New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 9 — Beyond the Italian Battlefront
Beyond the Italian Battlefront
CLOSE support of the armies fighting in Italy was but one of the many tasks assigned to the Allied Mediterranean Air Forces. All those months when our troops were battling northwards to the valley of the Po, American and British heavy bombers were striking farther afield—across the Alps into southern Europe and over the sea against targets in the enemy-occupied Balkans; other squadrons flew extensive supply dropping operations to aid the various resistance groups, especially the formidable body of partisans operating in Yugoslavia under the leadership of Marshal Tito. The Coastal Air Forces also played an important part, while splendid work was done by photographic and air-sea rescue squadrons. In all these activities New Zealand airmen shared as pilots and crews of RAF aircraft.
The American and British heavy bombers were organised in what was known as the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force. The United States Fifteenth Air Force with its eighty-odd squadrons of Fortress and Liberator day bombers provided the main strength, but its efforts were effectively supplemented by RAF No. 205 Group with its ten Wellington, Liberator and Halifax squadrons operating largely by night. Railway communications on both sides of the Alps and in Bulgaria and Rumania, together with oil plants, aircraft factories and air bases in southern Europe, were the principal objectives attacked. And as, month by month, the assault continued with increasing intensity, German skill and ingenuity were taxed to the utmost. By the end of 1944 the widespread dislocation of rail traffic, the accumulating damage to factories and, above all, the dwindling production of oil in those areas within range of Italian bases showed that the Allied heavy bombers were well on the way to winning their battle.
Brewster Buffalo fighters at Singapore
No. 488 Fighter Squadron pilots at Singapore, December 1941
From left: Flt-Lts J. N. Mackenzie and J. R. Hutcheson, Sgts T. W. Honan and H. J. Meharry, P/Os J. C. Godsiff(kneeling), F. S. Johnstone and E. W. Cox, Sgts E. E. G. Kuhn and V. E. Meaclem (head only), P/Os G. P.White, H. S. Pettit and W. J. Greenhalgh, Sgts P. E. E. Killick, J. F. Burton, D.L. Clow and C. D. Charters, P/Os L. R. Farr and P. D. Gifford (kneeling)
SS Talthybius at a Singapore wharf escapes attack
No. 67 Squadron group at Mingaladon
Back, from left: Sgt C. V. Bargh, P/O C. McG. Simpson. In front: Sgts G. A. Williams, E. E. Pedersen, E. L. Sadler, F/Os P. M. Bingham-Wallace (RAF) and G. S. Sharp, Sgts K. A. Rutherford and J. Macpherson
Ground crew of a Spitfire squadron in Burma erect a workshop during a minor monsoon
Blenheims over Akyab
Indian troops in Burma prepare to board a troop-carrier
Hurri-bombers in Burma. Pilots are briefed before take-off
A direct hit on a Japanese base in the Andaman Islands
The bomb-shattered docks at Rangoon
A Beaufighter attack on a supply train near Kanbalu, Burma
Indian troops collect supplies dropped at Mandalay
The Kohima battlefield. Looking down on Treasury Hill
The RAF bombers opened their minelaying offensive early in April that same year, dropping the first forty mines in the river near Belgrade, and by the end of the following month a total of 530 mines had been laid. At first these ‘Gardening’ missions, as they were called, were flown only in moon periods because the bombers had to fly at no more than 200 feet, and heights of forty and fifty feet were often reported. Later on, however, the use of pathfinder aircraft and illumination by flares made it possible to operate over any part of the Danube during any period of the month. The minelaying continued throughout the summer and by October more than 1380 mines had been dropped by the Wellingtons and Liberators. In their support Beaufighters attacked river craft or suitable targets in the nearby ports, roads and railways; eight large oil barges were destroyed– ‘their cargoes mushrooming up in vivid orange and red flames’–and more than a hundred other vessels were damaged by these attacks.
There can be little doubt about the success of the RAF campaign. ‘The enemy has mined the Danube according to plan,’ says a German report written in July 1944. ‘Thirty-nine vessels have been sunk from the beginning of May to the middle of June and forty-two damaged by these weapons. The most effective means for minesweeping are the mine-detecting aircraft but unfortunately they are few in number owing to lack of fuel. It is therefore not possible to clear the Danube of mines with the means we have at hand and the position regarding shipping is badly affected in consequence.’ By August 1944 the volume of traffic on the river was reduced by more than half and the Germans forced to deploy along a considerable length of its course large quantities of anti-aircraft equipment, including balloons and guns, as well as trained crews to man them. The delaying of German supplies to the Eastern Front aided the Russian forces in their westward drive; at the same time an important contribution was made to the campaign against German transport throughout Europe now being waged by the Allied air forces from Britain.
