New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 3 — Western Desert—The Second Year
Western Desert—The Second Year
WESTWARDS from the startling greenness of the irrigated strip on either side of the River Nile runs a vast desert of varying character, inhabited only by nomad Arabs living in tattered tents and herding camels beside the waterholes upon which their lives depend. To the south-east this desert runs down to the Sudan; to the south-west it joins the Sahara. Here and there along its northern coast are pockets of cultivation out of which the Italians wrought their Empire, settling colonists in well-designed community buildings around which were scattered the farms. The largest of these pockets, called the Gebel Akhdar, lies in the hump of land to the east of Benghazi, considerable enough to support half a dozen towns, settlements of the Italian colonists and one city. Such fertile country is not reached again until the oasis of Tripoli. Of this great desert—those parts that lie within the borders of Egypt and Libya are almost equal in area to India—it is the comparatively narrow coastal strip running from Alexandria in the east to Tripoli in the west that has come to be known as the ‘Western Desert’, and it was back and forth across its barren spaces that the main fighting in the Middle East now ebbed and flowed for two long years.
June 1941 found the RAF back at the old bases in Egypt from which it had started six months earlier; for Rommel's first offensive from the west had sent its squadrons scrambling back with the remnants of Wavell's Army of the Nile. But their situation in that region was less comfortable than it had been when they confronted the Italians, since a German army was now encamped on the stony plateau round Capuzzo; moreover the Luftwaffe was established in some strength at forward airfields in Cyrenaica and in the Dodecanese Islands, from where it could strike at RAF bases in Egypt, at the Suez Canal and the crowded cities of the Delta. To prevent such attack RAF bombers now made German fuel dumps and supplies their main objective and a welcome interlude of inactivity by hostile aircraft seemed to indicate success. Meanwhile fighters strafed the German airfields; they also made life uneasy for the enemy on the roads, systematically raking his thin-skinned vehicles until Rommel was driven to post isolated tanks, like anchored flakships, at five-mile intervals along the way.page 43
Tobruk still held, a lonely island of resistance deep in enemy territory, and fighter patrols covered the small ships which crept along the coast to supply the garrison. An unsuccessful attempt had been made to relieve the port in mid-May. The following month a more elaborate attempt, adorned with the name of Operation BATTLEAXE, proceeded smoothly in its early stages. During this second attempt the RAF was required to provide the advancing land forces with an ‘umbrella’ against air attack. For army commanders, after their experience in Greece and Crete, had developed a strong preference for the reassuring sight of friendly aircraft overhead and the exercise of air power out of sight, though often infinitely more effective, tended to be out of mind for the troops below. The RAF complied with the requirements and its fighter force was duly concentrated on this defensive task to the detriment of more rewarding operations. Fortunately the bombers were still free to take the offensive and their attacks on the enemy's advancing columns and against his supply lines were most successful. And when, on 17 June, Rommel thrust an armoured force straight through towards Buqbuq, the bombers intervened effectively in support of our forward troops. These were able to withdraw in good order and General Wavell records that ‘the enemy tanks which were heavily attacked by bombers of the R.A.F. made only half-hearted attempts to close with our forces.’ After three days of confused fighting Operation BATTLEAXE ended where it began.
For each of the opposing armies, the British now under Auchinleck and the Germans and Italians under Rommel and Bastico, the immediate problem was the same—to reinforce and re-equip before a major attack could be launched. And here the governing factor was communications. On the British side the fact that the Luftwaffe now held virtual control of the Mediterranean meant that troops and supplies could reach Egypt only by the long sea journey round the Cape. The enemy also had their difficulties for their main base at Tripoli was 1000 miles away while Benghazi was 375 miles back along the same road; and both these ports were a further 400 miles from the mainland of Italy, across a passage exposed to attack from British aircraft and submarines based on Malta. Consequently the build-up on both sides proceeded slowly and there was a lull of nearly five months in the land fighting while they strove to overcome their supply problems and renew their strength for the next round.
But if there was a close season for fighting on the ground there was none overhead. The war in the air went on all the time—a fact it is as well to emphasise. Day after day RAF bomber crews left their bases in Egypt and, after a halt to refuel in the desert, went on to attack enemy shipping and supply dumps at Benghazi. Fighter pilots flew continually on a variety of patrols; they covered the forward troops page 44 and reconnoitred far behind the enemy lines; they guarded the skies of Egypt and escorted ships in the approaches to Alexandria and the Suez Canal. They also continued to play a vital part in sustaining the garrison at Tobruk by escorting supply ships to the limit of their range as far as Bardia. In so doing they depended upon forward landing grounds precariously held by light forces in advance of the main British Army, and the few fighters that could be maintained on patrol at any one time were in constant danger of attack by German squadrons operating from nearby desert bases in overwhelming strength; nevertheless the patrols continued and every ship that made the battered harbour of Tobruk owed much to the vigilance of the RAF. Simultaneously Blenheims, Sunderlands and Wellingtons were daily on patrol searching for enemy submarines over the eastern Mediterranean and in the heat of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf; and week by week ferry pilots continued to bring convoys of reinforcement aircraft across the jungle from West Africa.
While these various operations continued the RAF was steadily building up its strength. New and faster types of aircraft were reaching the operational squadrons: Tomahawk fighters to replace the veteran but now obsolete Gladiators; Maryland light bombers in exchange for the Blenheim. New airfields and landing grounds were also under construction in the Western Desert; more operational training units were being set up in the back areas and others expanded. Equally important, the whole system for supply, maintenance and repair was being thoroughly reorganised, enlarged and dispersed against enemy air attack. For example, in the Mokattam Hills on the east bank of the Nile, the great artificial caves from which in ancient days the stone had been taken to build the pyramids were cleared and equipped as stores and repair depots; and the inhabitants of the Boulac native quarter of Cairo were mystified by a sudden influx of RAF technicians as workshops were set up in old warehouses and in disused yards or buildings. A special unit was established for transporting crashed aircraft from the front for reconstruction at these depots; and up in the forward area there appeared new salvage sections which, equipped with mobile cranes and special trucks, ranged the desert to bring back damaged aircraft, and mobile repair units capable of making minor repairs on the spot or else of patching up aircraft sufficiently to enable them to be flown back for more extensive treatment.
