New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 2 — Early Operations over Many Fronts
Early Operations over Many Fronts
NO clash of opposing armies, no sudden invasion with hard-fought border battles followed the declaration of war in the Middle East. For the Italians, not altogether prepared for total war, were in no hurry to begin their much-heralded campaign; over a month passed in which their armies did little more than concentrate with extreme deliberation on the borders of Egypt, the Sudan and British Somaliland. Meanwhile British patrols fenced adroitly along the various frontiers.
But if events on the ground moved slowly, there was lively activity in the air from the outset—at least on the part of one participant. Within a few hours of Mussolini's bombastic broadcast, Blenheims from Egypt were over the Italian airfield at El Adem where their bombs, bursting among hangars and closely parked aircraft, caused consternation among its occupants, who seem to have overlooked even the most elementary precautions against unfriendly visitors. The RAF followed up with further raids on the enemy's forward airfields in Cyrenaica and on oil tanks and shipping at Tobruk. Simultaneously Wellesleys from the Sudan struck at the Italian aerodromes of Asmara, Gura and Massawa while Blenheims from Aden bombed Assab and Diredawa, causing considerable damage to aircraft, hangars and sup plies. At Massawa about 800 tons of petrol went up in flames.
This was the start of a spirited and, for those days, quite remarkable offensive against enemy airfields, bases and ports, against troop concentrations in camps and convoys and any supply dumps within reach. For Longmore had decided that, in the circumstances, bold attack was the sole alternative to extinction and surprise the best method of attack. Yet it was only by appearing in unexpected strength and in unexpected places that he could hope to produce an illusion of air superiority since his forces were pitifully small; it was also doubtful whether he would receive either replacements or reinforcements for some time to come. Accordingly the RAF's watchword became ‘We'll fox them’, as lumbering Bombay transports were turned into long-range bombers and outdated Lysanders were sent on impudent and dangerous spotting missions for the Army. A single Hurricane fighter which arrived in page 14 August was made to operate from several landing grounds in the desert on the same day, achieving an astonishing effect on the Italians, who had nothing to match its performance. This versatile machine was soon nicknamed ‘Collie's Battleship’, after Air Commodore R. Collishaw,1 who was in charge of air operations over the Western Desert.
Collishaw, a cheerful Canadian who had emerged from the First World War with the second highest total of kills credited to any British fighter pilot, soon brought the business of outwitting the Italians to a fine art. With great skill he introduced a comprehensive system of deception, using dummy aircraft and operating small groups of fighters from widely spaced bases. At the same time, by frequent patrols and by continual attacks on their troops, bases and airfields, he kept the Italians in such a state of apprehension that they were led to fritter away their greater air strength upon innumerable defensive patrols. Similar tactics and adventurous operations on the other fronts produced the same reaction. Indeed, continual standing patrols soon became the normal routine of an Italian fighter pilot's day as air umbrellas were unfurled over bases, ports, lines of communication and over ground units unwilling to move without such protection.
This feeble reply to the initial British attacks undoubtedly laid the foundations of the eventual breakdown of the Italian fighter force. For as its defensive patrols increased, so engine hours mounted up and the serviceability rate fell. Then, the more aircraft to be serviced the less able was their maintenance organisation to deal with what was already on hand and the longer it took to get aircraft back to the front–line squadrons. The more aircraft being treated for one fault or another the more unwieldy the system became, so that later when advance and retreat swayed the army back and forth across the desert the Regia Aeronautica was unable to keep in step. Then still more aircraft were lost either by capture or by damage from RAF raids.
1 Air Vice-Marshal R. Collishaw, CB, DSO and bar, OBE, DSC, DFC, Croix de Guerre (Fr), Order of St. Anne (Rus), Order of St. Stanislaus (Rus), Order of St. Vladimir (Rus); RAF (retd); born Nanaimo, British Columbia, 22 Nov 1893; entered RNAS 1915; RAF 1918; commanded RAF Station, Heliopolis, 1936-38; AOC Egypt Group, 1939–41; AOC No. 204 Group, Middle East, 1941; AOC No. 14 Group, 1942–43.
This was undoubtedly the main achievement of Longmore's small force in the early months but it could also record more tangible results. In operations from Egypt, for example, the old Italian cruiser San Giorgio was hit and crippled as she lay in Tobruk harbour; early in August a large ammunition dump near Bardia was bombed and blown up in a spectacular explosion; that same month Gladiators supporting a naval bombardment of Bardia shot down eight Italian bombers without loss to themselves. The enemy's main supply port of Benghazi was also raided on several occasions.
Elsewhere the RAF also continued to hold the initiative. A slender force operating from Aden and Perim, supplemented by patrols from Port Sudan, succeeded in keeping open the vital Red Sea route; between June and December 1940, when fifty–four convoys were escorted by air, only on two occasions were ships damaged, which spoke well for the unceasing vigilance of the Blenheim crews, especially as the temperature inside their aircraft sometimes rose to 130 degrees while they were patrolling down the Red Sea.
In the Sudan the three Wellesley squadrons continued to raid Italian airfields, ports, railways and supply dumps and give close support to the British forces operating in that area. ‘Day after day,’ writes one observer, ‘the large ungainly machines, with their single engine and vast wing spread, took off to make their way over some of the most dangerous flying country in the world—country where for hours you could not make a landing and where the natives were unfriendly to the point of murder. They had been coming back often with their great wings slashed and torn by flying shrapnel; sometimes they just managed to struggle home with controls shot away and the undercarriage would collapse bringing the machines lurching down on the sand on one wing like some great stricken bird. But always they seemed to get back somehow.’
In East Africa units of the South African Air Force, together with RAF Blenheim squadrons, were active in reconnaissance, scouring the coastal waters of Italian Somaliland; they also operated successfully against Italian airfields, vehicle concentrations and wireless stations, notably in the area of Kismayu. Typical of the spirit these squadrons brought to the offensive was the action of a Valentia pilot who grew tired of communication flying, filled a forty gallon oil drum with gelignite and scrap iron, wedged it on the sill of his cabin door and heaved page 16 it overboard to effect impressive slaughter among the defenders of a fort.
