New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 13 — Transport and Special Duties
Transport and Special Duties
‘The great advances,’ writes General Eisenhower, ‘had the effect of multiplying many of the administrative and maintenance problems with which we constantly had to wrestle. Again a tremendous strain was placed upon our supply lines. Distance alone would have been enough to stop our spearheads had we been dependent solely on surface transport, efficient as it was. Distant and fast-moving columns were sometimes almost entirely dependent upon air supply, and during April we kept 1500 planes constantly working in our supply system. They became known as “flying box cars” and were never more essential than in these concluding stages of the war …. During that month the air forces delivered to the front lines 60,000 tons of freight, in which was included 10,000,000 gallons of petrol.’
In this passage the Supreme Commander describes one of the ways in which the men of the Allied transport squadrons assisted in the achievement of final victory. Equally important was their contribution in other directions. On the British side RAF Transport Command acted as carrier for all three services, providing a world-wide organisation with more than 130 stations and staging posts in various Allied territories to control and service aircraft and to handle freight and passengers; by 1944 its scheduled services were operating over 100,000 miles of regular routes, stretching as far afield as North Africa, Egypt, Iraq, India, and Australia, as well as across the North and South Atlantic and to West Africa. In addition, its crews ferried many thousands of aircraft from Britain or trans-Atlantic bases to the various theatres of war; the North Atlantic crossing, which only a few years earlier was regarded as a hazardous venture, became a matter of routine and by the end of the war 27,000 machines had made the passage. In support of the armies and air forces transport aircraft maintained a continual flow of supplies and reinforcements and on several notable occasions carried troops and their equipment into actual battle. They also delivered mail and evacuated casualties from forward areas – in the first six months of the European campaign alone 50,000 casualties, over three-quarters of them stretcher cases, were flown back to England without a single mishap.
Pioneering efforts in the Middle East and over the North Atlantic had provided much of the knowledge and experience upon which these achievements were based. The vast organisation of RAF Transport Command was a late development. During the first three and a half years of the war British air transport had been conducted by a rather unusual variety of bodies which, acutely short of aircraft, page 370 had to maintain themselves as best they could by successful impro visation. It was not until March 1943 that, with the rapidly increas ing demands for air transport, a separate RAF command was formed to co-ordinate and expand the various existing services.
Led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill,1 the new command was made up of No. 44 Group, operating from the United Kingdom, and No. 45 (previously Ferry Command) in Canada with its two wings, one operating over the North Atlantic and the other over the South; there was also No. 216 Wing in the Middle East and No. 179 Wing in India.2 Expansion began at once and by 1945 two new groups had been added to those in Britain. One of them, No. 46 Group, was to do splendid work in support of the British air and ground forces; it also undertook parachute dropping, glider towing and airborne supply, thus reinforcing AEAF's No. 38 Group, which was primarily responsible for these important duties.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO, Order of St. Vladimir (Rus.), Order of St. Saveur (Gr.), Order of Orange Nassau (Hol.), Legion of Merit (US), Order of St. Olav (Nor.), Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol.), RAF (retd); born Morar, India, 1 Sep 1880; joined RN 1913; seconded RNAS 1914 and RAF 1918; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC-in-C Coastal Command, 1937–41; AOC-in-C, RAF Ferry Command, 1941–43; AOC-in-C, RAF Transport Command, 1943–45.
3 Group Captain C. W. K. Nicholls, DSO, OBE; RAF; born Palmerston North, 7 Oct 1918; joined RAF 1934; test pilot, Aeronautical and Armament Experimental Establishment, 1940–41; commanded Handling Sqdn, Empire Central Flying School, Hullavington, 1942–43; commanded Operational Training Wing, Ohakea, 1943–44; NZ Fighter Wing, Bougainville, 1944; SASO Northern Group, 1944; SASO No. 46 Group, Transport Command, 1945–46; commanded No. 24 Commonwealth Sqdn, 1946–48; Air Attache, Nanking, 1948–49.