Important changes were also made in the sphere of operations for it had become clear during the earlier campaigns that, in spite of the most valiant efforts on the part of aircrew and commanders alike, the operational efficiency of the front-line squadrons was not all that it might be; in particular the organisation on a ‘station’ basis, brought out from Britain, had proved unwieldy when it had been necessary to page 45 move units over long distances or push forward flights and squadrons to operate from advanced landing grounds. This was largely because transport, equipment and personnel for carrying out swift movement were lacking. Steps were therefore taken to create self-contained fighter and light-bomber wings each with its own vehicles, its own operational headquarters and its own servicing team, all of which could be moved rapidly from one area to another. At the same time mobile radar posts and air-support controls were established in the forward area, the latter an important innovation by which it was hoped to provide closer and more immediate help to the ground forces. In all these various ways, the RAF gradually began to create its ‘Desert Air Force’, capable of highly mobile operations in the wilderness of sand and stone but firmly based on a well-organised, safely dispersed system of supply and maintenance.
Much of the success of this reorganisation and indeed most of its inspiration came from Air Marshal,1 who had taken over from Longmore in May 1941. Tedder, a graduate of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a fighter pilot of the First World War thrice mentioned in despatches, had come to the Middle East with a broad background in both operations and staff work. Here he was presented with a unique opportunity for defining, developing and organising the role that the air arm should play in the Mediterranean war. That opportunity he firmly grasped and he soon became pre-eminent as a strategist and in the framing of policy. He was also able to inspire the willing service of officers and airmen from the highest to the lowest and by skilful leadership weld them into a highly successful team. Apart from his undoubted military gifts, Tedder possessed a cheerful personality of which pleasant features were his addiction to a pipe of longish stem and to the ‘forage’ or field service cap—better known to the irreverent as the ‘fore-and-after’. He also had the happy knack of meeting his men on their own level, and many of those who served with the Desert Air Force can recall pleasant moments on desert airfields when their leader dropped in for a chat to see how things were going.
1 Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, GCB, Legion of Merit (US), Legion of Honour (Fr), Order of Kutusov (USSR), Distinguished Service Medal (US), Order of the Crown with Palm (Bel), Order of George I (Gk), Croix de Guerre with Palm (Fr), Order of Orange Nassau (Hol); born Glenguin, Stirlingshire, 11 Jul 1890; served Colonial Service, Fiji, 1914; joined RFC 1916; permanent commission RAF 1919; Deputy Air Member, Development and Production, 1940; Deputy AOC-in-C, HQ Middle East, 1940–41; AOC-in-C, HQ Middle East, 1941–43; Air C-in-C, Deputy to General Eisenhower, 1944; Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, SHAEF Main (Air) 1944–45; CAS RAF, 1946–49; Chairman, Joint British Services Mission, Washington, and British representative on Standing Group Military Committee, NATO, 1950–51.
The main controversy centred round the extent and control of air support for the Army. And after various conferences had failed to settle the matter, Churchill gave his ruling in a strongly worded directive. The RAF had its own dominant strategic role to play and must not, he said, ‘be frittered away in providing small umbrellas for the Army as it seemed to have been in the recent battle.’ It was unsound to distribute aircraft in this way and no air force could stand the application of such ‘a mischievous practice’. On the other hand the RAF had its obligations to the Army and, Churchill declared, ‘when a land battle is in prospect the Army Commander-in-Chief is to specify to the Air Officer Commander-in-Chief the targets and tasks he requires to be performed both in the preparatory attack and during the battle. It would be for the Air Officer Commanding to use his maximum force for these objectives in the manner most effective.’ These decisions were of the utmost importance for they recognised and defined the role of the RAF and prevented any attempt to follow the German pattern of complete subordination to the Army. It was now up to all parties to realise each other's problems and to work out a satisfactory system of team work. How well they achieved this, the following years were to demonstrate.
New Zealand participation in the various activities of Middle East Air Command was now increasing steadily as pilots, navigators, air gunners, wireless operators and some technicians arrived from the training schools in New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom. A small number of pilots and aircrew also came from operational commands in Britain, bringing with them the experience gained in fighter battles over England or in bombing raids over Germany. By the end of this second year of the campaign the New Zealand contingent with the RAF in the Middle East amounted to nearly 300 men, of whom the majority were pilots—no small contribution at a time when RAF Middle East was still comparatively small.
Among the new arrivals the outstanding personality was Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, who took over command of the Desert Air Force from Collishaw at the end of July 1941. Coningham, whose page 47 remarkable early career has already been recorded,1 was to achieve outstanding success in this new role; indeed, it was not long before he outshone every other contemporary commander of tactical air forces in his ability to foresee, prepare for and meet situations and, above all, to give the ground forces the close air support they needed. His was a richly vital personality in which rare powers of leadership and a profound knowledge of air tactics were combined with an immense store of common humanity and friendliness, for he firmly believed that even in a war of machines the ultimate outcome depended on men. He had an alert mind but disliked paper work and insisted on stripping his Battle Headquarters to the barest minimum of essential operational staff; he was withal a shrewd planner with a strong desire for co-operation with the Army, and one of his first actions on appointment was to move his Desert Headquarters to Maaten Baggush alongside that of the Eighth Army. Thereafter when the Army headquarters moved the Air headquarters moved with it. And it was from that small advanced Desert Air Force headquarters working in close contact and mutual confidence with the Army that there originated most of the innovations in tactics and organisation of an air force in the field which were subsequently adopted by the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force.
At his new headquarters, Coningham was joined by Group Captain H.B. Russell as Senior Air Staff Officer. Russell, also a veteran New Zealand pilot of the First World War, was a specialist in fighter operations who had already served both in France and with Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain; he was to be twice mentioned in despatches for his work with the RAF in the Middle East during the next two years. One of Coningham's chief signals officers was Squadron Leader R. C. Richmond; he had been with the Desert Air Force from the outset and his ability and experience proved invaluable in this difficult period; Richmond later did good work in improving communications on the Takoradi ferry route.
An experienced fighter leader who came to the Middle East at this time was Wing Commander Eric Whitley,2 who had commanded a squadron of Hurricanes both before and during the Battle of Britain. For his first few months in the Middle East Whitley was entrusted with planning the air defence of Cyprus and the Syrian coast; he then took command of a fighter wing based in Egypt and was later to prove highly successful as leader of a diversionary force which operated deep in the desert on the enemy's flank.
2 Group Captain E. W. Whitley, DSO, DFC; RAF (retd); born Epsom, Auckland, 17 Aug 1908; joined RAF 1930; commanded No. 245 Sqdn 1939–40; RAF Station, Haifa, 1941; No. 234 Wing, Middle East, 1942; No. 209 and 210 Groups, Middle East, 1943; Fighter Leaders' School, 1944; No. 58 OTU 1945; RAF Station, Church Fenton, 1945.