Only at Malta did the Italians appear to have the advantage in the air, but even here the RAF was soon to render their attacks on the island less rewarding. How this was achieved is an epic story presently to be related.
Throughout these early months New Zealanders played their part in patrol and attack over widely separated regions of the Middle East. In Egypt Squadron Leader Shannon1 led a squadron of Blenheim fighters in defence of Alexandria and the Canal Zone, in protection of naval units and on escort to bomber aircraft; he had previously commanded this squadron when it was based in Iraq. Pilot Officers Ferguson,2 Nicolson3 and Walker4 captained Blenheim bombers of No. 55 Squadron on many notable missions, including the successful raid on the airfield at El Adem, the main Italian air base in Cyrenaica, on the very first day of hostilities. Other prominent Blenheim bomber captains were Pilot Officers Buchanan5 and Campbell,6 who flew with No. 211 Squadron in attacks on enemy airfields and shipping.
In mid–August when RAF Blenheims made a spectacular and highly successful raid on Italian flying–boats in Menelaio Bay, New Zealanders captained five of the attacking aircraft. Squadron Leader Shannon and Pilot Officer Blackmore7 flew fighter Blenheims of No. 30 Squadron while Pilot Officers Walker, Ferguson and Nicolson captained bombers of No. 55 Squadron. The force flew overland to Sidi Barrani, where it turned out to sea and then continued to the target along the coast. Complete surprise was thus achieved and there was little opposition as No. 55 Squadron bombed from as low as 600 feet and machine-gunned targets on water and land; then as the bombers turned for home Shannon led his Blenheims down in low–flying attacks with front and rear machine guns. Altogether twelve enemy seaplanes were crippled or sunk; a fuel dump near the jetty was also set on fire and the flames spread to a nearby equipment store.
1 Group Captain U. Y. Shannon, DFC; RAF; born Wellington, 6 Dec 1905; joined RAF Feb 1930; commanded No. 30 Sqdn 1938–41; RAF Station, Gordan's Tree, Middle East, 1941; No. 10 Sqdn 1944–45; RAF Station, Full Sutton, 1945.
Flying Bombays with No. 216 Squadron in Egypt, Pilot Officers Bagnall1 and Chisholm2 were among the pioneer transport pilots who carried VIPs and moved stores and personnel to various landing grounds; they also bombed Tobruk. Flying Officer Holdsworth,3 a Lysander pilot with No. 208 Army Co–operation Squadron, flew reconnaissance sorties for 7 Armoured Division and made many flights on photographic reconnaissances, artillery spotting and for counter-battery shoots.
From Alexandria Flying Officers Hughes4 and Milligan5 captained Sunderland flying boats of No. 230 Squadron on anti–submarine, reconnaissance and convoy escort patrols over the eastern Mediterranean. Towards the end of June, one crew from their squadron attacked and sank two Italian submarines, one of them in the Ionian Sea and the other between Crete and Sicily; on the latter occasion the pilot landed alongside the wreckage in a rough sea and picked up four survivors. About the same time another Sunderland on reconnaissance near Tobruk was attacked by four Italian fighters. It shot down one of them and drove off the others after a fifteen minutes' engagement. The flying-boat's fuel tanks were extensively holed but the leaks were plugged with plasticine. ‘I had to warn these enterprising captains,’ writes Longmore, ‘against trailing their coats too close to Italian fighter bases. Though the Sunderland's armament of ten machine guns was quite formidable we could not really afford the loss of even one Sunderland if it could be avoided nor could we afford, from the maintenance point of view, having them return after a self–sought encounter looking like pepper pots.’
1 Wing Commander D. R. Bagnall, DSO, DFC, DFC (US); born Auckland, 23 Sep 1918; civil servant; joined RAF1939; commanded No. 40 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943–44; Air Staff, No. 28 Group, AEAF, 1944; Air Branch, SHAEF, 1944–45.
6 Wing Commander G. R. Magill, OBE, DFC and bar, m.i.d.; born Te Aroha, Cambridge, 23 Jan 1915; electrical engineer; joined RAF 31 Aug 1936; commanded No. 180 Sqdn 1943; Operations Staff, No. 2 Group, 1943–45.
From Aden, Flying Officer Young1 captained Blenheims on bombing missions to Eritrea and was particularly prominent during the Italian offensive against British Somaliland in August 1940. Flying Officers Barnitt,2 Hutton3 and Nelson4 also captained aircraft operating from Aden on convoy escort and reconnaissance over the Red Sea and its southern approaches. Barnitt several times fought off attacks by enemy bombers on ships in the approaches to Aden. During an early October patrol when three Italian aircraft approached the convoy, he sent one of them crashing into the sea and another limping away, belching clouds of smoke, in what the admiring and enthusiastic crew of an escort ship described as ‘a very gallant action’. A few days later, after a long patrol which included combat with an enemy bomber, he landed at Kamaran Island to refuel; whilst taking off again an engine failed and he was killed when his Blenheim crashed into a corner of a mosque. Barnitt had already been recommended for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross and this was confirmed shortly after his death. He was the first New Zealander in the Middle East to be decorated for war service.
6 Group Captain R. C. Richmond; RAF (retd); born Wellington, 14 Mar 1905; joined RAF 1930; permanent commission RAF 1935; signals duties, HQ Middle East, 1940–41; HQ Fighter Command, 1943–44; commanded No. 70 Wing, 1944; commanded RAF Station, Yatesbury, 1947–48; signals duties, No. 3 Group, 1948–49.
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After three months of war the only major success the Italians could claim was the capture of British Somaliland.5 But on the ground they still held the advantage even though they had been slow to make use of it; and when at last, in mid–September, Graziani began his advance into Egypt, Wavell was forced to withdraw his troops from the frontier to prepared positions at Mersa Matruh. For about a week the Italian columns, constantly harassed by our ground and air forces, moved slowly forward until they reached Sidi Barrani, where they ground to a halt. They were still some sixty miles short of the main British defences but at the moment Graziani had no desire to advance further until he had built up supplies. A bold offensive a few weeks earlier might conceivably have overrun Egypt, but Italian strategy had succumbed to over–caution and the great opportunity was allowed to slip away.
