Episodes & Studies Volume 2
THE FLYING-BOAT UNION
THE FLYING-BOAT UNION
THROUGHOUT the first half of 1941, while the Royal Air Force in Malta struggled to defend itself and to maintain reconnaissances over the Mediterranean basin, a singular series of operations was flown by seven New Zealanders in two Sunderland flying-boat squadrons. Nos. 228 and 230 Squadrons, the latter being brought in as reinforcement from China Bay, Ceylon, were never more than fourteen aircraft strong, and they worked hard. These early pilots were members of the self-styled ‘Flying-Boat Union’ which had been strong in the pre- war years, for the flying-boat captains took a considerable pride in their individuality of command, patterning it in many ways on sea-going naval procedure. This ingrained independence was to prove a valuable asset in the lean years of Mediterranean air warfare, by virtue of the wide variety of tasks which the Sunderlands could perform. Their main duty was to make long-range reconnaissances and anti-submarine patrols over the eastern half of the Mediterranean. Successes in the latter duty were rare, although Flight-Lieutenant D. N. Milligan,4 of No. 230 Squadron, while making a sweep to cover a Fleet movement, was credited with damaging an Italian submarine. Flight-Lieutenant H. L. M. Glover,5 who had returned to the Royal Air Force from civil flying with Imperial Airways, was detailed on 3 April 1941 as navigational escort to a force of incoming reinforcement fighters. He circled a rendezvous point off Galatea Island and intercepted six Hurricanes and one Skua which had been flown off the aircraft-carrier Ark Royal and led them back to Malta. Seven days later Flight-Lieutenant A. Frame6 carried the Middle East Army and Air Commanders-in-Chief, General Sir Archibald Wavell and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, from Alexandria to Scaramanga in Greece. As the air attacks on Malta increased, and since the flying-boats at their moorings at Kalafrana Bay were particularly vulnerable, Air Vice-Marshal Maynard moved their headquarters to Aboukir Bay at Alexandria, and Malta became their forward base.
At the end of April every available Sunderland was pressed into use to assist in the evacuation of Greece. Two New Zealand pilots played a notable part, together with Bombay and Lodestar transport aircraft of both the Royal Air Force and the British Overseas Airways Corporation, in ferrying soldiers and airmen to Crete. Flight-Lieutenant Frame evacuated more than 200 men in all. On 24 April he flew his Sunderland to Nauplion Bay in the Bay of Argos to evacuate Royal Air Force personnel. On arrival, just before dusk, it was found that the Royal Air Force party had moved on, but 25 passengers, including a British General, were taken aboard during the night. At dawn Frame found that the whole bay was enveloped in dense black smoke from an ammunition ship and a troopship which had been bombed in the harbour the previous afternoon. After taxi-ing around for a considerable time to find a clear patch, he decided to make a blind take-off on a course given by his navigator. Fortunately, the Sunderland did not hit any of the floating debris and the evacuees were safely landed at Suda Bay in Crete.
On the same day, 25 April, Flight-Lieutenant H. W. Lamond7 was detailed to search for a party in the Githeon area in Greece. At Githeon Greek officers in laboured French directed him to a bay farther south-west, where the crew observed flashes from a hand mirror and picked up 52 officers and men of a Royal Air Force fighter squadron. Lamond returned immediately to evacuate a party which Frame had noted near Kalamata. He took aboard 72 men waiting in the page 8 harbour area. This still stands as the record number of passengers ever carried in flight by a Sunderland. Lamond carefully disposed his passengers to balance the aircraft, firmly preventing anyone, irrespective of rank, from bringing aboard any luggage or personal effects. Carrying only 400 gallons of petrol, the Sunderland finally became airborne after ricochetting off the harbour. The same evening at eleven o'clock Lamond returned to Kalamata to deliver a message to a senior officer of the remaining Royal Air Force personnel. The take-off had been made without a flare path and there was none available for the landing, which was attempted by the use of the aircraft's landing light on a glassy and deceptive surface. The pilot found it practically impossible to judge his height, and the aircraft hit the sea heavily and broke up. Lamond and three of his crew were the only survivors. A portion of the hull remained afloat, and on this the four stayed until Lamond's shouts attracted the attention of a small Greek fishing boat; the search party from the shore had failed to locate the wreck and had given up the search. Three of the aircrew, including Flight-Lieutenant Lamond, were taken to a military hospital where they later became prisoners of war. For his share in the evacuation Lamond was awarded the Greek Distinguished Flying Cross.