1 One Rhine-type barge could, in fact, transport a load equivalent to that carried by one hundred 10-ton railway trucks.
Flight Sergeant Cornwell,1 Squadron, Warrant Officer J. R. Turvey, No. 70 Squadron, Warrant Officer Harkness2 with NO.142 Squadron and Pilot Officer Walker,3 No.150 Squadron, all achieved fine records of service as Wellington Pilots. Typlical of the good work done by other Wellington aircrew was that of Warrant Officer Morgan4 as navigator, Flight Sergeants Brocherie5 and Hanrahan6 as bomb-aimers, and Flight Sergeant Popplewell,7 wireless operator. Flight Lieutenant C. H.Masters continued as bombing leader with No.70 Squadron until he was lost in a raid on marshalling yards at Bucharest. Flying Liberators of No. 178 Squadron, Flying Officer McNaughton8 as pilot and Warrant Officer Brothers,9 wireless operator, made a series of highly successful sorties to lay mines in the Danube; they also took part in a number of bombing raids and it was on a mission to attack Feuersbruhn airfield in Austria that they were lost.
Many similar episodes of perseverance and fortitude are recorded. There was also the quiet efficiency of men like Pilot Officer Tong,1 who captained a Wellington of No. 150 Squadron. On one occasion he was sent to make a low-level attack against the Pitesti railway bridge situated at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in Rumania and an important link in communications between Brasov and Bucharest. This entailed low flying up narrow mountain defiles where even a slight error of judgment would bring immediate disaster, and then bombing with no other illumination than that provided by the moon. After a difficult flight Tong reached and pinpointed the target. Determined to make absolutely certain that he was over the right bridge, he made four dummy runs at low level before releasing his 4000 Ib. bomb, fused for eleven seconds' delay, from about 150 feet. It was seen to fall near one of the stone piers in the middle of the river and when it exploded the centre of the bridge was ‘enveloped in smoke and flame’. Subsequent reconnaissance showed that structural damage to the bridge was extensive and that it was closed to traffic.
An important innovation for the night-bomber force was the some what belated introduction of a pathfinder squadron modelled on those which had proved so successful with Royal Air Force Bomber Com mand. The unit selected was No. 614 Squadron, now equipped with Halifaxes and possessing a nucleus of men trained in the pathfinder technique. Commencing operations in mid-April 1944, its crews soon became skilled in finding and marking the various targets in south east Europe. The bomber crews welcomed this new development, and as they learned to trust the illumination provided by the pathfinders there was a remarkable increase in the accuracy and concentration of attack.
In their operations over heavily defended targets, aircrew of No. 614 Squadron were operating with four-engined bombers on a type of mission for which RAF Bomber Command had learned to prefer the fast and less vulnerable Mosquito. Consequently the pathfinders had heavy casualties. Flight Sergeant MacLeod2 and Flying Officer Fels,3 navigators, Flight Sergeant Foster,4 bomb-aimer, and Flying Officer Ellison,5 wireless operator, were among those who failed to return from operations during the pioneering stages.
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Air operations in support of the Yugoslav Partisan Army were begun as soon as the Allies were firmly established in Italy. Our long-range fighters and bombers were also required to do everything possible to hinder the Germans building up their air force in Yugoslavia, to disturb the enemy's control of the Dalmatian Islands, to keep open the sea routes for supplying the partisans and, indirectly, to prevent reinforcement of the Italian front from the Balkans.