Navigation duties were carried out by Squadron Leader Austin4 whose varied career included two tours of bomber operations and service in England, India, Malta, and the Middle East. Squadron Leaders Scott5 and Julian6 were among those who trained transport crews for their duties, while Squadron Leader Lewis,7 who had won distinction in early bomber operations, was in charge of a large staging post on the Continent. An important contribution to the development of troop-carrying operations was made by Flight Lieutenant R. W. H. Carter. As a test pilot he was the first to fly a Whitley aircraft towing a Horsa glider. After taking part in all trials of this combination, he subsequently made the first flight trials of the Hamilcar, using Halifax and Stirling bombers as the tug aircraft.
3 Wing Commander C. W. H. Thomson; RAF; born Stratford, 21 Sep 1914; joined RAF 1939; attached BOAC 1941–42; Staff Navigator RAF Ferry Command, 1942–43; Staff Navigator No. 116 Wing, Transport Command, 1944–45.
5 Wing Commander R. C. E. Scott, AFC and bar; RAF; born Wellington, 11 Jan 1918; joined RAF Jan 1940; commanded No. 1517 BATF, 1942–44; duties with Directorate of Operational Training, 1944–46; commanded the King's Flight, 1950–53; Air Attaché, Berne, 1953–
New Zealanders were particularly prominent in these duties with No. 511 Squadron, which flew from Lyneham in Wiltshire, and with No. 24 Squadron at Hendon, near London; Squadron Leader Donald1 and Flight Lieutenant Drew2 both won special commendation for their work with these units. By May 1945 the crews of No. 511 Squadron had flown more than twelve million miles, carried 24,700 passengers and over 7000 tons of mail and freight. The record of No. 24 Squadron was equally notable, among its highlights being the carriage of King George VI on a tour of the Middle East and the British Prime Minister and his staff to several conferences. It is of interest to add that two years after the war this unit was renamed No. 24 Commonwealth Squadron, with representative crews from Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and was employed primarily on special flights carrying statesmen and military leaders. A New Zealand airman, Group Captain Nicholls, then had the distinction of being its first commanding officer.
With No. 45 Group the chief duty was the delivery of new aircraft and the carriage of passengers and freight across the Atlantic. By 1943 flights across this vast ocean had become more or less routine and many crews could, with real feeling, echo the words of an early Coastal Command song: ‘We've flown the North Atlantic in blinding rain and blinding sleet, We've flown that blooming ocean until it made us almost weep.’ Dorval airfield, near Montreal, was the main starting point for the Atlantic ferry, and it was here that machines received from the factories of North America and the Far West were tested and modified in preparation for their ocean flight. There were two main routes across the Atlantic – the northern to Prestwick in Scotland, which had been pioneered by RAF and civilian pilots in the early days, and the southern to Africa, which had been opened at the end of 1942. Over the northern route heavy bombers often flew direct to Britain, calling possibly at Gander, Newfoundland, or at a base in the Azores, which had been acquired by agreement with the Portuguese Government at the end of 1943. Light bombers, including Canadian-built Mosquitos and other machines of limited range, usually flew by stages via Greenland and Iceland.
On this North Atlantic passage crews experienced some of the most hazardous flying in the world, especially during the winter months when airfields were covered with snow and there were frequent storms with low cloud over the ocean and fog banks off Newfoundland. The worst part of the flight often came as aircraft approached the ‘point of no return’ – a technical term which every trans-oceanic flier knew well – for it meant the position from which there would not be enough fuel for the machine to turn back to base in case of trouble.
The South Atlantic route over which many aircraft were delivered to the Middle East was more congenial; it took crews through such exotic places as Nassau in the Bahamas, the island of Trinidad, and Para Belem, to the sandy airfield set amid scrub near Natal, on the extreme eastern coastline of Brazil. From there they flew 1400 miles across the ocean to that small isolated speck of land known as Ascension Island where, during 1942, American engineers had blasted away huge quantities of lava rock to construct a runway capable of receiving the largest aircraft. From Ascension, the flight continued to Accra on the Gold Coast, where machines were usually handed over for delivery to Cairo by way of the well-established page 374 route through Kano in Nigeria. One New Zealander, who spent several years on the South Atlantic Ferry, gives this account of his work:
A delivery on the southern route usually meant landing to refuel about every seven hours, although on some occasions we made flights of up to ten. Thanks to the existence of Ascension Island we had a comfortable margin for the Atlantic flight plan. Radio played an important part on the crossing and, although the facilities we had appear meagre in the light of post-war developments, they were a major guide to navigation and the means of saving both planes and crews. When Africa-bound we usually experienced headwinds and quite often had to fly against gales up to 60 knots; the weather between Brazil and Ascension was usually moderate but between the Island and Africa we frequently encountered violent tropical disturbances and at other times had to fly above sand storms hundreds of miles out to sea, but the small R.A.F. unit at Ascension did a remarkable job of charting the weather for us on this leg of the flight.