Three young New Zealand fighter pilots, Squadron Leaders Ward,1 Kain2 and Bary,3 each of whom had taken part in the air battles over France, Dunkirk and Britain, were now to command squadrons in the Desert Air Force. Ward took charge of the famous No. 73 Hurricane Squadron and within a matter of months had won both the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar. Kain, who had already led fighters in Britain, was to command No. 229 Squadron, also flying Hurricanes. Bary was to lead one of the first units equipped with Tomahawk fighters; he had previously flown Hurricane fighters over Crete and the Western Desert.
Men newly arrived in the Western Desert found conditions rather different from those they had enjoyed in their training schools or with the operational commands in Britain. For Desert Air Force now lived a more nomadic life, something like that of the bedouin who inhabited these parts. There were no tarmac runways, no hangars, no neat headquarters buildings or barracks, no control tower and no concreted petrol stores. The usual desert airfield was nothing but a large space of desert scraped smooth and hard, around the edges of which were scattered a few tents and trucks, the aircraft and the protecting RAF armoured cars. Large square marquees housed the various messes, the operations control and the orderly room. Around them were dispersed ridge tents and little bivouacs as sleeping quarters, each with its V-shaped slit trench handy as an air-raid shelter. The rest of the ‘outfit’ stood on wheels; the office of the Commanding Officer was a caravan trailer; signals, that life-blood of the whole force, operated from a few specially fitted vehicles beneath portable aerial masts; workshops of the engineers were fitted into lorries; the cookhouse itself was often a trailer with a field kitchen dumped outside. The whole camp, tents and all, could be bundled into trucks and be on its way within an hour.
2 Wing Commander D. Kain; born Wanganui, 16 Oct 1915; joined RAF 21 Oct 1935; transferred RNZAF 21 Oct 1944; commanded No. 229 Sqdn, Middle East and Malta, 1942; No. 127 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943; RAF Station, Edcu, 1943–44; and RAF Station, Predannack, 1944–45.
3 Wing Commander R. E. Bary, DSO, DFC; born New Plymouth, 9 Jun 1915; joined RAF Jan 1939; commanded No. 80 Sqdn 1943; Wing Leader, No. 239 Wing, MAAF, 1943–44; No. 244 Wing MAAF, 1944–45; killed on air operations, 12 Apr 1945.
The chief torment of the desert was of course the dust-storms. They came more frequently with the khamsin of the spring, a hot wind from the south with the strength to rip down a tent. Their density was that of a London fog, in which every particle was grit. Under the pall of a desert dust-storm the whole area darkened into half-night; a man driving a car could not see its bonnet and two men sitting in a creaking straining tent could barely discern each other across its width. While the dust-storm lasted unabated, bringing gritty misery, all flying was impossible.
But desert life had its compensations; for one thing, it was extremely healthy and with the exception of desert sores—small cuts festered for months when sand filtered into them—there was almost no sickness. Life was simple and the hours of sleep were long. The food might be only bully beef for weeks on end, though usually there was something else as well, but it sufficed. There was nearly always enough water for a cup of tea and even for a bath when one had learnt to bathe with a tin drinking mug. There were also the pleasures of contrast; and to arrive at the palm trees of the coastal wadi of Maaten Baggush after bumping all day over dust and hillock and there to strip and swim in the warm blue sea was a pleasure that had few comparisons.
Aircrew would consider it sentimental to speak of the comradeship of their desert camps, but in every squadron this was most marked. There were few who returned from the desert without some memory of a circle of men squatting outside the tent under the moon, one perhaps playing a violin or a mouth organ and the rest singing ‘There was a Monk of Great Renown’, ‘She'll be Coming Round the Mountain’ or ‘Shaibah Blues’, all with that mixture of sentiment and ribaldry which made up the folk music of the Air Force.
But many men came to know more than the desert encampments or even the vast expanse of brown wilderness moving constantly beneath their wings. Deserts have always been associated with one particular peril, that of being stranded in their midst without sufficient food or water; and it was a peril to which pilots and aircrews were especially exposed. Flying a damaged aircraft over inhabited country the pilot could make a crash landing or bale out, always with every hope of help even should he fall into enemy hands. But over the desert, even fifty miles from the coast, there was scant hope unless a man was sufficiently lucky to fall in with wandering Arab tribesmen. Yet, remarkable page 50 of the desert air war is not how many airmen lost their lives through landing many miles from help, but rather how many of them contrived to walk back to their squadrons, often piercing the enemy lines in order to do so.
One day towards the end of November 1941, six Blenheims left Fuka to bomb enemy tanks and transport on the Acroma– El Adem road. In that area they were attacked by a formation of Messerschmitts and four of the Blenheims were shot down. Navigator in one of them was twenty-year-old Sergeant Turton.1 Baling out of the burning aircraft, he landed safely to find that his pilot and air gunner had also survived but were both wounded and unable to walk far. While they were debating what to do some friendly natives came along and took charge of the wounded men, saying they would get them medical attention from the Germans in Acroma. Thereupon Turton, who was unharmed, decided that he would not be captured and set out to travel about one hundred miles on foot to the British lines. Fortunately he had a small pocket compass which enabled him to go steadily south-east. Every night he passed enemy encampments at frequent intervals but he skirted them and kept on. After three days he was suffering so severely from thirst that he was forced to live on snails. Eventually he was found by a South African medical officer. His journey across enemy territory, hiding by day and walking by night, had taken him six days, and during the whole of that time he was without food and water.
* * * * *
Throughout the summer of 1941, while the two armies lay watching one another through the dusty glare along the line of the Egyptian frontier, air patrol and attack continued. For British fighter pilots the main task was still to cover the passage of ships to and from Tobruk, which placed a heavy strain on both men and machines; and this was now rendered more acute by the insistence of the Australian Government that their battle-worn troops should be withdrawn from Tobruk. The withdrawal took place during the months of August, September and October under cover of constant fighter patrols.
The provision of cover both for the supply of Tobruk and for naval movements inevitably restricted offensive operations, but whenever possible fighters were sent on armed reconnaissance over airfields, camps and roads behind the enemy front. Such sorties were welcomed by pilots as a relief from the monotonous shipping patrols. Flying Officer O. V. Tracey of No. 274 Hurricane Squadron, Flying Officer D. F. Westenra of No. 112 Tomahawk Squadron, and Flying Officer W. T. Eiby with Sergeants R. I. Laing and E. L. Joyce1 of No. 73 Squadron, also flying Hurricanes, were among the pilots who took a prominent part in these missions.