The growing importance of air operations in the Balkans and the need for a co-ordinating authority resulted in the formation of a Balkan Air Force on 7 June 1944. It controlled a miscellaneous collection of fighters, light bombers and transport aircraft manned by men of many nationalities. And to render their sorties the more effective the closest contact was maintained with the partisans, and special parties, equipped with wireless, slipped into German-occupied islands to report on enemy movements. In its first month of operations, the Balkan Air Force mounted almost 2400 sorties. The main successes were scored by Spitfires and Mustangs against rail traffic on the Zagreb-Belgrade-Skoplje route; the coastal supply line through Brod- Sarajevo-Mostar was also attacked with good results. Although the weather was often bad, no fewer than 260 railway engines were claimed destroyed or damaged, many of which were hauling troop trains. Baltimores also did good work in raids against such objectives as steel-works, supply bases and rail repair-shops. Beaufighters, carrying rocket projectiles over Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, damaged at least fourteen locomotives and sixty waggons and coaches in five days.page 220
By early September there was a dramatic change in the situation in the Balkans. Rumania and Bulgaria had changed sides and were now at war with Germany, while Russian forces stood on the Yugoslavia- Rumania frontier. The Germans were forced to safeguard rail communications in Serbia and for this purpose withdraw large numbers of troops at the most critical stage of the battle of Montenegro, which brought a welcome relief to the well-nigh exhausted partisan forces. Before long the growing insecurity of their control in Yugoslavia, and the threat to their garrisons in Greece and the Aegean, caused the Germans to begin a full-scale withdrawal. This was hastened by the Allied air assault on their road, rail, sea and air communications. Over 100 locomotives, 320 waggons and 770 motor vehicles were destroyed or damaged during September, while 25 ships were sunk and a further 44 crippled. An outstanding success was the sinking of the 51,000-ton Italian liner Rex at Capodistria by Beaufighters of Coastal and Balkan air forces.
By the middle of October 1944 British troops were established in Athens and moving northwards, while Russian troops and Yugoslav partisans had linked up and Belgrade was liberated. German divisions retreating from Corfu, north-west Greece, and the Aegean were in a serious plight. All rail communications south of Belgrade were cut and the only means of retreating were over the roads across Bosnia, under fire from partisan bands, or by the limited alternative of air transport. Air strikes against their communications increased the difficulties under which the enemy laboured, and the assault continued with even greater intensity during the last two months of the year, when a total of 9200 sorties was flown.
As German resistance crumbled Allied airmen continued to support the partisans in their relentless pressure on the lines of retreat. In March 1945, the Yugoslav Fourth Army offensive in Croatia was strongly supported by intensive bombing by Marauders and Baltimores, while the Strategic and Tactical Air Forces also intervened. During April single-engined fighters were concentrated at Zara to provide even closer support. Thus powerfully helped in the air, the Yugoslavs broke through north Istria to link up with advanced troops of the Eighth Army at Monfalcone on 1 May. Five days later German troops remaining north-west of Fiume surrendered; and so ended a long and arduous campaign which, fought over wide areas, was of extraordinary complexity.
The activities of New Zealand airmen during the campaign were many and varied. Among Spitfire pilots who flew some of the first sorties across the Adriatic were Squadron Leader E. L. Joyce, commanding No. 73 Squadron, and Flying Officer A. F. Lissette of No. 126 Squadron. One day in November 1943, Lissette led four aircraft to attack motor transport along the Albanian coast. As he went down to strafe a convoy his Spitfire was hit; oil and glycol streamed from the engine, which at once began to overheat. Lissette headed for the coast covered by his companions but, losing height rapidly, he was forced to crash-land at the side of some hills, inland from Durazzo. As his Spitfire swept along the ground it struck a rough patch and turned several somersaults. Lissette escaped serious injury but was dazed and badly shaken. He just had time to crawl to the shelter of some nearby trees before German soldiers reached his wrecked Spitfire. Then an Albanian peasant suddenly appeared from nowhere and led him along goat tracks until they came in sight of the coast, where he indicated by signs that guards were posted along the main routes. After taking cover until dark Lissette went on, but when daylight came he was only halfway across the coastal plain to the sea. Avoiding several groups of Germans he kept moving, for he knew that Spitfires page 221 on weather reconnaissance crossed the coast each morning and he hoped to attract their attention so that a Walrus amphibian could be sent to pick him up. But his luck was out. He emerged from a clump of scrub right alongside a party of soldiers preparing a gun position and was taken prisoner.