On all our delivery flights we carried a cargo of vital war equipment; sometimes we would be briefed to land at an airport in Florida to load up with supplies destined for the Eighth Army. On such occasions we flew Dakota transports which carried the maximum of 30,000 lb. of freight lashed in at the point of balance. Flying these transports on the southern route was a comparatively simple matter, since the Douglas craft had ample fuel tanks for long flights and were aero-dynamically most suited for hauling loads in any type of weather. But I remember one occasion during a flight from Trinidad to Natal when we encountered a violent storm over Dutch Guiana; thunder clouds reared up and we were unable to break through the tops, so we had to fly on for several hours amid a frightening display of electronics in what seemed a hell of darkness and with the transport swaying wildly to and fro, one moment careering upwards and the next second bouncing crazily down. I think that such storms which accompanied Brazil's frequent rainy season deluges accounted for most of the losses on this route.
With the Atlantic Ferry, Squadron Leader Adams1 led the first group of Marauders through to the Middle East via the South Atlantic route. Flying Officer Thorburn2 flew regularly over the South Atlantic. In May 1944 he was radio officer in a Baltimore engaged on a special mission. As it approached the Trinidad coast the aircraft exploded in mid-air and fell into the sea. Thorburn, who was badly burned, was fortunate to be picked up by an American merchantman. Other airmen with long service on the Atlantic Ferry were Squadron Leader A. W. Mack, who had previously flown on both bomber and fighter operations, and Flight Lieutenants Irwin3 and Webb4 who flew consistently from mid-1942.
Flight Lieutenants Henderson1 and Clarke,2 who also saw early service on the Atlantic route, were among the pioneers of the Pacific route from Canada to Australia. Aircraft on this run took off from Dorval, crossed North America to San Francisco, and then flew to Sydney via Honolulu, Canton, Fiji and Auckland, a total of 11,520 miles. Henderson was navigator in the aircraft which made a survey of this route and was prominent in the organisation of the flight, while Clarke flew as a pilot on this route from the time it was opened.
Transport and supply missions in support of Allied operations on the Continent were the main tasks for the aircrews with Nos. 38 and 46 Groups. These were the units which, along with various other duties, carried the men of the British airborne divisions – ‘The Red Berets’ – to Normandy, Arnhem, and across the Rhine; they also evacuated thousands of casualties from the front line and then flew them back across the Channel to England. No. 38 Group was the pioneer formation; it had begun in 1940 as a small unit equipped with six Whitley aircraft discarded by Bomber Command, and during the early years its crews had been mainly employed in exercises with British paratroop regiments and in dropping saboteurs and supplies over Europe. The airborne invasion of Sicily in 1943 gave No. 38 Group its first major task, and the experience gained in this and other transport operations in the Middle East was used to train additional crews and those of No. 46 Group which was formed in Britain early in 1944.
The part played by the aircrews of Nos. 38 and 46 Groups in support of the British airborne divisions is of particular interest. In the opening stages of the Normandy invasion two separate missions were flown to enable 6 Airborne Division to capture and hold vital areas on the left flank of the bridgehead. The first took place during the night preceding the seaborne landings; it involved 294 aircraft and 98 glider combinations carrying first pathfinders, then the main body of paratroops, and finally men and equipment in gliders. To deceive the enemy as to their real purpose, many of the aircraft carried bombs with which they went on to attack targets further inland. On the whole the navigation was remarkably accurate and, although a high wind tended to scatter the parachutists, most of the principal objectives were achieved. Altogether 4310 parachutists were dropped that night and 493 glider troops successfully landed together with 17 guns, 44 jeeps, and 55 motor cycles. Seven aircraft and twenty-two gliders were lost, most of the latter through broken tow ropes or through being cast off too soon. One important lesson learned this night and applied in future operations was the importance of pilots maintaining a steady course when approaching the dropping zone in the face of anti-aircraft fire; it was found that ‘jinking’ threw many of the parachute troops off balance at the critical moment when the red light had been switched on and they were preparing to jump.