Simultaneously the medium bombers were active both by day and by night against the enemy's supply lines, especially his nearer ports and coastal shipping. Airfields were also attacked—notably the day fighter bases at Gazala and Gambut, from which the Germans were operating their new and fast Messerschmitt 109F fighters. Squadron Leader H.G.P. Blackmore led No. 55 Blenheim Squadron on many such missions and flying with him were several New Zealand pilots and navigators. By day crews could usually count on a brush with the enemy but their machines were no match for the German fighters. It was during one such encounter towards the end of October that Blackmore was lost when his formation was intercepted while turning away after a successful attack on the airfield at Gambut.
Sometimes the bombers struck northwards over the Mediterranean at targets in Greece and Crete, notably at the Corinth Canal, which provided a short cut for enemy supply ships on passage from Adriatic ports to the Aegean. But the chief task given the Wellington crews was to batter the enemy's North African supply port of Benghazi. They did this particular raid so often that it became known as the ‘Mail Run’. It was no easy flight. In distance it was roughly equivalent to bombing Munich from Norfolk. And while the route was not spattered with guns and searchlights a crew had only to crash-land fifty miles inland on the desert to be faced with the torments, often mortal, of thirst and heat. The defences of Benghazi itself were also fierce. Yet more than all these dangers, the chief menace of the mail run was its inevitability—night after night, week after week. One of the squadrons which flew constantly to Benghazi composed a song about it called ‘The Mail Run Melody’, which was sung to the tune ‘Clementine’. Here are some of the verses:
Down the flights each ruddy morning,
Sitting waiting for a clue,
Same old notice on the flight board,
Maximum effort—Guess where to.
Seventy Squadron, Seventy Squadron,
Though we say it with a sigh,
We must do the ruddy Mail Run,
Every night until we die.
Out we go on to dispersal,
To complete our Night Flying Test,
Rumour says we're going Northwards,
But we know we're going West.
‘Have you lost us Navigator?’
‘Come up here and have a look’,
‘Someone's shot our starboard wing off’,
‘We're alright then, that's Tobruk’.
Fifteen Wimpys on the target,
Two forced landed in the drink,
Another couple crashed on landing,
Ruddy Hell, it makes you think.
Trying to get your forty raids in,
Thirty-nine, now don't get hit,
If you don't, you go to Blighty,
If you do, (Well, never mind!)
Oh, to be in Piccadilly,
Selling matches by the score,
Then I shouldn't have to do that
Ruddy Mail Run any more.
There is probably no better expression of all the hopes and fears of bomber aircrew than the words of this song; and on the nights when they were not flying, crews would sit around in their messes with glasses of thin local beer and sing it with an intensity of feeling that only desert life could lend to the voice. ‘We must do the ruddy mail run every night until we die.’ A good many of them did. But the hazards they took and the fatigue they endured made Benghazi of considerably less value to the enemy as a supply base. A New Zealand brigadier caught a glimpse of the port when he passed through as a captive in December 1941. ‘The harbour itself was in a mess,’ he writes. ‘The tide washed through two great gaps in the mole, and alongside the battered wharves were several wrecked ships, some capsized, some sitting on the bottom, rendering most of the jetties useless.’1
In these operations by Wellington bombers Flight Lieutenant Coleman2 and Flying Officer Cowan3 of No. 148 Squadron, Flying Officer D. H. McArthur of No. 37 Squadron and Flying Officer W. I. Anstey of No. 70 Squadron achieved a fine record of service as captains of aircraft. Navigator Sergeant Connolly4 and Air Gunner Sergeants Callister,5 Tarrant,6 Marusich7 and Moore8 also did very good work with their squadrons.
1 Brigadier J. Hargest in Farewell Campo 12.
Flight Lieutenant Coleman was the first New Zealander to win a bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross for operations in the Middle East. ‘His courage and tenacity were outstanding,’ says the citation. ‘In one night raid his was the only aircraft from the squadron to locate the target—an enemy landing ground in the desert—and having found it he made determined attacks with bombs and machine-guns as a result of which at least two Junkers 52 on the ground were destroyed and others damaged.’ On landing back at Fuka after this sortie, Coleman was driving in a lorry from dispersal when a Wellington which was coming in to land crashed and burst into flames nearby; he immediately jumped out of the lorry, started up another aircraft nearby and, although bombs and petrol tanks were exploding in all directions, taxied it safely away from the danger area.
Flying Officer Anstey had completed forty-three bombing missions by August 1941; in the first fortnight of that month he flew four times to Benghazi to attack shipping there, made another two trips across the Mediterranean to the Corinth Canal and a further sortie to the Corinth Canal in between frequent trips to Benghazi; on one occasion when an engine failed he got his Wellington back and landed it skilfully behind our lines without injury to his crew.
McArthur, who also completed many bombing raids, had an unenviable experience after attacking Benghazi one night in June 1941. As he was turning for home flak hit one engine, causing a slow oil leak; he nursed his machine along fairly well over the sea but suddenly, when only about thirty miles from Mersa Matruh, the propeller flew off, tearing through the fuselage and cutting control lines. Forced to bring his machine down on the sea, he achieved a successful landing in spite of the darkness and, after a severe buffeting, the crew were able to take to the dinghy before the Wellington sank; but it was two days before they were spotted by a seaplane which landed and picked them up; by that time all were suffering badly from thirst and exhaustion.
Among the air gunners Sergeant Moore's record was typical. Including his early operations over Germany, he had by mid-1941 completed forty-six bombing missions. His ability as a gunner was demonstrated one night in June when three Italian fighters attacked his Wellington over Benghazi; by accurate fire he drove off the first two before they could do any damage; the third persisted, however, using its greater manoeuvreability to good effect, but in the end it too was fought off and shot down by Moore's determined shooting. An episode in which Sergeant Marusich showed great fortitude occurred in September: ‘During an attack on Derna airfield,’ says the official report, ‘he was badly wounded by shellfire and although suffering severely from pain and loss of blood he made light of his injuries, thus permitting his comrades to devote their attention to the work in hand.’page 55
By the end of 1941 quite a large group of New Zealand pilots, navigators and air gunners were flying Wellingtons of No. 108 Squadron, which was formed at Shallufa in September. Flight Lieutenants D. R. Bagnall and K. F. Vare,1 Flying Officer Anderson2 and Flight Sergeant Gray3 were especially prominent as captains of aircraft and Sergeant Curno4 as air gunner. Bagnall was now a veteran of bombing operations in the Middle East for he had flown Bombays in the first raids on Tobruk and Benghazi; he had also ferried men and equipment to Greece and on one such trip had his aircraft destroyed by enemy fighter attack on the airfield at Heraklion in Crete. Vare had taken a prominent part in the formation and establishment of his squadron at Shallufa, no easy task in those days of mobile operations and shortage of equipment. Subsequently he flew many sorties to Benghazi and in November 1941 led Wellingtons on the first occasion when two operations were flown on the same night. Later in mid-January he made a remarkable ‘proving flight’ in the first Liberator to reach the Middle East—at the time, aircraft spares were urgently needed by a squadron recently transferred to South-east Asia and Vare completed the 12,000-mile return flight from Egypt to Sumatra, stopping only to refuel at Karachi and at Bangalore.