As the air effort over the Balkans increased New Zealand fighter pilots were particularly prominent. Wing Commander R. Webb, as commander of No. 1435 Squadron and with No. 323 Wing, frequently led Spitfires to attack enemy transport in the Balkans and shipping off the Dalmatian coast. On one occasion when four Messerschmitt 109s were shot down within five minutes, Webb and one of his flight commanders, Flight Lieutenant W. E. Schrader, got one each and shared in the destruction of the others. Schrader also did good work in leading his flight against enemy shipping. In one dawn reconnaissance off Corfu an E-boat was set on fire; in another attack a similar vessel exploded amidships. In the middle of May 1944, Webb led his wing on a typical bombing and strafing attack in the Vinjerac area. He had just set a petrol bowser on fire when his Spitfire was hit and two explosive bullets burst in the cockpit. Webb was knocked unconscious and badly wounded in one eye, but, recovering quickly, he asked another pilot to lead him the 200 miles back to base at Foggia where, despite his injury, he landed his aircraft safely. Flight Lieutenant N. D. Harrison, after distinguished service with Webb's squadron, joined No. 73 Squadron as flight commander and continued to do good work in bombing missions across the Adriatic. Other pilots prominent with this squadron were Pilot Officer Horn,1 Warrant Officer Karatau2 and Flight Sergeant Buckley.3
Flight Lieutenant Jacobsen4 and Flying Officer Lamb5 of No. 249 Spitfire Squadron also took part in bombing attacks against shipping and motor transport. Jacobsen, who had joined his unit as a flight sergeant, rose to command a flight in less than a year. Flight Lieutenant G. R. Gould, No. 241 Squadron, flew Spitfires on weather and shipping reconnaissance along the east Adriatic coast. On one such flight he sighted three E-boats that were later attacked by Kittyhawks; he also found and pinpointed several small cargo vessels which were eventually destroyed by fighter-bombers.
Flight Lieutenant McKenzie1 and Flying Officer Tye2 flew with No. 6 Squadron against such targets as German headquarters, motor transport parks and schooners plying amid the Dalmatian Islands- No. 6 Squadron, which had been the original ‘tank-buster’ squadron in the desert, now carried on its tradition, but instead of being armed with one cannon under each wing the Hurricanes carried eight rocket projectiles.
With the formation of Balkan Air Force a small but determined group of New Zealanders continued operations. Pilot Officer Harrison3 of No. 253 Spitfire Squadron frequently led sections on offensive sweeps and armed reconnaissance over the Dalmatians, Bosnia and western Serbia. In a July sweep he faced intense crossfire from anti-aircraft guns to attack a Ju52 on Banjaluka airfield; although his Spitfire was badly damaged, he pressed home his attack until the enemy machine was well on fire and flames were spreading to a nearby hangar. A few months later while leading a flight over Greece he sighted a large transport park containing some 200 vehicles. He led his Spitfires in repeated strafing runs until relieved by another section of the squadron. By the time the aircraft left the ill-fated park ‘smoke from the blazing mass rose to 8,000 feet while equally spectacular were the intermittent explosions from the few remaining bowsers and ammunition cars’.
Other pilots with good records in Balkan Air Force were Pilot Officer A. E. W. Day, also of No. 253 Squadron, Flying Officer Bonifant4 and Pilot Officer Chappie5 of No. 1435 Squadron, and Flying Officer F. M. Clarke6 of No.6 Squadron. Clarke took part in a series of successful attacks on German coastal shipping in which a number of schooners, ferries and barges were destroyed or damaged by rocket projectiles.
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To maintain their troops the Germans used a fleet of ships, mainly small craft seldom exceeding 3000 or 4000 tons, while plying to and from Greece or between the numerous islands there were large numbers of caiques, schooners, trawlers and barges. Early air operations against these supply ships were flown by Beaufighters, Baltimores, Marauders and Wellingtons of No. 201 Naval Co-operation Group from bases in Egypt. As a result of their activities during the first nine months of 1943, no fewer than 163 ships with an estimated tonnage of some 53,500 tons were sunk or damaged. In addition the Luftwaffe was forced to expend considerable effort in an attempt to protect convoys, while the island garrisons had to be reinforced by troops which otherwise could have been employed in the main theatres of war.
Spectacular success against shipping carrying supplies to the Dodecanese Islands was scored by Beaufighters of No. 227 Squadron commanded by Wing Commander R. M. Mackenzie. In one five-month period under his leadership, squadron crews sank or probably sank 49 merchant ships and caiques totalling 9300 tons and damaged 63 vessels of more than 17,400 tons. Flying Officer W. Y. McGregor and Flight Sergeant Shattky1 were two New Zealand Beaufighter pilots particularly successful in offensive sweeps over the Aegean. On one occasion McGregor attacked a 2000-ton ship with cannon, setting drums of petrol on fire, which finally resulted in the vessel sinking, while Shattky scored a direct hit on a caique and blew the frail craft to pieces.