5 Here the small British forces which had relied upon the co–operation of the French airfields and garrison in the neighbouring colony of Djibouti had been unable to hold out against a very superior Italian force. But they retreated with the utmost skill. Fighting all the way and supported by the RAF squadrons from Aden, they made good their withdrawal and under the protection of a few long–range Blenheim fighters were successfully taken off to Aden.
Throughout the autumn the small RAF force in Egypt continued to strike at the enemy. Supply ports, lines of communication, landing grounds, military camps and dumps—all came under attack. British fighter pilots continued to keep their opponents on the defensive and when the Italians did attempt to retaliate they enjoyed singularly little success. One day at the end of October when fifteen S79s, escorted by eighteen Cr42s, made a determined effort to bomb our forward positions, they were intercepted by twelve Hurricanes and ten Gladiators and returned at least eight short. Again, in mid–November, when a Lysander and a Blenheim escorted by nine Hurricanes and six Gladiators were sent to photograph the Italian positions south of Sidi Barrani, a swarm of Cr42s rose to give combat; for over half an hour the British formation fought a lively engagement and then returned intact with seven enemy aircraft to its credit and all the required photographs— including some excellent pictures of the Italian anti–tank defences.
But these were difficult days for Middle East Air Command and Longmore had to keep juggling his small resources between the Western Desert, East Africa, the Red Sea and the Sudan, so that the Italians might not secure those advantages to which their vast numerical superiority entitled them. After Mussolini's attack on Greece in October, Longmore was obliged to draw upon his small force in Egypt to the extent of three squadrons of Blenheims and one of Gladiators. These units were to do splendid work in support of the hard–pressed Greeks1 and their despatch was considered politically necessary at the time, but they could ill be spared if effective assistance was to be given to Wavell's forthcoming offensive from Egypt. Indeed, to keep his promise, Longmore had to strip Alexandria and the Canal of their defending squadrons and bring up a few others from Aden and the Sudan. Even these moves provided a British fighter force of only sixty–five aircraft when the offensive began.
1 In the early stages the Italians had made some small progress into Greek territory, supported by Italian air attacks which the numerically inferior Greek Air Force was unable to check. However, with the arrival of British squadrons the situation changed to the advantage of the Greeks in their frontier operations. Blenheims attacked Valona and Sarande Bay, as well as aerodromes in Albania within reach; Wellingtons from Malta also bombed the Adriatic ports of Bari and Brindisi, whence reinforcements were going to Valona. By the third week in November the Greeks had captured Koritza and driven the Italians back across the frontier.
The opening of this new reinforcement route held great promise which was to be amply fulfilled. But at first many months' work were needed before it was properly organised. Considerable workshops and accommodation had to be built at Takoradi and various refuelling and other facilities provided for along the way. The climate and the local malaria harassed the men erecting the crated aircraft. There was heavy wear on engines during the long flight over barren and sandy spaces. Weather and other troubles also hampered the air convoys. Early in December 1940, when the first six Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron were on the fifth lap of their flight, the wireless of the guiding Blenheim failed, its crew lost their bearings and in the gathering darkness all seven machines were forced to land in the desert. Two Hurricanes crashed beyond repair, one of the pilots was killed, and the other four Hurricanes were all badly damaged. With such misadventures the number of aircraft unserviceable awaiting spares along the route soon piled up.
There were other inevitable causes of delay. When the Hurricanes reached Egypt they had to be stripped of their long–range tanks, overhauled and fitted with guns. Furthermore, when squadrons were moved to the Middle East their ground staffs and equipment had to travel by sea around the Cape, and on more than one occasion it was found that stores had been packed in cases which bore no distinctive marking. Because of all these various difficulties none of the aircraft supplied via Takoradi became available in 1940. Yet as Churchill remarks: ‘if the scheme had not been begun in good time the Army of the Nile and all its ventures could not have lived through the tragic events of 1941.’
Experienced pilots were soon chosen to lead formations and Flying Officer Milne in particular frequently performed this duty. These leaders were entirely responsible for the convoy and their difficulties were manifold. Aircraft frequently disappeared from formation and the leader, mindful of the slight margin of petrol they carried, had to decide whether to search for the missing machine or to continue. Radio-telephony, on which so much depended once a formation took to the air, often proved unserviceable and at staging posts the leader was often called upon to decide whether aircraft which had developed some defect should carry on or stay behind for repairs. Not the least of his problems in this period was that of accommodation at the various posts, where facilities for the weary crews left much to be desired; men often had to spend the night in billets with bug-infested beds and inadequate protection against mosquitoes.
On the first day we left Takoradi with its red cliffs and steaming Gold Coast bush for Lagos, the first staging post in Nigeria, about 380 miles away. The formation coast-crawled to Accra, past steamy swamplands, native fishing villages and the 17th and 18th century Portuguese castles of the old slave traders. From Accra, we flew along about ten miles out to sea to avoid Vichy-French Dahomey and then inland again along the mangrove swamps to put down at Apapa, the airport of Lagos, built on what had once been swampland.
The journey between Kano and El Geneina in the Sudan, a total of some 960 miles, was made in two stages on the third day. From Kano a heartening patch of advanced cultivation for some 30 miles was quickly succeeded by scrub and arid country until a convenient road from Kano could be followed into Maiduguri where the flight would put down for refuelling. Leaving Nigeria, course was set across French Equatorial Africa but here the Colonial Troops, unlike their compatriates of the Dahomey, had declared for the Free French and the airfield at Fort Lamy offered a valuable refuelling point and an emergency landing ground. On this stage Lake Fitri was a valuable pinpoint for navigators but could be somewhat disturbing in that, being mainly a mass of swamps, the outline shifted up to thirty miles between the wet and dry seasons. Now in the heart of Africa, the country became progressively more barren, more gruelling with only outcrops of rock to relieve the monotony. Finally Geneina was reached. Although situated on a large wadi crossing the route its sandy surface made it somewhat difficult to pick out from the air.