Anderson had already completed twenty-seven raids with Bomber Command before he joined 108 Squadron. By May 1942 he had doubled this total with operations against ports and airfields in the Middle East. Here is his account of the way things went and of one particularly ‘shaky do’ as he calls it:
We were based at airfields in the Daba-Fuka area and the usual procedure was for us to have a preliminary briefing there in the morning, after which crews would fly their Wellingtons to an advanced landing ground some 200 miles forward in the desert. We were bombed up at base but made this flight with a small petrol load since it made take-off easier in the heat of the day. The advanced grounds were merely patches of desert levelled off and were quite difficult to locate in dust storms—especially L.G. 60 which was some distance from the coast but much favoured because its surface, being the bed of a dried lake, was fairly smooth. On arrival at the advanced base, one member of the crew was left to guard the aircraft and make certain that the tanks were filled and minor faults rectified. After briefing and a meal there was time for a short rest if take off was late, but the only resting place available was the aircraft and it was surprising how cold a Wellington could be out in the desert.
Taxying out for take off in the dark and swirling sand raised by other machines could be quite harrowing when the flarepath became obscured and other aircraft and obstructions not clearly definable. With take-off safely accomplished the flight to the target was usually uneventful, consisting of one long climb trying to get as much height as possible. Over Benghazi the flak was concentrated and pretty accurate—gunners and searchlight operators there had plenty of practice for there was rarely a night when no aircraft visited them. Bombing raids were seldom made above 12,000 feet as this was the best a Wellington IC could manage in the thin air even when stripped of all possible equipment. A typical mail run trip took about seven hours from the advanced base and on return there crews would be interrogated and then after a short rest until dawn their aircraft would be refuelled for the return to base.
We had a rather eventful trip one night towards the end of October while making our bombing run over Benghazi. We were caught in a searchlight cone and then hit several times by anti-aircraft fire. The fuselage was badly holed, hydraulic pipeline severed and the undercarriage fell down and bomb doors jammed open. The extra drag reduced our speed on the flight back and when we were about ten miles short of our advanced base one of the engines cut out owing to lack of petrol so I gave the order to bale out. Just after they had gone the other engine stopped and the aircraft began to go down in a glide. There was no time for me to leave the controls and clip on my parachute so I switched on the landing lamps, did up my straps and hoped for the best. Fortunately the ground was reasonably level and the Wellington ploughed along and made a fairly good landing.
This was anti-climax but a very pleasant one after my thoughts during the last few minutes. A moment later, to my surprise, the wireless operator and rear gunner popped their heads through the door from the rear cabin to join me in wiping away the perspiration. They had missed the order to bale out.
We rested until dawn and then leaving the two of my crew to guard the aircraft I walked north and found the road four miles away where a passing lorry gave me a lift to our advanced landing ground where two of the others had already arrived. We commandeered a truck and soon found both the aircraft and the other ‘caterpillars’.
The RAF assault against enemy ports and shipping helped our own forces to win the race to build up strength and supplies. By the middle of November 1941, Auchinleck was ready to attack. The main purpose of the new offensive, which was to be known as Operation CRUSADER, was to recapture Cyrenaica, destroying the enemy's armour in the process and then, if all went well, to continue the advance towards Tripoli; at the right moment the Tobruk garrison would make a violent sortie and join up with the advance. The opening moves were nicely timed to anticipate an attempt by Rommel to eliminate that troublesome British strongpoint inside his territory.
Coningham's squadrons of the Desert Air Force—they now included a formidable array of modern fighters, new and fast Boston light bombers and some Beaufighters for ground attack—were to play an important part both before and during CRUSADER. In the preliminary page 57 phase, the chain of bases between the enemy's back areas and his front lines were sedulously bombed while fighters maintained a high degree of activity to obstruct observation of our preparations. The extent to which they succeeded in blinding the enemy may be gauged from the fact that the subsequent ground attack achieved complete surprise— Rommel himself was in Rome when it began. Over the last few days before the land offensive opened, the RAF attack was switched from the enemy's supplies to his air forces; the landing grounds at Berka, Benina, Barce, Derna, Gambut, Gazala, Martuba and Tmimi were all bombed and a good deal of damage was done to repair shops, hangars, runways and aircraft on the ground. More and more reconnaissance sorties were made as the hour of attack drew close; sturdy Boston bombers now making their appearance were temporarily employed on this role. Another new note was seen in the adaptation of some fighters to carry bombs, notably the versatile Hurricane, which soon proved itself highly efficient in the fighter-bomber role.
Early on 18 November, after a night of storm and heavy rain, the Eighth Army surged forward. Overhead its troops saw a sky full of friendly aircraft— ‘whole shoals of fighters swept by, glinting like little silver splinters in the sun and bombers cruised steadily along with their fighter escorts fooling all around them’—which was indeed a novel spectacle for the watchers on the desert and so different from the grim days in Greece, when it had been almost second nature for them to dive for cover when anything flew overhead. But now the tables had been turned. This time some of the Luftwaffe's airfields were waterlogged, while at others facilities had been damaged or destroyed, so British fighters found few adversaries to fight in the sky and more aircraft to damage on the ground; a few combats took place over Martuba and some transport aircraft were shot down near Barce, but apart from this there was little opposition in the air. Later, as its landing grounds dried out, the Luftwaffe began to hit back and there were some spirited engagements. On the morning of the 20th, for example, two squadrons of Tomahawks (No. 112 RAF and No. 3 Australian) encountered a formation of Me110s and shot down four of them; later the same day Hurricanes met a number of Ju87 dive-bombers escorted by Me109s. They forced the Ju87s to jettison their bombs and in the mix-up which followed two Messerschmitts and four of the bombers were shot down for the loss of four British fighters.
Meanwhile on the ground the enemy had, after a hesitant start, reacted strongly and in violent actions between 19 and 23 November defeated the British armour and overrun a South African brigade. Thereupon Rommel, scenting a major victory, set out with his Afrika Korps and an Italian armoured division to the frontier, but in such breathless haste that the consternation he caused in an area of vulner- page 58 able dumps and airfields was almost matched by the disorganisation within his two panzer divisions. Heavy losses were also suffered in several actions with ground forces and from attacks by Desert Air Force; indeed, virtually unprotected by their own air force, the enemy columns soon experienced the pangs our troops had known and endured when it was the Luftwaffe that dominated the skies. After three days Rommel returned in haste to the Tobruk area, where the New Zealand Division had meantime pressed forward to join hands with the garrison there.