There were also bomber captains like Flight Sergeant D. R. Browne, of No. 462 Squadron, who took part in raids against targets in Crete, Greece and the Dodecanese. Browne and his crew frequently acted as ‘pathfinders’ and on several occasions their Halifax aircraft was the only illuminator for a successful sortie.
2 Group Captain W. H. Stratton, DFC and bar; born Hastings, 22 Jul 1916; sheep farmer; joined RAF 12 Jul 1937: transferred RNZAF 1 Jan 1944; commanded No. 134 Sqdn, Middle East, Burma and India, 1943–44; OC Flying Wing, Wigram, 1945; served with BCOF, Japan, 1947–48.
The air assault against enemy supply routes in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean was maintained throughout 1944. Supply ports, bases, airfields, radar stations and fuel dumps were also bombed, mines were strewn in harbours, channels and anchorages, while intruder raids by night and offensive sweeps by day took their toll of Ju52 transports and other aircraft. By the beginning of 1945 there were still some 18,000 Germans and 4500 Italian Fascists on the islands of Crete, Rhodes, Leros, Kos and Me1os. Their lot was not a happy one. Discontent was growing in the various garrisons and desertions were becoming common. Towards the end the Axis troops, cut off as thev were by the Allied recapture of Greece, were wont to describe themselves as ‘independent and self-supporting prisoners of war’. And that is exactly what they had become, thanks to the efforts of the Allied air and naval forces. The Aegean story finally ended with the surrender of the enemy commanders in May 1945, almost four years after it had begun with the German airborne invasion of Crete.
New Zealanders continued to operate over the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean during this last year. There was a relatively large representation with No. 38 Squadron, the only Wellington unit left in the eastern Mediterranean. These men flew day and night reconnaissances, made torpedo strikes against shipping, bombed ports and airfields and laid mines in enemy waters. These varied missions were not carried out without a steady sequence of casualties. Squadron Leader Green3 and Flight Sergeant Taylor,4 both pilots, were among those lost in anti-shipping operations; Pilot Officer Armstrong,5 navi gator, was fortunate to escape with severe injuries when his Wellington crashed into the top of an escarpment near Tocra on return from a sortie to the Aegean.
Squadron Leader Hooker2 as flight commander and Flying Officer Keys,3 radio operator, were prominent on night operations with Beaufighters of No. 46 Squadron. This unit was committed to night defence of Egypt but crews varied what was now a monotonous routine by intruder operations over enemy-held islands. Hooker flew many effective sorties and commanded the unit detachment at Tocra which covered the Aegean. On one night in February while patrolling airfields at Rhodes, the Beaufighter in which Keys was flying shot down two Ju52 transports and damaged a third over Calato.
Warrant Officer McMurray,4 who flew with an Australian Baltimore squadron, was an outstanding reconnaissance pilot. Towards the end of February 1944, he sighted the enemy's largest available dry-supply ship in the Aegean—the 5000-ton Livenza. As a result of his report twenty-four British Beaufighters and four American Mitchells caught up with the Livenza; she was set on fire and left sinking.
The largest and most successful effort was that directed to the Balkans, especially Yugoslavia, to which the first supply dropping flights had been made as early as May 1942. By the end of the war Allied aircraft had flown some 11,600 sorties to Yugoslavia to drop, or land at specially built airstrips, over 16,400 tons of supplies. In ‘pick-up’ operations, some 2500 persons were flown into that country and over 19,000, mostly wounded, brought out.
At the beginning of June 1944 Marshal Tito himself was brought to Bari by an RAF Dakota, while his staff and 118 wounded were picked up by American Dakotas. At a subsequent meeting Tito requested the evacuation of his wounded, of whom the majority through lack of medical supplies and a shortage of doctors were in a desperate plight. This meant aircraft landing at night on hastily prepared landing grounds in mountainous country with German troops frequently in the vicinity. However, the task was soon accomplished. In all, Allied transports flew out about 11,000 casualties, some of them women, to RAF hospitals in Italy. A similar errand of mercy followed in late August, when partisans wounded in the battle of Montenegro were evacuated from Brezna. The airstrip was prepared by those partisans who had the strength to lend a hand; this after a four-days' march from another strip which came under shellfire before they could be picked up. Altogether on this occasion American, Russian and British crews flew out 1078 persons—1059 partisans, 19 Allied aircrew and members of the Allied commission.