On the fourth day aircraft flew from Geneina to Khartoum in two stages, a short one of 190 miles and the other of 560 miles. From Geneina the country retained its desert characteristics with occasional patches of scrub and trees over the short hop to El Fasher where aircraft refuelled. Here in the Sudanese desert aircraft which made forced landings were extremely difficult to locate and the almost inevitable result for the crews was death from thirst. Accordingly the direct route was soon diverted for fighter aircraft to El Obeid where a temporary area of cultivation was found. Sandstorms were prevalent over the remaining 250 miles to Khartoum with consequent low visibility so that the aircraft's track was deflected to starboard until the Nile could be located and used as a leading line into Khartoum.
From Khartoum aircraft flew to Abu Sueir by covering 520 miles on the fifth day and some 500 miles on the sixth and last day. From Khartoum the route was comparatively easy. With a convenient refuelling point at Wadi Halfa crews had little to do but follow the magnificent course of the Nile above the Cataracts, Luxor, the Valley of Kings, until finally the great pyramids and the sprawling mass of Cairo, topped by the Citadel, came into sight.
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At dawn on 9 December 1940 Wavell struck at the Italian Army in the Western Desert. The attack took the enemy completely by surprise and within a few days not only Sidi Barrani but Sollum and Capuzzo were in our hands and the erstwhile invaders of Egypt were streaming back across its frontier. This success exceeded all expectations for Wavell had planned only a limited advance beyond Sidi Barrani. But the opportunities for exploitation which now presented themselves were seized with vigour. Sweeping forward into Cyrenaica, British forces under Lieutenant–General O'Connor proceeded to invest Bardia which, although strongly fortified and well placed for defence, was captured early in January with 40,000 prisoners. Then came further rapid advance to Tobruk, an Italian naval base and a main supply port. Here also there were good perimeter defences, but after a short delay caused by sandstorms these were speedily penetrated and the town fell on 21 January with something like 25,000 prisoners.
At this point further progress was gravely threatened by the British Cabinet's offer of troops and armoured forces to the Greeks. But fortunately the Greek Government was satisfied for the moment to face the Italians with its own meagre forces and such aid as could be given by the RAF. Wavell's army was thus left free to complete its rout of the Italians and this it proceeded to do in one of the most remarkable operations of the war. While 6 Australian and 7 Armoured Divisions thrust forward along the coastal road to seize Derna, Mechili and Benghazi, a small force cut directly across rocky and waterless country to reach the main highway to the south. The Italian force retreating from Benghazi, still 25,000 strong, was thus trapped, and after a brief but desperate effort to break out it surrendered. The British advance finally came to a halt on 6 February 1941 when its advanced guards reached the region of El Agheila
Months of disappointment and disaster were soon to follow and all that had been won in Cyrenaica was to be cast away in the vain effort to sustain Greece, but nothing can obscure the brilliance of this early campaign. Within two months a force never exceeding two divisions had advanced 600 miles over desert territory, utterly routed an Italian army of no fewer than ten divisions, and captured 130,000 prisoners, 1290 guns and 400 tanks at a cost to itself of barely 3000 casualties.page 26
But this was not the only achievement of Wavell's Middle East Command during the early months of 1941. Simultaneously with the advance into Cyrenaica, attacks had been launched against the Italians in East Africa. From the Sudan British forces pushed into Eritrea where, after bitter fighting, they captured the great natural stronghold of Keren and swept on to Asmara and Massawa. Troops from Kenya also advanced into Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia, rapidly capturing enemy bases and airfields despite the difficult country over which they had to fight. So successful was the conduct of the whole campaign that within a few short months the Italians were to lose the whole of their East African possessions and most of Abyssinia. The menace of large enemy air and ground forces in the rear of Egypt was thus removed and British troops and air squadrons could be moved north, where they were urgently needed.
The RAF contributed much to the success of both these victories. In the Western Desert Collishaw's squadrons, by dispersing and subduing the opposing Italian air force, enabled Wavell's initial attack to achieve all the advantages of surprise. They then gave most valuable help in the opening stages of the battle by their reconnaissance, bombing and fighter patrols; highly effective attacks on enemy transport and airfields were made by low–flying Hurricanes, some of which made as many as four sorties a day.page 27
Throughout the hectic weeks that followed both fighters and bombers constantly harassed the retreating enemy columns, preparing the way for and covering the advance of our ground forces at every stage. How greatly this air support helped to speed the Army's advance is shown by what happened at Tobruk. Here reconnaissance planes secured valuable photographs of enemy positions and minefields and the main air effort was then applied within a defended perimeter around the town. Combined air and naval bombardment during the two nights immediately before the ground assault softened the defences and in the final hours protracted bombing by Wellingtons covered the assembly of our tanks. At dawn on 21 January British tanks and Australian infantry moved forward under fighter cover and a creeping barrage. At the same time Blenheims, Lysanders and Hurricanes operated ahead of the troops to keep the threatened area clear of reinforcements. Quickly piercing the outer defences our forces poured through, and with the help of incessant air attacks the bulk of the artillery was soon established inside the perimeter. The intensity of the effort in the air may be judged from the fact that one squadron with only eight serviceable Blenheims flew thirty–two sorties during the day. By the evening the Australians had captured the escarpment which dominates the harbour and the next morning they entered the town.
The RAF also won a notable victory over the numerically superior Italian Air Force, with the important result that British troops were page 28 never seriously held up by enemy aircraft during their victorious sweep through Cyrenaica. From the outset the Italians were driven almost completely on the defensive by the aggressiveness of the small British fighter force, whose only really modern machines were some thirty-odd Hurricanes. Numerous attacks on airfields and landing grounds added to the enemy's difficulties and led to the virtual collapse of his air force in the later stages. When the airfields at El Adem, Gazala and Benina were captured they were found littered with the wreckage of Italian machines. Altogether 1100 enemy planes were counted shattered and abandoned all over the desert. Along with the aircraft wreckage were hundreds of enemy lorries smashed by air attack, while in Cyrenaican harbours lay thirty–five ships that had been destroyed or disabled from the air.