The main glider force took off at 4 p.m. on D-Day and we were glad of the opportunity to fly over the beachhead in daylight. We had our final briefing and the weather seemed more favourable. Out on the runway we checked our aircraft, chatted with the glider pilots and the men who were going along to keep a field-gun company – eighteen of them were in my glider. Incidentally the total load carried in each of these Horsa gliders was nearly 3 ½ tons.
We took off across a very stiff breeze which caused some anxious moments as the combination took the air. In taking off in these heavily loaded gliders the unusual feature is the slowness with which one gains flying speed. The runway flashes by under the wheels and its end, over a mile away, is almost reached before the whole contraption is in the air still clambering for more speed. From that moment onwards, both for the tug and the glider pilot, the actual control of their aircraft is a full time job of manual labour. Constantly buffeted by the slipstream of the aircraft in front the ‘combinations’ battle along in pairs which form a great stream. Ground speed in a head wind may fall to 80 m.p.h. and the usually accepted evasive tactics to A.A. fire are virtually impossible.
However, as we jostled about on this evening of D-Day, we knew that many fighter squadrons would escort us and that others would be attacking enemy fighter airfields in France ahead of us. After nearly two hours over England we crossed the south coast in a great procession nearly eighty miles long; I think we were about half way down the ‘stream’. Le Havre came in sight and I marvelled that it was possible to fly over the French coast without defensive armament at less than one hundred miles an hour. Soon the beaches of Normandy were in sight with the greatest array of ships I had ever seen; some unloading on to the beaches, some of them waiting off-shore and others still miles out to sea. The mouth of the River Orne where we were to cross the coast now came into sight below the battle haze and smoke. The sun was fairly low in the sky but it was not difficult to identify the landing zone which the gliders were to use. However, as aircraft jostled for position, the cumulative effect of slipstreams made things difficult since every pilot was letting down to the correct dropping height of 12,000 feet. A few miles inland towards Caen I called my glider pilot. “Thirty seconds to go to release point ‘matchbox’ – Good luck.” He came back ‘Thank you, tug – cheerio.’ A few moments later I felt my aircraft surge forward as he cast off. In front we could see hundreds of gliders wheeling in free flight and preparing to land. Several crashed into each other as they ran along the ground like great beetles. Two spilled open and shot out their contents. Several caught fire and others struck mines. Little puffs of smoke mushroomed up as enemy mortar shells found their mark.
Turning away we caught a glimpse of the great battle going on at the outskirts of Caen. Odd bursts of enemy anti-aircraft fire were now finding their mark. One of our flight just behind was set on fire. Two figures left by parachute and landed in the River Orne while the burning machine with the pilot still at the controls turned and eventually belly landed near the gliders. page 378 As I flew low out over the sea there was a Stirling and two gliders in the ‘drink’. Back at base we learnt that the glider landing had been judged a great success.
One New Zealand wireless operator, Flight Sergeant Burgess,1 who flew to Normandy on the evening of D Day, shared with his crew in an amazing series of adventures which culminated two days later with their hailing a surprised British soldier near Caen with the news that they had sixty prisoners for him. Over France the RAF men had just released their glider when their Stirling was hit by flak and set on fire, forcing them to crash-land behind the German lines. All the crew managed to scramble uninjured from the blazing bomber but almost at once found themselves covered by German tommy guns. The prisoners were marched along with a retreating enemy detachment until dawn the following morning when, finding themselves in no-man's-land, the whole party took cover in a bombed chateau. The day passed with British and German shells whizzing overhead and the prisoners witnessed an aerial battle in which Spitfires sent a formation of Ju88s crashing in flames. During the afternoon British mortars began to get the chateau's range, whereupon the Germans and their prisoners – now more or less on even terms – moved first into a slit-trench and later to a cellar. Then, after a night of more shelling and bombardment, the German commander asked that he and his men be taken prisoners, so Burgess and his navigator set off in search of British troops. Having made contact, the airmen lined up the Germans and marched them to a brigade headquarters where they were handed over. Then after a few hours in the trenches the airmen obtained a captured German staff car and motored to the beach, where they found a ship about to return across the Channel.