A major battle now developed at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed as Rommel sought to destroy the New Zealand Division. He inflicted heavy losses and broke the Tobruk ‘corridor’, but the effort was too much for his troops and in the face of British reinforcements the enemy was in full but orderly retreat by 10 December. After a brief stand at Gazala this withdrawal continued and by Christmas British troops were in Benghazi once again. But this time the enemy retreat had not been turned into a rout and the hard core of his forces had not been destroyed. Somewhere to the east of El Agheila Rommel and his Afrika Korps were still at large.
The RAF continued to give full support to the land battle. Its activities left the Germans practically blinded in the air and wrought great destruction among the unarmoured transport and supply vehicles operating behind the German front; airfields, ports and dumps were bombed; and there was constant patrol and attack above the actual fighting area. Clashes with the Luftwaffe were frequent and at first the balance of casualties in air combat was fairly even; but after a few days it swung steadily in favour of the RAF, thanks largely to the skill and gallantry of its fighter pilots, for their machines were not equal in performance to the Messerschmitt 109F. There was a notable action on the last day of November when a Tomahawk wing intercepted some fifty enemy fighters and bombers that were preparing to attack the New Zealand Division. Our pilots shot down no fewer than fifteen of them and damaged ten others for the loss of three; and the Germans were forced to jettison their bombs instead of dropping them on our troops. ‘Your fellows have been simply magnificent,’ declared Freyberg. ‘My men are full of admiration and gratitude’; Auchinleck expressed his appreciation for ‘the magnificent co-operation of the R.A.F.’ which had supplied ‘a constant stream of valuable information’, while their fighters provided ‘almost complete protection’ and the bombers disorganised the enemy ‘often in answer to calls from my troops.’
During the pursuit across Cyrenaica Coningham's squadrons kept up their good work. Constant fighter patrols practically drove the Luftwaffe from the sky; and although sandstorms and the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe reduced the scale of effort against ground page 59 targets, reconnaissance aircraft brought back evidence of ‘considerable confusion as far back as Benghazi’. Simultaneously Desert Air Force gave remarkable demonstrations of its new-found mobility. At Gazala 10,000 gallons of petrol arrived while the landing grounds were still under shellfire and for two hazardous days working parties plied their trade in advance of the front line; again at Mechili the advanced RAF party reached the landing ground as the last of the retreating enemy left in a cloud of dust and by the next day it had 15,000 gallons of fuel there—one day later four squadrons were operating from the landing ground and four more were refuelling for operations farther forward. Another example of the excellent work done by the ground staffs occurred when a party sent to prepare a landing ground deep in the desert far ahead of the Army had a runway of 1000 yards cleared as the first squadron landed, and had four squadrons suitably accommodated on the next day, with more coming in for fuel and a force of bombers standing by.
A novel and interesting feature of CRUSADER air operations, in which New Zealand airmen played a leading part, must be recorded here. This was the attack on Rommel's supply lines south of Benghazi by a small force of thirty-two Hurricanes and Blenheims sent to operate from bases in the heart of the Cyrenaican desert. Although almost completely isolated and with its landing grounds under frequent attack by enemy bombers, this small force accounted for several hundred enemy vehicles, including some petrol tankers; and it destroyed more than thirty enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground. Wing Commander Whitley was in charge of the two squadrons and the few RAF armoured cars which guarded their landing grounds. ‘For two months,’ says an official report, ‘he led this force with great determination in the face of all manner of difficulties and as well as planning its operations he led many of the Hurricane fighter sorties himself.’ Towards the end of November 1941 ‘Whitforce’, as it came to be known, was joined by Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron commanded by Squadron Leader Ward. In the next few weeks Ward led a series of attacks on airfields and convoys in the El Agheila region, during which enemy machines were destroyed on the ground and damage done to airfield facilities; he also shot down two Ju88 bombers and damaged a Messerschmitt 110 during sweeps over the battle area.
New Zealand fighter pilots certainly saw plenty of action during CRUSADER. Squadron Leader Bary, for example, led his Tomahawk squadron in the first interception of what became known as ‘Stuka parties’—formations of Junkers 87 dive-bombers escorted by fighters. It was on the second day of the offensive that Bary's Tomahawks, in company with another squadron, intercepted an enemy formation over the desert and after a spirited engagement scattered them, claiming two page 60 Ju87s destroyed with two fighters and another dive-bomber probably destroyed. A week later Bary led his pilots in another fierce engagement against some twenty Ju88 bombers escorted by Messerschmitt 109s and Italian G50 fighters; they claimed three fighters and one bomber destroyed, together with six probables, for the loss of only two Tomahawks.
Flight Lieutenant Strachan1 frequently led Hurricane fighter-bombers against the enemy columns streaming back along the coast road and across the desert. A typical mission was flown on 8 December to attack convoys moving from Acroma to the coast road. The Hurricanes found and bombed their target and then six of them swept down with machine guns blazing to set more lorries on fire and damage others; meanwhile the other six Hurricanes circled above as top cover and beat off an attack by enemy fighters, destroying two of them without loss. Another outstanding Hurricane pilot was Flying Officer Tracey, who had already destroyed eight enemy machines before CRUSADER began. Early in December he led part of a two-squadron escort to Blenheims bombing enemy concentrations west of El Adem. In that area the Hurricane met some twenty Messerschmitts and in the battle which followed destroyed three of them. During the battle Tracey saw one of his fellow pilots bale out, so he circled the descending parachute and then landed alongside a surprised South African, squeezed him into his cockpit and took off back to base.
Flying Tomahawk fighters, Flight Lieutenant Westenra was prominent with No. 112 Squadron, which operated intensively in support of the Army and on sweeps over enemy airfields. On one patrol early in December Westenra shot down two Italian G50s while escorting Blenheims to bomb enemy columns on the Capuzzo road; shortly afterwards he led his squadron in a very successful strike against the German airfield at Magrun, where at least fifteen German and Italian machines were either destroyed or damaged on the ground. Three other pilots who saw action with Westenra's squadron were Sergeants Hoare,2 Glasgow3 and Houston.4
In one sortie, Hammond and his navigator were sweeping low over Tmimi airfield when their aircraft struck a telegraph pole, tearing off part of the wing, and it was only by desperately pushing the aileron control hard over that Hammond just managed to lift the damaged wing and keep on a level course. But he had not the strength to hold on for long, so he called his navigator forward and together they contrived to manage the controls and bring the aircraft safely to its base over 400 miles away—a remarkable feat of flying.
