bringing two to three ducks home to Leo and Joan. While they welcomed the ducks, I could see that they were not happy with the shooting of wildlife. Joan made a great dinner with the ducks however.
Once again, the wind was making the lake too rough for record attempts. It would blow early in the mornings, and then the Albany Doctor would come in from the south about 3pm and blow us off the lake. It was very frustrating and we were running out of time. I did however spend quite a bit of time with Tonia who told me about some of the interesting things of her life. An amazing woman, who is still performing today.
So, I began to think about my role here. I had a small business, a fuel agency which my father was looking after for me, also had a beautiful fiancé who I was missing greatly. I thought my job was done here. I’ve got the ramp in and the course is set up, the camp is functioning and comfortable and everyone knows what their duties are, so I approached Donald and asked if he would mind if I went home. He understood my reasoning and offered to fly me to the Perth Airport the next morning which was Christmas Eve. So, I was home for Christmas and had to rely on the media for information on any attempts at the record and waited with baited breath.
I did see Donald once more, when he returned to Lake Bonney for a re-enactment of his leaving. He was making a film. As soon as he landed and hopped out of his plane, I shook his hand and offered my congratulations. I said, Donald, I know you’re a very superstitious person. You don’t like anyone wishing you luck or wearing green around you but you’re one lucky person. Donald asked why. Well I said, you broke the world record on the last day of the year. He looked at me as if I was stupid, because it was broken on the 31st December, the last day of the year. I said, Donald, 1964 is a leap year. You had one extra day! He didn’t realise the fact.
I remember Donald Campbell as a quiet and reserved English Gentleman, but also determined and ambitious. His father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, had also broken many speed records and, in my opinion, Donald wanted to better his father’s feats.
Donald’s theme was world records. He got that from his father. He was trying to emulate his father. I felt that he worshipped his father.
He was very much a man’s man, always looking after the crew and was supportive of what we were doing.
I also thought him courageous. The 50’s and 60’s was an era of achievement, whether it was climbing Mt Everest or walking Antarctica!
It was an honour and privilege to have been involved in the world water speed record.
I just found him great company.
One night we had gathered at the Barmera Hotel for dinner with Donald and as we were about to sit down he noticed that there was 13 in the party. So, being very superstitious, he went out to the front bar and invited a complete stranger to dine with him to make the party 14.
Tonia had the job of handing Mr Whoppit to Donald once he was settled in the cockpit of K7.
Donald was very supportive of the community. The Barmera Apex Club was raising funds for a charity. The club members, which I was one, dressed as slaves, paraded down the main street of Barmera on a Saturday morning escorted by an imposing Slave Master to be sold to the highest bidder to work.
The street was blocked by a large crowd. Donald generously bought a number of us. Tonia bought the Slave Master. We as slaves were worried about what duties we would have to perform, like perhaps, polishing the K7 every morning at 5am etc. But Donald had another idea. It was Leo Villa’s 65th birthday and Donald had the Slave Master report and gave him a list of requirements for a party for Leo at the Lake Bonney Caravan Park that evening. Each one of us had a chore for the success of the show.
After all the slaves had been sold, Graham Ferrett and I looked at each other and grabbed Donald and led him to the Auctioneer’s Block. After some spiriting bidding, Donald Campbell, in prime condition was “sold” for the top bid of $8. His buyer, local estate agent Mr Henry Rooney, paid the price for eight hours of work. Mr Rooney then laughingly gave his purchase to Mr Campbell’s “least lenient employer” – his wife Tonia – to do with him as she cared for a full working day.
Also auctioned was the Bluebird project manager, Graham Ferrett, who brought $6/10/-. In all some 25 men were sold in the main street by the Barmera Apex Club to raise money for a “books for the blind” appeal.
Footnote: On December 31st 2014, Brian and another member of 1964 Speed record team, Angus Tuck, travelled back to Dumbleyung from Barmera, South Australia, for the 50th anniversary celebration. It was an emotional visit and bought back a lot of memories.-Christine Bairstow Brian with Gina campbell at the 50th anniversary event in Dumbleyung. Owen Dare, Joan Ward, Gina Campbell,Lorraine Masters, Graham Masters, Angus Tuck- Bluebird replica unveiling in Dumbleyung.