After the capture of Benghazi Lieutenant–General O'Connor addressed this special Order of the Day to Air Commodore Collishaw:
‘I wish,’ he wrote, ‘to record my very great appreciation of the wonderful work of the R.A.F. units under your command, whose determination and fine fighting qualities have made this campaign possible.
'Since the war began you have consistently attacked without intermission an enemy Air Force between five and ten times your strength dealing him blow after blow until finally he was driven out of the sky and out of Libya leaving hundreds of derelict aircraft on his aerodromes. In his recent retreat from Tobruk you gave his ground troops no rest, bombing their concentrations and carrying out low flying attacks on their transport columns.’
‘In addition you have co–operated to the full in carrying out our many requests for special bombardments, reconnaissances and protection against enemy air action and I should like to say how much all this has contributed to our success.’
Support for the campaign in East Africa followed a similar pattern. The country was difficult and most of the flying had to be done over hostile territory or against well–defended positions in single–engined aircraft. Nevertheless the British squadrons, with what General Platt politely terms ‘their variety of machines’, soon gained air superiority. ‘By a continuous forward policy they drove their opponents from the air and destroyed their machines on the ground; the army was indeed grateful for the immunity from hostile air attack thus gained.’ The RAF also did much to reduce enemy resistance on the ground by its frequent attacks on gun positions, forward defended localities and supply lines. ‘During the battle for Keren,’ says Platt, ‘determined enemy counter–attacks were broken up by the help of close support from the R.A.F.’ Meanwhile, ‘our long columns of transport continually on the road between Keren and Kassala, were never interfered with from the air.’ And so it continued as the East African campaign moved to its triumphant conclusion.
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But the British run of success in North Africa was short–lived. For page 29 Hitler had decided that Germany must now intervene in the Middle East and this decision was to have an immediate and far–reaching effect on the course of events. Early in January 1941, in order to bolster his shaky ally, Hitler sent a strong contingent of the Luftwaffe to Sicily, and a few weeks later further air squadrons, together with the leading elements of an armoured corps under a young and able commander, Erwin Rommel, reached Tripoli.
Fearful for the safety of the Rumanian oilfields from air attack Hitler also ordered the preparation of plans for the occupation of the Balkans and the Aegean coast, including the Greek mainland. This new threat to their country thoroughly alarmed the Greeks and they now decided to accept the offer of help from the British Army which they had previously refused. Complicated discussions followed but it was finally decided in London that four British divisions, including two Australian and one New Zealand as agreed by their Governments, should be sent to Greece from Egypt. It was a decision fraught with grave consequences. For it meant that at the very moment when German forces were arriving in North Africa to reinforce the Italians, Wavell had to deplete his army in order to send the required help. Indeed it will long be a matter for controversy whether from the strategic point of view a serious error was not made in sending British forces to Greece and thus gravely weakening the Army in the Western Desert. But it was a higher strategy decision made primarily in the hope of building up a Balkan front and on the additional ground that if Britain had left Greece unsupported in her extremity she would have been shamed before the world.1
Events now moved swiftly. At the end of March 1941 the Germans and Italians counter–attacked in Cyrenaica. The weak British forces covering Benghazi were taken more or less by surprise and forced to retreat. Rommel followed up with a series of rapid outflanking movements during which the single British armoured division was overrun and two British generals, Neame and O'Connor, fell into enemy hands. Within a fortnight the remnants of the British forces were back at Sollum. Tobruk was still held, however, for Wavell took the bold decision to leave a force there and keep it supplied by sea. Rommel's failure to capture Tobruk was to cost him a year of bitter fighting; meanwhile the ever–increasing difficulties of supply and the ceaseless toll of the desert robbed his advance of its momentum and the German and Italian columns came to rest on the borders of Egypt.
The final scene of the Greek tragedy was played out in Crete where the part of the New Zealand Division evacuated to the island provided its principal defence. Here on 20 May, after heavy bombing attacks, the Germans began their airborne invasion, employing parachutists and great numbers of troop–carrying gliders. The defenders fought bravely and doggedly but the enemy, by determined and, at times, reckless employment of his forces in the air and on the ground, soon gained a firm foothold. His fighters and bombers subdued the anti-aircraft opposition and reinforcements began to arrive in strength. The loss of Maleme airfield on the first day proved fatal to the defence and within a week it was clear that Crete could no longer be held. Once again the evacuation proved more successful than could have been expected but the proportion saved was smaller than on the mainland.
German superiority in the air was largely responsible for their rapid success in each of these campaigns. In Greece and Crete it was indeed decisive. The Luftwaffe was now at the height of its power with a well-developed technique of co–operation with its ground forces and a highly efficient organisation for supply and replacement. Royal Air Force, Middle East, could match neither its strength nor its efficiency, for during these early months of 1941 British air power in this theatre reached its lowest ebb. Reinforcements were not yet arriving in sufficient quantity even to replace losses, while the earlier campaigns in North and East Africa had seriously reduced the number of operational aircraft with squadrons. Nor was it proving easy to keep serviceable the machines they had. This indeed was only possible by incorporating parts of damaged aircraft in other invalids whose cases were less advanced, a form of cannibalism which no air force can long survive. But such desperate expedients were imposed on Middle East Air Command by a situation in which there was far more to be done than aircraft with which to do it. And in these circumstances there was no hope of maintaining that degree of air superiority which had been largely attained against the Italians; in its absence our land forces were bound to suffer.
When the Germans and Italians launched their attack in Cyrenaica the RAF had only four squadrons left in the Western Desert—two of Hurricanes, one of Blenheim bombers and one with Lysanders for page 31 army reconnaissance—while the opposing air force included no fewer than 90 German Messerschmitts and 80 Stuka and Heinkel bombers. In Greece the disparity was much greater for the enemy had massed over 1000 aircraft, half of them fighters, whereas the RAF could muster barely 200, of which only about a third were fighters. Moreover when, after the successful winter campaign against the Italians in Greece and Albania, the RAF moved up to meet the German attack, it found the airfields it had to occupy were small and ill–equipped; there were no engineers to enlarge them or to provide dispersal or protection; there was no effective warning organisation and virtually no anti–aircraft defence.