Watters was with the formation of six Beaufighters which, one day in mid-November, arrived over Tmimi airfield just as five Ju52 transports had taken off; the British pilots shot down all five of them and then went on to set four more aircraft on fire on the ground; shortly afterwards they intercepted and shot down two more German reconnaissance machines and finally, before setting course for base, shot up a column of enemy troops.
Crawford, who flew in many attacks against enemy airfields, had a remarkable adventure towards the end of December. After being shot down over the desert, he was captured by the Germans but succeeded in making his escape just before dawn two days later. Unfortunately, in his first headlong rush through the darkness he fell and injured his foot; he was soon unable to walk at all and might well have perished had he not met some wandering bedouin, who looked after him for several days and then helped him to reach a British forward unit at Barce. Crawford returned to his squadron only to lose his life a few weeks later when his Beaufighter was hit by flak during a low-level attack on enemy vehicles near Martuba; he made a gallant attempt to land his machine on the desert but the ground proved too rough and it crashed and caught fire.
Transport pilots also did work during CRUSADER by carrying forward urgent supplies and evacuating casualties. Flying Officer Chisholm was prominent in these duties as captain of a Dakota aircraft of No. 117 Squadron. At the height of the battle he helped to answer an urgent call for ammunition from British tanks near Sidi Rezegh. When the call came, ships carrying the ammunition had only reached Port Sudan in the Red Sea, so the Dakotas flew a shuttle service page 62 from that port to a landing ground near the scene of the fighting. The Dakotas continued to fly up ammunition and spares for several weeks and undoubtedly made an important contribution at a critical point in the battle.
Missions of a more unusual kind were flown during CRUSADER by Pilot Officer T. J. W. Williams,1 a New Zealand bomber captain. He took part in the attempt that was made to interfere with enemy inter-tank radio communication from the air. For this novel experiment six specially-equipped Wellington aircraft had been flown out from the United Kingdom and, because of the lively interest displayed by the British Prime Minister in the project, they came to be known as ‘Winston's Wellingtons’. Unfortunately this first attempt does not appear to have met with any notable success. For one thing the Wellington aircraft themselves, flying low over the battle area, proved highly vulnerable. One night towards the end of November 1941, when Williams was on patrol over the enemy lines, his aircraft was attacked by several fighters and badly hit; the front turret was put out of action, the wireless transmitter damaged and the hydraulic tank holed. The leaking tank was plugged with rags and the wireless operator stood by holding them in place, thus enabling Williams to complete his patrol and return to base. After two of the six Wellingtons had been shot down and all the others damaged the jamming patrols over the battle area were temporarily withdrawn; but experiments with radio counter-measures, in which both Pilot Officer Williams and Sergeant Russell2 took part, continued and they resulted in more effective action during the Alamein battles.
* * * * *
Suddenly, towards the end of January, Rommel struck back. Leaving his main force of armour halted and largely discarding air support because it would take time to bring up all the petrol they would require, he sent infantry in lorries racing across the hill country of the Gebel Akhdar in an outflanking movement from the north. The British forces, caught unawares and in the midst of supply difficulties, were forced to give ground. It was typical of Rommel that he should make such a sudden surprise move, setting out eastwards again, so it is said, with only a few days' rations in hand and less than a hundred tanks; similarly that, having achieved initial success, he should continue his advance with bold unorthodoxy. And his action in dispensing with air support seemed justified at first for the weather just then was a formidable alternation of driving rain and sandstorms; but as the skies cleared his columns were to suffer severely from lack of such protection.
During the opening stages of the enemy attack Desert Air Force had to contend with waterlogged airfields and the difficulties of moving back; its forward positions had been insecurely held and when the military screen in front of it collapsed abruptly, the main fighter force at Antelat received only the briefest warning of the enemy's approach. It was no simple matter to evacuate eight squadrons at short notice from a sodden landing ground; but with six men under each wing, the Kittyhawks and Hurricanes were moved on to the single strip and the last of them took off as shells began dropping on the airfield; six unserviceable machines had to be left behind, but the whole move compared favourably with the large numbers of aircraft abandoned by the Luftwaffe in its retreat a few weeks earlier.
It was not long before our fighters were operating strongly again, attacking the advancing enemy and regaining air superiority over the forward area; some Hurricanes encountering a force of dive-bombers, just as their own petrol was running low, disposed of them and then forced-landed safely with dry tanks. Boston and Maryland light bombers joined in the daylight attack and by night Wellingtons operating from advanced landing grounds bombed concentrations of lorries in the enemy's rear. Tomahawks, Kittyhawks and Hurricanes harassed the enemy continually as he pressed forward along the desert tracks and on one day claimed 120 lorries destroyed. All these operations were flown despite frequent sandstorms.page 64
As Rommel continued his advance the fighter squadrons were compelled to move back once more; at Benina they took off only as the enemy approached, and again they left little behind. But by the beginning of February, Rommel had outrun his supplies and his columns, lacking the weight to press home their advance, were finally halted. Their advance, which had begun so brilliantly, petered out from a combination of resistance on the ground, resistance in the air and lack of petrol and supplies. By the middle of February stability had returned to the war in the desert, with the Eighth Army firmly holding a line from Gazala to Bir Hacheim. A lull of some three months in the ground fighting now followed, during which the opponents sought once again to build up their strength.
Although this final outcome of CRUSADER was somewhat disappointing, the campaign had nevertheless produced substantial dividends. Our front line, even after the retreat, was still well to the west of the Egyptian frontier instead of along it, so that the airfields of eastern Cyrenaica were now in our hands. Tobruk, which had been a tremendous strain on our resources while besieged, had been relieved and, what was even more important, the temporary possession of airfields to the west had enabled convoys to be run through to help Malta. In the desert, new methods of tactical support had been tried out, and while still capable of improvement, they were a great advance on anything that had gone before. The scheme of mobile wings had proved a triumphant success, enabling Coningham's squadrons to keep up with every movement in a campaign of extraordinary fluidity. The new maintenance organisation had also proved its worth; in four months its units had received 1035 damaged aircraft—brought in from points scattered all over the desert—and during the same period had repaired and delivered back 810 of these machines to the battle area. Altogether the men of the Desert Air Forces could feel a justifiable pride at their achievements. Between mid-November 1941, when the Eighth Army went into action, and mid-February 1942 when the position stabilised at Gazala, they had flown well over 10,000 sorties and destroyed some five hundred German and Italian machines in the air and on the ground. Gaining command of the air, they had protected our troops, safeguarded our ships, defended Suez and Alexandria and seriously mauled the enemy's ground forces.
