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Episodes & Studies Volume 2


page 25


NOW that Malta had been held for a second time in the face of the Luftwaffe blitz, the island could again adopt its essential role of attacking the Axis shipping lanes to North Africa. On 15 July 1942, Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd, successor to Air Vice-Marshal Maynard, handed over to Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park.23 Air Vice-Marshal Park's principal war experience had been in directing fighter operations, and he was to change drastically the functions of Malta's fighter force. But Malta's first duty was to sink merchant ships, and under Park's command this air offensive was launched and grew steadily until it surprised even the most hopeful observers.

The most significant tactical feature of the operations which now began, and which were a necessary prelude to the El Alamein land offensive, was the development of a long-range torpedo- bomber, for the Royal Navy had demonstrated that there was no more effective weapon for attacking merchant vessels than the torpedo. Beaufort aircraft, supplemented by light naval forces and particularly submarines, could be expected to close the shipping lanes by day, but the enemy convoys could still slip across under cover of darkness. The problem appeared insoluble, but the answer came from the ingenious airmen on the spot. The twin-engined Wellington bomber, now being out-moded in the United Kingdom, was still the mainstay of the Middle East night-bomber force. Trials were therefore begun over the Red Sea to modify this aircraft into a torpedo-bomber, and the Air Ministry was finally convinced that these aircraft could form a highly efficient striking force. The Wellington, slow, unweildy, and fabric-covered as it was, would be too vulnerable a target by day, but possessed the necessary long range for night operations. Throughout the early months of 1942, pilots, among whom were Squadron-Leader M. J. Earle24 and Flight-Sergeant A. G. Metcalf,25 flew tirelessly over the Red Sea formulating tactics, and a new and interesting series of operations ensued.

Radar-equipped Wellingtons, loaded with parachute flares, patrolled the shipping lanes for up to ten hours throughout the night. Sighting reports were sent to base, and a striking force of torpedo-Wellingtons was homed on to the target convoy by continual position signals and by direction-finding radio. The search-Wellingtons, popularly known as ‘Snoopingtons’, promptly dropped parachute flares in an L-shaped pattern around the convoy from 4000 feet, utilising any moon path on the sea as well, so that the whole convoy might be trapped in a rectangle of light and the dispositions of the escorting destroyers clearly picked out. Meanwhile the strike-Wellingtons, or ‘Torpingtons’, attacked at sea level, making their runs so that the enemy merchant vessels were silhouetted against the flares. The torpedoes had to be dropped at approximately seventy feet above sea level, and on dark nights pilots sometimes flew into the sea. Radio-altimeters and some curious forms of torpedo-sights were later refinements, but pilots generally relied on their own judgment.

The night offensive on shipping exceeded all expectations. In the first two squadrons, Nos. 38 and 221, there were twenty New Zealanders during this period; the latter squadron had been quickly switched from the very different climate of Iceland to reinforce the new offensive. The aircrews were encouraged by vivid posters displayed in the Operations Rooms, which pointed out that the sinking of two 6000-ton transports and one 3000-ton oil-tanker disposed of more page 26 than forty tanks, 130 guns, 5000 tons of ammunition, 1000 bowsers full of petrol, with innumerable spares, the sum of which, if once off-loaded and dispersed in the desert, could not be destroyed by fewer than 3000 bomber sorties. With glittering targets such as these, the coastal aircraft kept up an intensive attack. The cumulative effect of the shipping losses on the land battle was very great, for at El Alamein Rommel was struggling with the perennial Mediterranean problem of extended lines of communication. By the middle of 1942 the Axis front line had stabilised at Alamein and enemy shipping was using Tobruk.

The squadrons were accordingly based in Egypt and used Malta as an advanced base. Pilot- Officer J. S. Frame,26 of No. 221 Squadron, specialised in search work, and on 31 October when operating from Gianaclis he made a dusk reconnaissance off the coast between Derna and Tobruk. He located a convoy of three merchant vessels and escorts, and was responsible for keeping it under surveillance until later Wellingtons took over and the striking force succeeded in completely destroying it. The search aircraft in many ways had the more difficult task; enemy ground stations learned to interfere with the Wellington's radar, while enemy escort vessels soon knew from which direction and at what height the torpedo aircraft must attack, and shielded their merchant vessels accordingly.

On the night of 17 September a sighting report was received at 10 p.m. of three merchant vessels and twelve destroyers north-west of Tobruk. No. 38 Squadron sent a striking force of four aircraft, each carrying two 1000-lb. bombs, and six aircraft each with two torpedoes. At ten minutes to eleven Flight-Sergeant T. D. Rusbatch27 made his attack, releasing both torpedoes on the same run against a 4000-ton merchant vessel. He was subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire from that ship, and being busy with evasive action saw no results. Sergeant A. G. Metcalf was one of the last to attack; he selected a 3000-ton merchant vessel and saw two explosions. Again there was intense fire and the aircraft was punished severely. The wireless equipment became inoperative, the main fuse box being blown off. The navigator was wounded in the leg, and Flight-Sergeant J. D. C. Cumming,28 the wireless operator, received severe flesh wounds in both arms and a thigh. The Wellington, however, continued to fly, and when Metcalf had set course for base he dressed Cumming's wounds. The latter was able to make temporary repairs to the wireless, and having sent out an SOS signal, he assisted the wounded observer to navigate back to base. Once they had got over the airfield it was discovered that one wing was damaged and only one undercarriage wheel could be lowered, but a safe landing was made.