Skill and gallantry could and did inflict heavy casualties on superior numbers in the air but were of little avail when the bases were defenceless. Over Crete the Germans, operating in large numbers at short range and from secure bases, had complete air supremacy in their hands, virtually without having to fight for it. For there were only three airfields on the island and the few British aircraft that occupied them were soon destroyed; the airfields in Cyrenaica from which fighters might have operated across the sea to Crete had been captured in Rommel's advance to the Egyptian frontier.
Altogether, in the face of the enemy's marked operational advantages and his great numerical superiority, the RAF could not possibly redress the adverse situation which quickly developed on the ground in each of these campaigns. Nevertheless its pilots and aircrews made most strenuous exertions to help our troops in their unequal struggle. During the retreat from Cyrenaica the four British squadrons were constantly in the air providing reconnaissance and cover for the Army. They also did their best to hamper the enemy's forward movement by attacking his supplies and concentrations of vehicles; the few Wellingtons based in Egypt also helped by bombing similar targets and, refuelling at Tobruk, they struck at Tripoli, the enemy's main supply port.
In Greece both fighter and bomber squadrons fought valiantly. In one early encounter twelve Hurricanes challenged thirty Messerschmitts and claimed five of them without loss. Again, during intensive air activity in the second week, Nos. 33 and 80 Squadrons reported the destruction of twenty–nine enemy machines. The bombers also took their toll of German armour and vehicles, as well as attacking targets behind his lines; but they were no match for the German fighters by day and on more than one occasion the whole of a small formation was wiped out.
A most gallant action was fought over Athens on 23 April 1941. That day the Germans came through the clear sky in mass formation of dive–bombers with a great ring of fighters circling over them. Watchers on the ground saw the whole British fighter force go up to page 32 meet them. It included fifteen Hurricanes in varying stages of disrepair assembled from three broken squadrons. In one long day of fighting these tattered aircraft and their weary pilots charged again and again into six times their number. Five of them were lost; but they brought down twenty–two, with eight more ‘probables’. It was a brave gesture. The few surviving fighters with their pilots then continued defiant to the end and they were able to give some cover to the evacuation before they left for Crete.
On Crete a handful of weary men and worn–out aircraft that had served their time in six months of hard fighting farther north faced odds of more than ten to one. Yet in the first six days of the German bombing they and the few reinforcements which reached them clawed down more than twenty of their opponents before they were overwhelmed. A brave effort was then made to provide some fighter cover over Crete from landing grounds some 300 miles away in the Western Desert. Blenheims and long–range Hurricanes carrying external fuel tanks operated at this extreme range and did succeed in destroying a number of German aircraft, especially at Maleme; but it was a costly endeavour for fighter after fighter was either destroyed on the ground at Crete, lost over the sea or else, with petrol exhausted, came down in the desert. Meanwhile RAF bombers were busy attacking the airfields in Greece and the Dodecanese from which the German fighters and troop–carriers were operating; they also dropped supplies to our troops fighting on Crete. But the number of fighter and bomber sorties that could be flown from distant bases was far too small to affect the issue.
The loss of Crete following on that of Cyrenaica and Greece led to much bitterness and the RAF was accused of having ‘let down’ the Army. In the streets of Cairo and in the prison camps of Germany and Italy RAF men were regarded with distinct disfavour, if not openly insulted. But their critics were ignorant of the circumstances of the time. The few squadrons of Middle East Air Command could not be everywhere at once; their bases had been unprotected and insecure and frequently lacked even the most elementary facilities. There was also ignorance of the fact, which even in the later years of the war some soldiers and sailors found difficult to grasp, that air operations were often in the nature of things conducted out of sight of those who benefited from them. Undoubtedly there had been mistakes but, on the whole, the RAF had fought hard and well and under most trying circumstances. At the end, many of its units had been reduced to three or four serviceable aircraft. One fighter squadron in the Western Desert lost three commanding officers within a fortnight. Another lost no fewer than ten crews in a single week–five of them in the valiant attempts to aid Crete and the other five during the fighting round Tobruk. These casualties are some measure of RAF effort and sacrifice during these months of disappointment and disaster.page 33
Moreover, the air record is not one of complete failure and defeat. For in the same fortnight that Crete was lost the RAF undoubtedly saved Iraq with its oilfields and pipelines. It also helped in the next few weeks to achieve the successful occupation of Syria, by which a vital flank of the Middle East was sealed against German infiltration.
An outstanding feature of events in Iraq—according to Churchill it was ‘a prime factor in our success’—was the spirited defence of the air base at Habbaniya against greatly superior forces well equipped with artillery. Habbaniya was the home of No. 4 Flying Training School, where a small group of instructors and pupils had fewer than eighty aircraft at their disposal, most of them quite unsuitable for war operations. Nevertheless the base not only held out against the encircling forces but (with the help of a few Wellingtons from Shaibah) bombed and machine–gunned them so effectively that on the fifth day the enemy departed. By their gallant action the defenders of Habbaniya gained time for ground and air reinforcements to arrive and, within a fortnight, despite some belated intervention on the part of the Luftwaffe, Baghdad and its airfield were captured and resistance in Iraq ceased.1
Some 8000 Iraqi troops had assembled on the desert plateau which overlooks the airfield and their guns commanded the defenceless grey roofs at short range …. The threatened place had no means of replying to artillery bombardment except two vintage howitzers, a fragrant memory of the last war, appropriately relegated to decorative duties on the lawn outside the Aircraft Depot. These veterans had now been stripped, cleaned and overhauled for action; but there were no anti–aircraft guns and the Iraqi Air Force could muster about fifty first–line aircraft, including American bombers and some six Italian fighters, superior to anything at Habbaniya. Undaunted the defenders prepared for the worst. Training aircraft were fitted with unaccustomed bomb racks; a few time–expired Gladiators from the Western Desert were hastily rejuvenated and pupils were regaled in unexpected and extensive courses in rear gunnery and bomb aiming. Audaxes, normally capable of carrying 8 × 20 lb. bombs, were made ready to take the air with a load of 2 × 250 lb. bombs. Operations continued under heavy fire all the first day; the aircraft working from the main aerodromes, which lay within half a mile of the Iraqi guns, had ‘no time to linger.’ Starting up behind the hangars, they took off by opening their throttles inside the iron fence, dashing through the gate, racing across the aerodrome, and irrespective of the wind, making a steep climbing turn to miss the plateau; and when they returned a steep turn between hangars served to elude pom-pom fire followed (if they were lucky) by a landing, a sharp turn inside the gate and a quick run to safety round the corner of a hangar ….