During the abortive rising in Warsaw, Allied aircrews based in Italy made a gallant, but only partially successful, attempt to answer urgent calls for arms and ammunition. The hazards were great. Aircraft flew a round trip of 1750 miles, often in bad weather and largely over enemy territory heavily defended by fighters, anti-aircraft guns and searchlight belts. To make certain of identification of ground signals and to release containers accurately, crews went in at low speed and little more than roof-top height, so that their aircraft were extremely vulnerable. Indeed, the Polish, British and South African units engaged paid a heavy price in their efforts to assist the patriots in their bid to expel the German invaders. Operations were flown on twenty-two nights during August and September 1944, and of the 181 Halifaxes and Liberators despatched 31 failed to return.
New Zealand representation was particularly strong with No. 148 Squadron, which undertook a large proportion of supply dropping missions. Formerly a bomber squadron, No. 148 had become a special duty unit in March 1943, equipped with Halifaxes and Liberators. On page 227 operations Flight Lieutenant Crawford1 did valuable work as signals leader until late in 1943, when the lone Liberator in which he flew on a supply dropping sortie to Yugoslavia failed to return. Flight Lieutenant Elliott,2 who had already completed a tour of operations as a rear-gunner with Bomber Command, was one of the pioneers of air despatch. Elliott did a special course as a parachutist to gain the knowledge essential to drop supplies accurately and despatch troops or individual agents safely. He then completed his second tour as the squadron's despatch leader and won distinction for his work. Warrant Officer Docherty3 as air gunner and Flying Officer Domigan4 as bomb-aimer also had fine records on special duty operations. On one occasion Domigan assisted in the despatch of parachutes and containers in what proved one of the most accurate drops in northern Italy. Subsequently No. 148 received a message reading: ‘Absolute magnificent launch. Could not have been better if you had been at Hendon air display. All chutes and packages on “T”. Thank you.’5 The success of special duty operations depended largely on the efficiency of squadron navigators. Flight Sergeant Ellison6 navigated Halifaxes on a number of sorties before he and his crew were lost while endeavouring to aid the patriots in Warsaw.
Dakota captains of No. 267 Squadron who flew on ‘pick-up’ missions to Yugoslavia included Flight Lieutenant J. H. Norman, Flying Officer G. D. Askew and Warrant Officer Rathbone,7 all with long experience of air transport. Flight Lieutenant S. G. Culliford also continued as a senior captain with No. 267 and, as described elsewhere in this history, he flew a Dakota to Poland in July 1944 to pick up one of the leaders of the Polish underground movement, who brought out with him vital data regarding the German V-2 rocket. A veteran wireless operator was Flight Lieutenant G. W. Warden, who took part in a number of hazardous supply drops to the Balkans; in one notable daylight mission to the heart of Yugoslavia towards the end of March 1944, he was responsible for the signals organisation of the formation employed and ‘the major success achieved was in no small way due to his energy and expert performance of his duties.’
5 The usual form of ground signal was a large ‘T’ borrowed from normal airfield ground signals, which indicated direction of wind as well as the centre of the dropping zone.
Flight Lieutenant J. P. Ford, another very experienced transport pilot, continued with No. 216 Dakota Squadron, with which he had flown almost continuously since May 1942. Ford made many notable transport nights, including trips to Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece and southern France; he also flew supply dropping and ‘pick-up’ operations to Yugoslavia. During the unhappy political war in Greece, he captained one of a number of aircraft which maintained a shuttle service between Bari and Kalamaki to fly in urgent supplies and evacuate casualties.