September 1944 brought the epic of Arnhem. Here, during the audacious attempt to seize the last bridge that would put Montgomery's armies across the Lower Rhine, the aircrews of Nos. 38 and 46 Groups made a determined and courageous effort in support of 1 Airborne Division. Altogether they flew nine separate missions – three carrying the assault troops and their equipment and then, in the face of bitter opposition, six more with ammunition and supplies. During these operations the two groups lost 326 men, together with 52 aircraft and 19 gliders, most of them during the later stages of the battle when there occurred more than one example of what the tough and hardened warriors on the ground were moved to call ‘the extreme of heroism.’
Further misfortunes occurred on the third day. The most serious was the failure of communications – in particular, a vital message reporting that the Germans still held the zone on which supplies were to be dropped from the air did not get through. As a result the 180 aircraft which carried out the first resupply mission released their cargoes, not on the airborne troops, but on their enemies. Worse still, to reach the appointed zone, the Stirlings and unarmed page 380 Dakotas had to fly low in the face of sharp and accurate anti-aircraft fire. Thirteen were shot down and ninety-seven more returned badly damaged.
‘Arnhem, 19th September, 1630 hours,’ runs the war diary of 1 Airborne Division. ‘Resupply dropped on prearranged Supply Dropping Point V which was in enemy hands. Yellow smoke, yellow triangles and every conceivable means were used to attract attention of pilots and get them to drop supplies within our lines; this had very limited success.’ It had, indeed. The weather was misty, but the arranged dropping point could be seen and the pilots had eyes for nothing else. ‘My most poignant memory,’ writes Lieutenant-Colonel Packe, of the Royal Army Service Corps, ‘will always be the time I spent watching the supply aircraft coming over and dropping their containers on an area not under our control …. They were met by a screen of flak, and it was awe-inspiring to see them fly straight into it, straight into a flaming hell. We thought that some would not face it and would jettison their cargoes, in which case we should get them, for they would fall short and therefore in our lines; but they all stuck to their course and went on, nor did they hesitate. A Stirling and a Dakota were seen that day, both on fire, circling round the zone. They were doomed and their pilots knew it, but they might still drop their supplies on the right spot. To do so immediately, however, might interfere with those more fortunate than themselves who were timed to arrive a moment or two before them. So they held off, awaiting their turn. It came, and they went in, blazing, to release the containers; before they fell “like two torches from the sky”, they had done all in their power to ensure success.’
‘Our Squadrons were badly mauled that day,’ writes a New Zealand Dakota captain. ‘As we sighted Arnhem some four engined Stirlings were just finishing their supply drop. All hell seemed to have been let loose. The sky was black with flak bursts over the army lads. As we approached, two Stirlings blew up with a terrific flash and the picture looked far from rosy. We were at 3,500 feet and had to get down to 1,200 feet before releasing the panniers at 110 m.p.h. There seemed to be hundreds of gun flashes from the ground. To complicate things, the three aircraft in front were dropping higher than I was so that panniers dangling from parachutes were filling the air all around, a grave menace if a wing should foul them. Somehow we jockeyed across. As soon as the word was passed that the supplies were gone, I turned the wick up to full power and climbed faster than a lift taking evasive action all the time till the thumps, twangs and bursting shells were far behind.’
‘Like everyone else, I suppose, I made a hasty check of engine instruments. They seemed O.K. and I turned to watch the following aircraft go through. The C.O. had turned and run back across the dropping zone to rid the aircraft of a few baskets not dropped on the first run. As he crossed the river, I could see a pannier trailing from behind his tail. I turned to go and inspect when it suddenly broke away and fell to the ground but no parachute appeared. There was a despatcher, R.A.S.C. private, clinging to it as it went. His harness had been caught up and he had been dragged from the aircraft without his parachute pack. These R.A.S.C. men did a grand job. Most of them had only had an hour or two in the air before being called upon for these supply operations.’
‘Our troubles were not yet over. A few minutes after leaving Arnhem dozens of Hun fighters appeared up to twenty at one time attacking a Dakota. Soon some Spitfires appeared and began to mix it but Dakota after Dakota was going down – my No. 2 in formation had not been able to keep station with me and was one of the first victims. When the air fighting started, I made myself scarce among fluffy cloud which half filled the sky at six thousand feet. The transports struggled to out manoeuvre the fighters. One survived six attacks without any return fire before he crash-landed in flames. It was so hot inside that the pilot opened the hatch above his head, stood up in the cockpit and landed it leaning out the top.’