The days that followed were an indistinguishable nightmare. Work began half an hour before dawn and went on until after dark. Flying was continuous; and the women and children were evacuated by air, the transports taking off for Basra under cover of dive-bombing by the versatile Audaxes. They took to night flying, a disagreeable pastime, where no flare path could be used and a blind take–off was followed by a landing in the light of the aircraft's own landing lamp, hurriedly switched on when the altimeter registered a height of fifty feet and promptly switched off again on touching down. Their numbers dwindled and the toll of wounded pilots rose. The wastage of aircraft was formidable, only four out of twenty–seven Oxfords remaining serviceable after three days of fighting …. But a few Blenheims reached them; and ranging farther afield the little force attacked Iraqi aerodromes, destroying a number of aircraft on the ground; supplies intended for the enemy troops on the plateau were sedulously bombed on the way from Baghdad; and by 5 May the besiegers were beginning to taste all the pleasures of a siege themselves. The tables had been neatly turned and now Habbaniya went over to the offensive.
Throughout these fateful months of hard fighting many New Zealanders were in action as fighter and reconnaissance pilots and as captains and navigators of bomber aircraft. Flying Officers Bagnall and Chisholm were among those who did good work in bomber operations from Egypt. Both before and during the early stages of Wavell's advance they took their lumbering Bombays night after night over the ports of Benghazi and Tobruk. At that time it was important to interrupt the forward flow of Italian troops and supplies, particularly of tanks which were shipped between these ports to avoid the wear and tear of the long road journey to the front. For the long flight to Benghazi an additional petrol tank was fitted inside the fuselage of the Bombays and this tank had to be refilled during flight from forty 4–gallon petrol tins which, when empty, were kicked out into the night.
Flight Lieutenant Schrader,1 Flying Officer Milnes2 and Flying Officer Hogg3 flew some of the first Wellington bombers which joined in the attack of ports and airfields behind the enemy lines. Later the Wellingtons flew to Tripoli to bomb troops and supplies there; a few of them also operated from airfields in Greece against Italian Adriatic ports; back in Egypt they bombed airfields from which German aircraft were operating over Greece and Crete.
Flying Officers Bullot,4 Ferguson, Nicolson and Walker operated over the Western Desert with No. 55 Blenheim Squadron. Throughout the advance and retreat this squadron worked particularly hard attacking enemy airfields and supply columns, as well as supporting the ground forces by bombing and reconnaissance. In one month the Blenheims flew forty–nine sorties by day and eighteen by night, principally over Crete to help the troops fighting there. Another 110 sorties were made on reconnaissance or bombing missions over the Western Desert. Brushes with enemy fighters became more frequent as German squadrons began to operate over the desert and the Blenheims that returned were often badly shot up. Not one of the four New Zealanders survived. Flying Officer Bullot was lost in January; Walker failed to return from a long reconnaissance to Tripoli in March and Ferguson and Nicolson were lost a few weeks later. Indeed such were the hazards of the early operations in the Middle East that barely half the men mentioned in this chapter survived the first two years.
When the Squadron moved to Greece, Fabian had the task of planning the layout of the camp in Paramythia, south of the Albanian frontier and almost midway between Yanina and the Island of Corfu. There was only the stony flower covered bed of the valley just south of the little village of Paramythia for Fabian to work on with sheer peaks rising on all sides. A solitary saloon car comprised the entire transport section and this was used to carry water, petrol, fetch rations or to bomb up aircraft. A tremendous ridge rose to 5,000 feet to the East. A mountain road followed the Kalamas River to the village of Yanina where was stationed No. 80 (Gladiator) Squadron. Communications were bad. There was one road to the north, and that narrow, and one single track railway.
No. 211 Squadron made a notable raid against the Italians on the morning of February 13. Three flights of Blenheims took off down wind—there was no other way to avoid the mountain barrier—and then flew across the Kalamas River and wound their way up the narrow valleys past Argyrokastron, ‘The Silver Fort,’ avoiding the fire of Italian anti–aircraft guns hidden in the mountain sides. After half–an–hour's flying time the formation was over the target, a mountain ridge north–west of Tepelene, where the enemy was mustering reinforcements. Here Buchanan's flight was attacked by Italian Macchi fighters; one of them was shot down by his turret gunner, not however before explosive bullets had hit the mainspar of one wing and the tail wheel had been shot away. Buchanan, however made a safe landing ….
During the evacuation of Greece the Blenheims flew out with men crammed into every available space, even the turrets. But neither Buchanan nor Campbell was able to take part. Early in January Campbell's aircraft was one of two Blenheims which failed to return from a raid on Valona. He was taken prisoner by the Italians but succeeded in making good his escape in October 1943. Buchanan lost his life while flying with a formation of six Blenheims to bomb Monastir in mid–April. Not one of these aircraft returned.
Early in April 1941 Mackenzie and Joel both took part in the highly successful attack on five Italian destroyers that were attempting to escape from Massawa. Four of the warships were sunk or disabled while the fifth put back and scuttled herself in the port. On another patrol Mackenzie sighted and attacked an Italian submarine off Massawa; one bomb scored almost a direct hit, a second fell close alongside; nothing more was seen of the submarine.
Adventure and misadventure were frequent in these early days and were accepted as part of the day's work, but the story of Flying Officer Mackenzie and his navigator, Sergeant Fearn,1 deserves to be recounted here. Flying Blenheim bombers, their squadron was operating over the Western Desert and as far as Crete. Returning from a sortie to Crete Mackenzie and his crew were unable to locate their base. The wireless had failed and, with their aircraft running short of petrol, they decided to bale out rather than risk a crash landing in the desert. All three men jumped safely, unaware they were over the Qattara Depression, some seventy miles south of El Daba. They had planned to meet at their burning aircraft, but it blew up on hitting the ground and there were no flames to guide them. So each man wandered alone.
