Danish WW2 Pilots

LAC Preben Messerschmidt

(1918 - 1978)

Preben Messerschmidt escaped Denmark following the German occupation and arrived in Sydney, Australia, in December 1940. He enlisted in the RAAF in June 1944 as Peter Michell and was in line to be trained as aircrew as the war came to an end.

Preben Messerschmidt was born on 6 August 1918 in Copenhagen, Denmark, the son of merchant Christian Villiam Vilhelm Messerschmidt and Fanny Messerschmidt (née Blad).[1] Messerschmidt was the youngest of six siblings and fourteen years the junior of his youngest sister.[2]

Messerschmidt was educated in Denmark from 1924 to 1937. He learned technical drawing at the technical college in Copenhagen and also Administration, accountancy and banking. He learned French at the Sorbonne in Paris and trained in English, French and German commerce and correspondence at Pitman College in London.[3] It is presumed that this is related to the fact that he was staying in London in September 1939.[4]

He also served as a Lieutenant in the Danish Royal Guards before the war.

Escape from Denmark

On 9 April 1940, the German forces crossed the Danish borders and Denmark was occupied. It seems that Messerschmidt was able to escape abroad from occupied Denmark. The exact dates and route is not known.

He arrived in New York from Lisbon, Portugal, on 26 October 1940 onboard the SS Exochorda, which had sailed from Lisbon ten days before. His visa had been issued in Copenhagen on 25 April 1940. He left San Francisco for Sydney on 10 December 1940, but it is not clear from the sources at hand, when he arrived in Australia.[5]

Enlisting in the RAAF under presumed name

Messerschmidt applied for appointment to commissioned rank in the RAAF in June 1943, but his application was rejected. He was informed at the same time, though, that he was eligible to make an application for enlistment in the RAAF as a member of air crew.[6]

He did so, and on 17 June 1944 he enlisted in the RAAF at 2 Recruitment Centre as Aircraftman Second Class (AC2). He changed, with the sanction of the Air Board, his name from Preben Messerschmidt to Peter Mitchell for the duration of his service in the RAAF. Messersmidt (now as Michell) was posted to 2 Personnel Depot at Bradfield Park, Sydney, and, a month later, to 2 Recruit Depot. From here he was posted for initial training.

Messerschmidt attended course 57A at 2 Initial Training School from 10 September 1944 to 9 January 1945. At the end of the course, the Commanding Officer remarked that the was a

Smart and well disciplined. Good manner. Should go a long way. Very keen.[7]

He preferred to be trained as Wireless Operator/Air Gunner and the board categorised him as a PNWB trainee. He was posted to 6 Stores Depot with effect from 10 January 1945 for ground duties pending further aircrew training.[8] In fact this was the end of his training as aircrew.

The ‘Grapes Picking Unit’

On 13 March 1945, Messerschmidt was posted to RAAF Special Aircrew Camp.

For a man who had aspirations to become a wireless operator/air gunner, at first sight, it would seem to be a positive thing to be posted to RAAF Special Aircrew Camp. However, this unit, which was established on 31 January 1945 at Barmera, South Australia, had nothing to de with aircrew training. It was established to provide ‘farm labour’ for picking grapes at the vineyards in the area. On 12 February 1945, the men at the camp commenced grape picking. Working parties of airmen were dispatched in transport provided by the growers to vineyards in the Barmera, Berri and Renmark districts. The harvest was lighter than anticipated and fewer pickeres were needed.[9]

According to his service record, Messerschmidt was posted to the unit on 13 March, but it not clear if he was actually among the 43 aircrew reporting to the unit on this day. By the end of March 1945, the harvest came to an end, and the unit began a proces of disbandment. Members of the unit had expended over 93,000 man hours in the picking of grapes and fruits. The unit was disbanded on 26 April 1945.[10]

Discharged and Returning Home

Messerschmidt was posted to 2 Stores Depot, Waterloo, on 3 April 1945. Two weeks later, on 18 April 1945, he was posted to 5 Transportation and Movements Office at Herston, Brisbane. He served at this unit for five months. As the name suggests these units were logistical units established to move people and freight. There is no information on Messerschmidt’s activities at the unit, but it seems likely that he worked on loading or discharging cargo from trains and ships passing through.

On 18 September 1945, he was posted to 2 Personnel Depot. He was discharged on demobilisation on three days later.

Messeschmidt signed on the Norwegian vessel MS Tai Yang as messy in Sydney on 31 October 1945. This was his ticket home. He signed off on Antwerp, Belgium, on 31 December 1945.[11] It is supposed that he returned to Denmark from Belgium to visit his family.


[1] DNA: Parish register, Valby Sogn.

[2] DNA: 1930 Census of Denmark.

[3] NAA: A9301, Peter Mitchell (444413).

[4] Ancestry: 1939 Register of England and Wales.

[5] Ancestry: U.S., Border Crossings from Canada to U.S., 1895-1960. A lost person report was released on him in the United States in August 1943. He was believed to have left San Francisco for Australia on 10 December 1940, but if he turned up at the U.S.-Canada border, FBI was to be notified.

[6] NAA: A9301, Peter Mitchell (444413). All information on Messerschmidt’s service is based on this source unless otherwise cited.

[7] NAA: A9301, Peter Mitchell (444413).

[8] NAA: A10605, 576/1.

[9] NAA: A9186, 424.

[10] RAAF Historical Section (1995). Units of the Royal Australian Air Force : a concise history, Training units, Volume 8, p. 207-8.

[11] Sjøhistorie, https://www.sjohistorie.no/no/sjofolk/927091/default (accessed on 16 April 2022).