Such were some of the hazards encountered by the aircrews in their efforts to aid the men on the ground. Yet, despite all their courage and resolution, the battle had already been lost. The Germans, recovering from their initial shock, had reacted quickly and the men of 1 Airborne Division, denied adequate supplies from the air and with Montgomery's columns unable to break through to their relief, were confined and besieged within a rapidly shrinking perimeter. The end came after nine days' bitter fighting when the remnants of the division straggled back across the river, leaving some 7500 of their comrades either killed or captured.
The airborne operation across the Rhine in March 1945 was in striking contrast. ‘It was more like an exercise,’ writes one New page 382 Zealand squadron leader whose Halifax towed a glider containing men of 6 Airborne Division. ‘For most of the time we were over our own territory then, during the short flight over the German lines we had terrific fighter cover; we experienced comparatively little flak.’ Altogether fifty-five New Zealanders, twenty-three of them captains, were among the crews of 440 aircraft which towed gliders across the Rhine. The flight from England was made under almost perfect conditions, but in the actual landing area crews found much smoke and dust – some of it had drifted across after the bombing of Wesel. Nevertheless, the landing of the gliders, the majority now flown by RAF pilots, was exceedingly accurate, some touching down within fifty yards of their target. Anti-aircraft fire accounted for ten of the gliders and damaged others, but within a matter of hours the division had captured all its objectives, and by the following morning a firm link had been established with the British Army on the ground.
One of the main reasons for the success was the fact that 6 Airborne Division had been carried to its destination in one lift, to achieve which Nos. 38 and 46 Groups had made a supreme effort employing every available aircraft and crew. On top of this was the arrangement whereby the airborne supplies were dropped not twenty-four hours after the landing but the same evening; finally, plans had been made for a rapid link-up with the army on the ground. The lessons of Arnhem had been well learnt.
These airborne operations, spectacular though they were, formed but one of the many tasks undertaken by the aircrews of No. 38 and 46 Groups during the campaign in Europe. From D Day onwards Dakotas of No. 46 Group operated intensively to carry supplies to the Continent and bring back casualties. Among the first Dakotas to land in Normandy were those piloted by Flight Lieutenant H. J. Barley and Warrant Officer Chesney1 of No. 233 Squadron; on the outward trip they carried advance personnel and freight for a wing of Second Tactical Air Force and each brought back fourteen wounded. ‘Some of the men were severely injured,’ writes Chesney, ‘and although we were flying low they required the aid of oxygen. On this and other similar flights we invariably did our best to make the wounded men comfortable.’
During the rapid advance across France and into Belgium when both armies and air forces outstripped their supplies, transport squadrons operated non-stop shuttle services from England carrying petrol, ammunition of all kinds, food, clothing, and other urgent supplies. One airfield in Belgium was taken over by a wing of Transport Command two days after its capture and the following day was in full operation. In one month 3438 aircraft landed from the United Kingdom, more than 7000 tons of freight were handled, 4280 passengers were received or despatched, and 7200 casualties evacuated to England, many of them brought to the airfield by air from front-line landing strips. A New Zealand flight commander whose squadron took a prominent part in these supply operations records that:
Between four and five hundred Dakotas a day were employed in flying supplies into the depots at Brussels. Their cargoes were chiefly aviation and motor petrol but most kinds of ordnance stores were carried including tons of winter clothing to aerodromes all round the European theatre.
Aero engines, tank engines, personnel were flown into the area in an endless stream. Thousands of B.L.A. men and women going on leave were flown back to aerodromes around London. This business became a dull routine except for the vagaries of the English and Continental weather, which at times taxed our skill to the utmost. All pilots were graded into First, Second and Third class categories. Captains in the first grade were expected to fly in any weather on their own initiative. In this way it was hoped that really urgent supplies would always be delivered. Radar aids in our aircraft made all the difference between success and failure.
Meanwhile, in addition to supplying the armed forces, the transport aircraft also carried medical equipment, food, clothing, and Red Cross supplies of all kinds to the liberated cities of France, Holland, and Belgium. In one day No. 46 Group alone carried 167 tons of goods to Paris.
