The skies of Tobruk and the khaki of war are a far cry from the red and green of Redfern Oval, but for former South Sydney forward, Flying Officer Arthur Edward ‘Mick’ Mather DFC AFC AE, it was the world he came to know during WWII, as well as being the scene of great acts of bravery in the skies that earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal.
As the game of Rugby League and Australians everywhere pause this to reflect on the selfless contributions of all those who have served their country, in this the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, we remember another Rabbitoh who not only proudly wore the red and green – albeit briefly – but also devoted his professional life to the ongoing security of his country in an RAAF career that spanned over 30 years – ‘Mick’ Mather.
Born in Parramatta on the 3rd of May 1918, the Marist Brothers High School Darlinghurst product showed all the promise, elbow-grease and know-how that has since come to characterise the ANZAC legend. Following school, he became a Fitter and Turner and achieved a Higher Trade Certificate in Marine Engineering and Applied Mechanics at Sydney Technical College in 1937.
But Mather’s skills also extended to Rugby League. A damaging front-row forward who made eight first grade appearances in a short career spanning the 1939 and 1940 seasons, ‘Mick’ played alongside such legendary Rabbitohs as the brothers Quinlivan, as well as Club icon, Howard Hallet.
In his eight matches, Mather crossed the line for a single try against Newtown at the Sydney Cricket Ground in what was surely the highlight of his brief career. But with war-clouds darkening in Europe, Mather prematurely ended his time in the game – as well as his career as a water-polo player and lifesaver at Maroubra Surf Life-Saving Club – to pursue a life in the sky in the service of his country.
While the NSWRL competition continued against the back-drop of war – this time with the blessing of authorities in vast contrast to WWI – all teams were affected by depleted line-ups, owing to the ever-increasing need for good men to enlist, among them, the young ‘Mick’.
Mather graduated as a ‘Pilot Officer’ on the 5th of May 1941. The then-23 year old – like so many his age and even younger – left Australia to fight in the RAAF, serving at Bomber Command in the UK in 1941, before being posted to the Desert Air Force in North Africa and the Middle East in 1942.
Flight officer Mather established himself as a well-liked member of 104 Squadron, a fact exhibited when he found himself in hot water for hitting a ‘not much liked’ squadron leader ‘a beauty on the chin’ – according to the biography of Wing Commander Donald Teale Saville DSO, DFC.
The incident revolved around some tins of asparagus sent by Australian Comforts, which he wanted to have served on toast for his crew with the help of the cooks in the officers’ mess kitchen. Commander Saville’s biography described the incident:
All went well until Mick was leaving the kitchen with a tray and met the squadron leader administration, who was showing some visitors over the mess – a WAAF officer, a group captain and the station orderly officer for the day. The squadron leader said, ‘get out of my mess and put those rations down!’ Mather continued on his way and the squadron leader lunged at his arm and roared: ‘Put those rations down or I’ll have you arrested!’ He rushed at Mather, who let him have the tray and plates fair in the face.
The squadron leader, a large man and former wrestler, tried to wrestle Mather to the ground so Mather stood him off with a couple of straight lefts and dropped him with a right cross to the jaw. He left the scene with the squadron leader, screaming at the poor orderly officer to arrest him.
Mather would receive a dressing down for the incident by his Group Captain, who informed him that were it not “for the good operational reports he had had there would have been further action.”
Those good operational reports were well founded, with the South Sydney forward having ‘completed numerous operational sorties’ (an attack made by troops coming out from a position of defence) culminating in his deserved decoration, awarded to him on the 23rd of January 1943 by the Governor General at Admiralty House, Sydney.
Mather’s citation read:
On one occasion he accomplished a daring bombing attack on Tobruk from a height of only 2000 feet [610 metres] as weather at a higher altitude was adverse. As captain of aircraft Flying Officer Mather has displayed outstanding efficiency and determination.
He briefly returned to Australia in 1943 before joining No. 33 squadron in Papua New Guinea – where two other Rabbitohs in the form of Eric Lewis and Jack Rayner served – until he was honourably discharged at the conclusion of WWII in 1945.
But Mather was attached to military life, for after spending a year as a civilian pilot, Mick was awarded a permanent posting in the RAAF, becoming Chief Flying Instructor and later Commanding Officer of several Squadrons. He was subsequently awarded the Air Efficiency Award (AE) and the Air Force Cross (AFC) in 1965 before finally being made an Air Commodore in 1970.
After retiring in 1973, Air Commodore Mather moved to Newcastle where he passed away in 2005 at the age of 87.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs Family, along with the game of Rugby League in general, remember those who have served, and who are currently serving their country in the Defence Forces both overseas and on home soil.