Before the invasion of southern France, Halifaxes of No. 624 Squadron operating from Blida, near Algiers, rendered excellent Service in dropping agents and stores to the Maquis. After running the gauntlet of the enemy defences, crews often found it far from easy to identify the flickering lamps and fires which marked the dropping zones. Nor was it by any means certain that the reception parties would be waiting at the pre-arranged spot, for frequently the activities of German troops made it inadvisable for them to put in an appearance. Nevertheless the proportion of successful sorties was remarkably high. Flight Lieutenants Hynd1 and Garnett,2 who had earlier flown Halifax bombers in raids against targets in Germany, were captains whose consistency won them distinction, while a high standard of navigation was attained by Flying Officer Neale3 and Pilot Officer Millar.4
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We now turn to the Coastal Air Forces with which some two hundred New Zealanders served during the last eighteen months of the war. Their main duties were the defence of our own convoys, ports and bases, and the attack of enemy shipping, and the aircraft they flew included Beaufighters, Wellingtons and Marauders. Patrols were only occasionally enlivened by brief flashes of combat, but they were maintained with the same unflagging 2eal shown by their comrades in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Daylight strikes against enemy ships with torpedo and later with rocket projectiles were among the highlights for crews like Flight Sergeant Furness3 and Flying Officer Forbes4 of No. 272 Squadron. Flight Lieutenants C. M. Gibbs, Flight Lieutenant Gellatly,5 Flying Officer Cornish6 and Pilot Officer Holland7 were among the pilots who completed many sorties with No. 14 Marauder Squadron. Gibbs had joined the squadron after serving for almost eighteen months in transport and supply dropping missions. Gellatly had seen service with light-bomber units in the United Kingdom, including the New Zealand Ventura squadron, and had also captained Bisleys and Bostons during the North African campaign.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1944 the assault by German U-boats and aircraft on Allied shipping in the Mediterranean grew weaker and weaker. For example, in the three months May to July, only one destroyer and two merchant ships were sunk—a striking contrast to the heavy losses suffered by convoys before the victory in North Africa. During the same period four enemy submarines were sunk and fourteen Ju88s shot down.
With the invasion of southern France and the early capture of Toulon and Marseilles, German U-boats in the Mediterranean were left without an adequate base from which to continue operations. Three U-boats were scuttled in Toulon in August and a further three were scuttled off the Turkish coast on 10 September; nine days later the last U-boat to be sunk in the Mediterranean fell victim to a naval force south of Greece. Thereafter Allied ships in the Mediterranean were completely free of the submarine menace which had plagued them for so long.
It is also interesting to record that a small group of New Zealanders —some twenty aircrew and nine radar mechanics—made their contribution to the safety of Allied shipping in the approaches to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the western area of the Indian Ocean. They served with the Catalina, Wellington, Sunderland and Bisley squadrons that flew from bases in East Africa and at Aden. The patrols, as usual, were long and monotonous and there were some months when aircraft from Aden alone flew more than two thousand hours without incident. Yet crews had the satisfaction of knowing that two million tons of shipping passed safely through their area.
4 Flight Lieutenant D. G. Cull; born Fairfax, 15 Oct 1918; bushman; joined RNZAF Jan 1941.
Air-Sea Rescue squadrons of the Coastal Air Forces did splendid work in picking up many hundreds of Allied airmen forced to ‘ditch’ or bale out while over the Mediterranean. New Zealanders had been among the pioneers of this work in the Middle East and Squadron Leader S. W. R. Hughes had commanded the Air-Sea Rescue Flight based in Egypt. Now, during the last two years of hostilities, almost forty New Zealand airmen flew with the RAF Walrus, Warwick and Wellington aircraft which played a leading part in the work of search and rescue.
The Walrus, which carried a crew of three—pilot, navigator and wireless operator—proved of the utmost value in that it could usually alight safely on the relatively calm Mediterranean. Flight Sergeant Divers1 of No. 283 Squadron and Flight Sergeant Berry2 of No. 284 Squadron were conspicuous for their operations with these unarmed aircraft.
In a period of six weeks Flight Sergeant Berry was concerned in the rescue of eight aircrew, all from positions dangerously close to the enemy coast. On one mission from Sicily his Walrus picked up two fighter pilots near Cape Spartivento in the toe of Italy—one of them was only a few hundred yards from the shore and the aircraft was being fired on while it landed and took off again. On another occasion Berry's aircraft was sent to search for the leader of a Spitfire wing. As the Walrus alighted beside the pilot's dinghy, its Spitfire escort was attacked by two Messerschmitt 109s and one was shot down. The Walrus was also attacked as it sat on the water and was damaged in the hull below the waterline. Berry covered two holes near the tail with his hands, and with the inrush of water thus reduced the Walrus was able to take off and fly back to its base in Sicily. One day later in the campaign Berry and his crew made two sorties lasting nearly seven hours from Pomigliano, near Naples, and rescued seven American airmen.
Photographic reconnaissance was yet another specialised air activity in which New Zealanders were concerned. Its importance may be judged from the fact that in the twelve months to October 1944 almost eight thousand effective sorties were flown by British and American photographic aircraft. A detailed description of operations is not possible here but the following glimpses will give some impression of the work and its influence on both air and ground operations.