As the Afrika Korps retired westward from Alamein, the Wellington squadrons continued to enforce their blockade of the North African coast by moving completely to Malta, and they scored increased successes. Among the search pilots Squadron-Leader A. H. Harding was particularly prominent for his skilful illumination of shipping targets. Flight-Sergeant W. Hornung29 attacked an enemy merchant vessel of 4000 tons, escorted by a destroyer, which he found illuminated off the north coast of Sicily. Hornung dropped one torpedo at 1000 yards range and his second at 800 yards range, in spite of a barrage of light anti-aircraft fire from both ships during the attack and his break-away. At least one torpedo struck the merchant vessel, which immediately burst into flames and eventually split in two. Sergeant W. A. Fraser30 had an exceptional fortnight. On the night of 2 February 1943 two search aircraft picked up a 6000-ton tanker in a convoy off the south-east coast of Italy. Fraser captained a strike aircraft despatched to the rendezvous, but page 27 the illuminating aircraft had only one flare left for his attack. Because of the position of this flare, Fraser had to make a difficult head-on attack in order to silhouette the tanker and to avoid the two escorting destroyers. He released his first torpedo at a range of 700 yards and got away before either destroyer could fire a shot. The tanker caught fire and was beached, as it was then only one mile off shore. Five days later Fraser shared in seriously damaging a 6000-ton merchant vessel. On 15 February he attacked a second tanker of 5000 tons, escorted by two destroyers, in the face of intense light anti-aircraft fire which damaged the Wellington and wounded the rear gunner. Fraser's torpedo struck the tanker amidships, and the remaining five aircraft of the striking force watched it burst into flames.

In conjunction with the Wellington night attacks, the daylight strikes by Beaufort torpedo- bombers from Malta were proving equally successful and eventful. But losses were high, and the Beaufort aircraft soon acquired the same unenviable reputation as the Blenheims had enjoyed in the previous year. Pilot-Officer J. H. Low31 flew twenty-three sorties as wireless operator-air gunner from Malta during his tour of duty, a total of 125 operational hours. A flight of his squadron was despatched against a convoy of four merchant vessels and eleven destroyers, escorted by Italian fighters. Three Macchi fighters attacked his Beaufort during its final run-in to release the torpedo, but Low's fire-control orders from his vantage point in the mid-upper turret enabled the attacks to be beaten off, and the torpedo hit a merchant vessel.

Out of these gallant Beaufort attacks came a unique event in the air war in which two New Zealand wireless operator-gunners took full share. On 29 July 1942 Sergeants A. R. Brown32 and J. A. Wilkinson33 flew with their South African pilot and English navigator in an attack on one merchant vessel and two destroyers off Sapienza in Southern Greece. The pilot, Lieutenant E. T. Strever, fired his torpedoes at short range at the merchant vessel, since that was invariably the prime target, but his aircraft was badly hit in the starboard engine, which eventually failed, forcing him to land in the sea. Although the Beaufort sank within ninety seconds, the crew were able to climb into their dinghy and paddle towards the coast. Presently an Italian Cant Z506 float-plane alighted about 100 yards away. The South African lieutenant swam over to it, and was courteously received with brandy and cigarettes as he explained in pantomime what had happened. The rest of the crew were taken aboard, and the three-engined float-plane taxied laboriously to a nearby island. Here they were given the use of the officers' mess for the rest of the day and were treated to an excellent dinner and a lively party in the evening. In the morning photographs were taken and the Cant set course for Taranto. The crew consisted of first and second pilot, engineer, and wireless operator-observer, the escort being one Italian corporal carrying a revolver. Shortly before the flight began our men had discussed the possibility of capturing the aircraft. Sergeant Wilkinson was the first to see an opportunity. He was sitting facing the Italian observer, behind whom sat the escort with his revolver at his waist. Attracting the observer's attention, he hit him heavily on the jaw, jumped over him and seized the astonished escort's revolver. Passing this to Lieutenant Strever, Wilkinson moved toward the Italian pilot using the Corporal as a shield. Strever followed behind Wilkinson, brandishing the revolver at the pilot, who attempted to draw his own and to put the aircraft down on the water. Threatened again by the Lieutenant, he levelled out the aircraft and submitted to capture. Meanwhile the English observer and Sergeant Brown trussed up the remaining Italians, and the South African took over the controls.

page 28

But the crew was now faced with the difficulty of flying a strange three-engined aircraft, besides being without maps or charts and having little knowledge of their geographical position. The Italian second-pilot was put in the pilot's seat and a rough course set for Malta. At length they recognised the toe of Italy, and although there was no way of gauging the amount of petrol left, they determined to try again for Malta. Finally the island was sighted, but the worst moment of the whole sortie came when three Spitfires attacked as the Cant flew in at sea level. Brown spun the guns about as the recognised signal to show the fighters that he was not going to fire, and the navigator waved his white singlet out of the cockpit, but the Spitfires still attacked, and when one of the wings was hit by cannon and machine-gun fire, the Italian second-pilot was ordered to come down on the sea. As the aircraft touched down the engines stopped for lack of petrol. Subsequently the party was towed into Malta, where the Cant aircraft was put to good use on air-sea rescue duties. The South African lieutenant felt in honour bound to supervise personally the Italians' comfort as the least return for their hospitality. The captured crew cheerfully accepted the situation, although they had in fact been proceeding on leave to the mainland, and one even produced from his suitcase a bottle of wine. It was with mixed feelings that the Royal Air Force crew later heard a Spitfire pilot claim in the Mess to have shot down an enemy float- plane.

But this was merely light relief to the unceasing attack which Malta's torpedo-bombers maintained by night and day. The resultant failure of the Italian Merchant Navy to deliver essential war material and petrol to the Afrika Korps brought bitter reproaches from the German High Command. In the critical seven months after Rommel's arrival at El Alamein, 495,000 tons of enemy shipping was sunk, nearly two-thirds of it by air attack. This meant that the Eighth Army could move forward from Alamein confident in its superiority of supply, for Malta's blockade of the North African coastline was practically complete.