New Zealand fighter pilots operated over all the battle areas. In Greece Squadron Leader Shannon led his squadron of Blenheim fighters; they had notable success against the Italians in the early stages but later suffered severely at the hands of German fighters. Flying Officer Blackmore was one of his pilots. Also prominent in the air fighting over Greece was Pilot Officer Westenra,1 who flew Gladiators and was one of the few pilots from his squadron who survived to cover the evacuation. He then operated from Crete, where he shot down a Messerschmitt 110 in the early stages of the German attack.
In the Western Desert Flying Officer Spence2 distinguished himself in fighter operations with No. 274 Hurricane Squadron. On one sortie during the retreat from Benghazi he shot down a Ju88 and an Me109 near Tobruk; two days later he sent another Me109 crashing into the desert, but during the combat he collided with the enemy fighter and was only just able to get his Hurricane back to the British lines. Like many others his luck failed a few weeks later when he was shot down while making a low-level attack on enemy columns between Gazala and Sollum.
1 Squadron Leader D. F. Westenra, DFC and bar, m.i.d.; born Christchurch, 29 Apr 1918; farmer; joined RNZAF 16 Feb 1940; transferred RAF 11 Nov 1940; retransferred RNZAF 1 Jan 1944; commanded No. 93 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943–44, and No. 65 Sqdn, 1944.
Sergeant Laing had two remarkable escapes. In mid-May his was the only one of six Hurricanes to reach Crete–two were shot down on the way by British warships and the others lost contact with the guiding Blenheim. Then before Laing could take off again his fighter was destroyed on the ground by German bombers. But he got back from Crete—squeezed into the cockpit of another Hurricane with its pilot using him as a cushion! A day or two later he was strafing a German landing ground in the desert and had set fire to two aircraft when, as he puts it, ‘a couple of Breda gun shells hit my radiator.’ Fumes poured into the cockpit and two Me109s were hot on his tail. One scored hits, the elevator controls started to ‘misbehave’ and the Hurrican began to lose height. Laing was skimming along the top of the cliffs trying to shake off the Germans when he saw the outer defences of Tobruk. But just as safety seemed within reach his Hurricane flattened out into a wadi and burst into flames, which were licking round his legs before he could clamber out. Thinking he was still in enemy territory he dragged himself to a cave, where he lay exhausted for several hours. But his luck held, for a party of British troops out on patrol found him and took him into Tobruk.
Flying Officer Tracey,1 who had been with No. 79 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, flew long-range Hurricanes in fighter sweeps over Crete. On one occasion he had just shot down a Ju52 over Maleme when a Messerschmitt fastened on to his tail. Tracey dived towards the steep cliffs on the coast then pulled clear at the last moment, whereupon the German, over keen on the pursuit, crashed straight into the rocks below. Tracey's propeller had been damaged, his fuel tank holed and the fuselage ripped by cannon shells, but he succeeded in flying back the two hundred miles across the sea to Sidi Barrani, where he made a forced landing after a sortie of four and a half hours. ‘Quite a good effort’, says the squadron record with masterly understatement. Tracey was also among the fighter pilots to cover the evacuation from Crete, and on one occasion when German bombers were attacking ships he intercepted a Ju88 and shot it down into the sea.
In Syria Flight Lieutenant Murdoch and Sergeant Jordan4 flew Gladiator fighters in support of 10 Indian Division and on offensive patrols against Vichy fighters. Flying Officer C. W. Holdsworth, who had done outstanding work in the Western Desert and Greece on Lysanders, now flew Hurricanes from Aqir in Palestine; he failed to return from a reconnaissance of the Damascus area in mid-June. Pilot Officer Peterson5 won distinction for his work as bomb-aimer with Wellingtons of No. 37 Squadron operating from Shallufa in Egypt. In one attack on a fuel depot at Beirut he scored direct hits on several storage tanks, causing numerous fires and explosions. Pilot Officer Bourke6 and Sergeant G. F. Jones,7 who had previously flown on operations over Crete, also navigated Blenheim bombers on daylight raids over Syria. On one raid against an ammunition dump at Hammana they both survived a determined attack by French fighters in which three bombers were lost before the escort of Australian Tomahawks was able to engage the enemy and drive them off.
The record of these early months would be incomplete without reference to the men of the ‘flying-boat union’—the crews of the few Sunderland flying-boats based at Alexandria, who flew constantly on reconnaissance, escort and anti-submarine patrols, and who also did splendid work on transport missions and in evacuating men from Greece and Crete.
Five New Zealanders—Flight Lieutenants A. Frame,1 H. L. M. Glover,2 S. W. R. Hughes, H. W. Lamond3 and D. N. Milligan— captained Sunderlands in these various duties. Successes against enemy submarines were rare, although Milligan was credited with damaging one of them while making a sweep to cover a Fleet movement from Alexandria. The transport work was more interesting and eventful. For example, early in April Frame carried General Wavell and Air Chief Marshal Longmore from Egypt to Greece. For the return flight three days later, he had to take off from a harbour which had been mined by enemy bombers, but he solved the difficulty by taxi-ing up a strip of water and then taking off down the same path.
Frame evacuated more than two hundred men from Greece. On one flight he arrived at Nauplia Bay at dusk, had great difficulty in locating his passengers, and when dawn came found the bay enveloped in dense black smoke from burning ships. Undaunted, he took off through the swirling clouds of smoke and landed his passengers safely at Suda Bay in Crete.
Lamond made several similar trips. In a truly remarkable flight on 25 April he brought away no fewer than seventy-four men in one lift, which with the crew of ten as well was, as he remarks, ‘quite a number even for those days’. That same evening when he returned after dark the sea proved too calm for the aircraft's landing light to be effective and the Sunderland crashed and turned over. Only Lamond and three of his crew survived and they drifted about on the upturned wing of their aircraft for several hours before they were picked up. Lamond stayed with the two seriously injured members of his crew and was captured when the Germans overran the area.
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