In January 1944 reconnaissance over Ploesti revealed that the Germans had built a complete decoy town incorporating the essential features of Ploesti itself, including accurate and well-positioned dummies of all the main oil refineries. In February the photographic squadrons were called upon to provide material for the preparation of maps showing the location of all enemy airfields within a 700-mile radius of Foggia. Another special task came during the advance on Rome. On this occasion Tactical Air Forces required annotated prints of all important bridges in central Italy for use in the interdiction programme against enemy road and rail communications leading to the battle area. Mid-1944 also brought additional demands for reports on targets in Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria and Greece; special cover of Danube river traffic in connection with the prolific minelaying by the RAF bomber squadrons was another feature of this time. Survey work, reports on harbours, airfields and enemy defences in preparation for the invasion of southern France and nights to Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland also absorbed many sorties. Areas in northern Italy were not neglected and there was no lack of support for army requirements during the campaign.
Other New Zealand veterans of photographic reconnaissance were Flight Lieutenants Olson1 and Walker2 of No. 680 Squadron and Flight Lieutenant Burnet3 of No. 683 Squadron. Olson and Walker gained distinction for their work over the Aegean Sea and the Dodeca nese archipelago. During their tours both men completed some 300 operational hours, repeatedly flying deep in enemy territory and returning with photographs of the utmost value. Burnet flew Spitfires with No. 683 Squadron based at Luqa, Malta. Early in October 1943, he was sent to Greek airfields bordering the Aegean Sea, and after completing his task landed at Brindisi to refuel; he then set off for Malta, but a violent thunderstorm blanketed the island in dense cloud, and although Burnet was in contact to within a few miles he failed to arrive at base.
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To conclude this chapter it is appropriate to record the names of some of the many New Zealand airmen who did good work in non-operational roles during the last two years of the war. Several held important commands or appointments, and a number of men who had seen their share of action in the Mediterranean area gave the benefit of their experience to the training organisation; others filled a variety of posts as engineer, navigation, signals and medical officers or airfield controllers. Good work was also done by the staff of the RNZAF Liaison Office in Cairo, which dealt with matters of promotion, posting, repatriation, and assisted with personal problems.
Air Commodore McKee,1 who had long been associated with heavy bombers based in the United Kingdom, commanded No. 205 Group in the final days of hostilities and the immediate post-war period. Group Captain Jarman,2 another experienced leader of bombers, was Senior Air Staff Officer with this group for a nine-month period beginning in mid-1944. Group Captain L. H. Anderson occupied important posts in the Middle East, including the command of wings and then of RAF Station, Berka, before leaving for South Africa to control a large training school. He had previously done good work at training schools in the Union during 1941 and 1942.
Group Captain J. J. McKay, following his successful command of Liberators, spent a period as Senior Air Staff Officer at Headquarters, Levant. In May 1944 he was sent to Italy, where he took over as commander of No. 240 Liberator Wing—a post he was to hold for the next eighteen months. Group Captain E. W. Whitley, of ‘Whitforce’ fame, commanded groups in the Middle East, while Wing Commander J. E. S. Morton was Chief Training Instructor at No. 203 Group and Wing Commander S. W. R. Hughes was on the training staff at Royal Air Force Headquarters.
1 Air Vice-Marshal Sir A. McKee, KCB, CBE, DSO, DFC, AFC; RAF; born Oxford, Canterbury, 10 Jan 1902; joined RAF 1926; permanent commission 1936; commanded No. 9 Sqdn 1940; Wing Commander Training, No. 3 Bomber Group, 1941; commanded RAF Station, Marham, 1941–42; RAF Station, Downham Market, 1942–43; Base Commander, Mildenhall, 1943–45; AOC No. 205 Group, Italy, 1945; SASO, HQ Mediterranean and Middle East, 1946–47; Commandant RAF Flying College, Manby, 1949–51; AOC No. 21 Group, Flying Training Command, 1951–53.
2 Group Captain L. E. Jarman, DFC; RAF; born Christchurch, 17 Aug 1907; joined RAF 1929; permanent commission 1934; CFI, No. 23 OTU, 1941; commanded RAF Station, Litchfield, 1941–42; SASO, No. 93 Group, 1942–43; commanded RAF Station, Kirmington, 1943; RAF Station, Wyton, 1943–44; SASO, No. 205 Group, Italy. 1944–45.