There was a further diversion in early July when Flying-Officer D. N. Milligan and Flight- Lieutenant A. Frame were detailed to co-operate in the Syrian campaign, searching for fast Vichy ships which were running the Allied blockade between the Aegean Sea and the Syrian coast. But the major duty of the two squadrons at this time was to fly an important shuttle service to Malta from Egypt, carrying essential supplies such as torpedoes and ammunition, as well as VIPs* and Royal Air Force ground personnel.
By December 1941 this service to the isolated garrison had become routine, but one particular sortie, assisted by the then fluid state of the North African campaign, developed abruptly into what was perhaps the most eventful air operation of the year. At 2.15 a.m. on 22 December, Flight-Lieutenant S. W. R. Hughes8 took off from Aboukir in Egypt for Kalafrana Bay. On board also, as a passenger, was Pilot-Officer G. H. Easton,9 a Wellington-bomber pilot, who had crashed on operations and was returning with his crew to Malta. The aircraft hugged the friendly coast of North Cyrenaica, but when approximately fifty miles north-east of Benghazi it was attacked by two Messerschmitt 110 fighters. The encounter was brief: one of the Messerschmitts was probably destroyed and the other retired; but two Royal Air Force gunners were wounded, one seriously, and a passenger was killed, while the two starboard engines of the Sunderland were put out of action and the starboard aileron shot away. Land was just in sight, and as the aircraft rapidly lost height, Flight-Lieutenant Hughes, exercising all his experience, succeeded in turning it into the wind and made a safe forced-landing on the water. A heavy sea was running, and the Sunderland ricochetted twice but finally came to rest. The starboard wing-tip float was smashed, but the crew kept the flying-boat from capsizing by ranging their weight along the port wing and ensuring that the good float remained in the water. In this fashion, behind a strong north-east wind, the Sunderland ‘sailed’ stern first into land. It struck a reef, and two hours later was still firmly lodged and beginning to break up. An attempt had to be made to reach the shore. The wounded man was given morphia, put into the only serviceable dinghy and towed through the surf. In all, there were twenty men on board the aircraft, page 9 and two at a time they slid down the wing into the sea. The second-pilot was nearly drowned as a strong undertow carried him away, but Flight-Lieutenant Hughes, who was a strong swimmer, eventually dragged him ashore after a struggle lasting nearly half an hour.
The Sunderland broke up (page 8)
In due course the party arrived at the Senussi village of El Hania. Here they were given macaroni and coffee: three eggs were bartered for a wrist watch and a two-shilling piece, and a bag of dates cost one Egyptian pound. The Major sent for Flight-Lieutenant Hughes and told him that he proposed to leave for Benghazi. The question arose as to who actually held the town and finally bets were made on it. The Italian decided that he would leave with his men, allowing the British to remain with the Arabs, and he offered to leave rifles for their protection. Once the Italians had gone, the Senussi freely disclosed an abundance of food and sent a messenger towards the advancing British lines. Hughes and his party decided to follow, hoping to reach an Indian Army unit which the Arabs reported to be some fifteen miles away.
The end of this incident was equally remarkable. After walking for an hour, the Royal Air Force party overtook some of the Italian Major's men. One of these ran over to the group, drew his bayonet, propped it against a rock, and jumped on it until it snapped. There were some two dozen Italians, each of whom threw away his rifle or handed it over and cheerfully joined the procession. Similar incidents happened on four occasions, and after three hours the company was more than a hundred and fifty strong. The British lines were soon reached, for the Eighth Army was making a bid to take Benghazi by Christmas, and Flight-Lieutenant Hughes, who had successfully led his men through the whole grim yet whimsical adventure, added his prisoners to those of the Army.
* Very Important Persons