As the Allied armies swept forward into Germany, No. 46 Group played a prominent part in keeping advanced armoured columns on the move by flying supplies of all kinds, particularly petrol and oil, to forward strips. On their return flight its aircraft brought back liberated prisoners of war. During April and May 1945, Stirlings and Dakotas lifted some 80,000 Allied repatriates from continental airfields and flew them back to England.
Passengers and supplies of a somewhat different kind were carried by the crews of No. 38 Group whose main task, apart from airborne operations, was to help the various agencies working behind the enemy lines. In this role they supplemented the work of Bomber Command, in which certain units had been flying ‘special duty’ missions since the early days of the war – notably Nos. 138 and 161 Squadrons which, by 1943, had become expert in dropping and picking up agents in various parts of Europe. With the advent of the invasion, operations in support of the various resistance movements were greatly expanded and from the main RAF base at Tempsford in Bedfordshire more than 28,000 containers, 10,000 packages, and 1000 agents were delivered to Western Europe between April 1943 and May 1945. The containers, each holding about 220 pounds, were carried in the bomb bays of Stirlings and Halifaxes, while packages were stowed in their fuselages. In this way supplies of all kinds were cast down to eager and resolute hands in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Poland, and Norway. Small arms of all kinds, with the appropriate ammunition, were prominent among these supplies, but hardly less important were explosives for the work of sabotage, wireless equipment, food, clothing, medical supplies and, grimmest of all, poison pills for those who, if captured, might not be able to endure the excruciating tortures which were so prominent a feature of interrogation by the Gestapo.
Among the New Zealanders who flew special duty missions, Wing Commander A. H. C. Boxer had a particularly long and distinguished career which included many flights to Poland and ‘pick-up’ operations in France. For the last year of the war Boxer was to command No. 161 Squadron, which specialised in carrying Allied agents and in bringing back Allied airmen who had evaded capture. Flight page 385 Lieutenants Moffat1 and Strathern2 achieved a fine record of successful sorties as captains with No. 138 Squadron; both survived several encounters with enemy fighters. Flying Officers Bell,3 Cox,4 and Kay5 were among the pilots who flew many missions with No. 38 Group. On one occasion Bell's aircraft was hit by flak while crossing the enemy coast. He flew on, but soon engine failure forced him to turn back. The night was moonless and very dark, the bomber soon became very difficult to control, and eventually Bell had to land on the sea. This he managed successfully, and although language difficulties increased the hazards of the incident – he was carrying a load of French paratroopers – all but two of the passengers were transferred to dinghies and subsequently rescued. Bell himself dived into the sea to save one man who could not swim.
The special duty aircraft was very much a lone wolf; it had no fighter escort and exploited low flying under most difficult conditions, contending with both flak and fighter defences. Moonlight nights were favoured for sorties, but it was exacting work requiring the most accurate navigation. Location of the actual landing or dropping zone was often the hardest part of a flight since reception committees naturally tended to select remote spots in forests or desolate valleys; in the absence of landmarks such as river, road or railway, these were extremely hard to find, since usually the only help received from the ground was the light from a few electric hand torches and this could easily be obscured by ground mist or low cloud. The torch- holders flashed an agreed recognition signal and arranged themselves in a pattern to indicate the dropping or landing zone.
If supplies were to be dropped the aircrew had to work hard to unload their cargo quickly in order to prevent the packages from being scattered. Landing to set down or pick up passengers was more precarious, since there was always the risk of arrangements going wrong. For example, a pilot landed one night at the usual recognition signal but immediately he touched down his plane was fired upon by Germans surrounding the ground. Behind the Maquis signaller stood a soldier pressing a revolver into his back. Realising the situation in a flash the pilot took off again, luckily with only a slight wound in the neck.
Of its results, one example is given by General Eisenhower in his despatch on the campaign in Europe. Describing the liberation of Brittany, he says: ‘The resistance forces in this area had been built up around a core of Special Air Service troops to a total strength of 30,000 men. As the Allied columns advanced these French forces ambushed the retreating enemy, attacked isolated groups and strongpoints and protected bridges from destruction. They also provided our troops with invaluable assistance by supplying information of the enemy's disposition and intention. Not least in importance they had, by their ceaseless harassing activities, surrounded the Germans with a terrible atmosphere of danger and hatred which ate into the confidence of the leaders and the courage of the soldiers.’