And now, during the interval in the ground fighting, they continued with patrol and attack. Night fighters fought defensive combats over Egypt, Bostons assiduously bombed the chain of enemy airfields from Tmimi to Benghazi and fighter-bombers attacked transport on the roads. Wellingtons continued to fly night after night on the ‘mail run’ to Benghazi—the port was bombed on no fewer than sixty-nine page 65 occasions during the spring of 1942—and seriously hampered the unloading of German supplies. Patrols over our forward positions were maintained daily while reconnaissance over the eastern Mediterranean, in search of enemy ships and in protection of our own, was constant.
The enemy air forces were almost equally active. They raided Tobruk and the forward areas, made sporadic attacks on Alexandria and the Canal and ran a special supply service from Greece and Crete to Derna. They also kept up patrols to hold off our attacks. Their effort against Egypt was, however, limited by the fact that the main preoccupation of the Luftwaffe bombers during these months was the assault against Malta from Sicily.
And while these operations continued Desert Air Force completed the reorganisation begun by Tedder in the previous year. The fighter squadrons were now placed under separate operational control; this was organised on the ‘leapfrog’ principle with two identical operations rooms, one forward and one rear, which under fluid conditions could act in the same way as squadron forward and rear parties and so maintain continuity of operations in spite of frequent moves. Simultaneously the principles of air support were defined more clearly for the benefit of air and ground forces alike, and in order to overcome the vexed problem of identification of ground targets agreement was finally reached on the marking of all British vehicles with the RAF roundel. The maintenance and repair organisations were further developed and expanded while airfield construction was pushed ahead and facilities improved. By May 1942, Coningham's Desert Air Force, although somewhat depleted by withdrawals to the Far East, was thus well prepared to support a ground offensive by the Eighth Army. Unfortunately, however, it was not called upon to do so; for it was the enemy who struck first.
Rommel opened his attack on 26 May with an outflanking movement in the familiar manner. This time the main weight of his armour drove south, passed round Bir Hacheim and then pushed north towards the main British position at the desert crossroads known as ‘Knightsbridge’. A fierce armoured battle developed in this region, soon to be nicknamed ‘The Cauldron’. Meanwhile the enemy cut gaps through the minefields of the main British line in order to provide himself with a shorter supply route than that round the southern flank. It was not long before the ‘Cauldron’ was boiling over.
From the outset Coningham's squadrons were active both in close support of the Eighth Army and in air battles with the Luftwaffe. The first day they broke up several heavily escorted raids by Stukas and claimed a good bag of enemy aircraft; thereafter they concentrated against the German troops and armour, disrupting their supplies and page 66 hindering their advance—two attacks on the morning of the 30th reduced some fifty enemy vehicles to blazing wrecks. In these operations Kittyhawks now appeared as fighter-bombers and they flew dangerously near the ground. Their losses were considerable but results appeared to justify them, German prisoners testifying to the alarming accuracy of the attacks and cursing the inadequate protection afforded by their own aircraft. And as the fight swayed to and fro in the ‘Cauldron’, General Auchinleck reported that ‘our own Air Force is co-operating magnificently in the battle.’
After four days of assault from the air and stiffening resistance on the ground, the enemy supply position had become serious and the whole issue hung in the balance. But then, under cover of sandstorms which prevented the RAF from operating intensively, Rommel contrived to widen the gaps in the British minefield and drew back upon them to replenish his supplies. Thereafter events moved swiftly to a climax. Mistaking his temporary withdrawal for exhaustion, the British launched an attack aimed at crushing the enemy bridgehead. It failed in the face of superior German armour and a powerful array of anti-tank artillery. Rommel thereupon seized the initiative, turning his main effort against Bir Hacheim at the southern extremity of the British line.
Here the RAF was already supplying the isolated garrison and defending it against the assaults of the Luftwaffe with no little success. Now it redoubled its efforts to help the gallant Free French Brigade, who were rejecting calls to surrender in language of increasing impropriety. And as the air attack mounted the sight of Stukas crashing in flames and bombs bursting among enemy vehicles ‘on their very doorstep’ drew murmurs of appreciation from the defenders. ‘Bravo! Merci pour le R.A.F.’ signalled their commander; and with commendable gallantry and a laudable command of idiom, Coningham replied: ‘Bravos à vous! Merci pour le sport.’ The dive-bombers were beaten—indeed so many were destroyed or damaged that the Germans had to bring in Ju88s hurriedly from Crete to fill the gap—but the garrison, pounded by a mass of heavy artillery and short of water and supplies, was forced to give up the position after fifteen days' fighting; under cover of the RAF a brave remnant fought its way out and lived to fight again. Their dogged defence of this desert outpost became something of a legend for the fighting French but it was an episode in which the RAF had played no small part. And it seriously upset the plans on which the enemy had based his offensive.
With our southern flank broken and his supplies thereby assured, Rommel now swung north and the fighting round Knightsbridge reached a new fury. At its close the enemy were masters of the field and our own armour gravely reduced, compelling a general withdrawal page 67 to the Egyptian frontier. Then things went wrong and soon the Eighth Army was falling back in headlong retreat. The Germans followed up swiftly, crashed through the defences of Tobruk, capturing over 30,000 men and great quantities of supplies, and then immediately swept on towards the Egyptian frontier. Auchinleck was forced to order further withdrawal, first to Matruh and then to El Alamein, where there existed a relatively narrow front of about thirty-five miles which could not be turned since it lay between the sea and the vast salt-pan known as the Qattara Depression. Here the defence was hurriedly reorganised with what resources were available and the enemy was at last halted-only sixty miles from Alexandria.
Throughout this black fortnight, when all that our forces had so painfully won seemed to be slipping away, the Desert Air Force fought hard and continuously. During the Knightsbridge battle Bostons, Hurricanes and Kittyhawks went out hour after hour on a shuttle service of bombing and strafing, returning only to refuel, re-arm and take off again. The landing grounds shimmered in the June heat under a constant cloud of dust kicked up by the take-offs. Beneath it, ground crews worked each hour of daylight and far into the darkness; they abandoned their tents and dug themselves holes in the ground beside their aircraft in the dispersal areas, flinging themselves wearily into these holes to get a few hours' sleep when exhausted. After dark they muffled their heads in blankets and worked on their aircraft by the light of pocket torches; and they continued to work through bombing raids in which the enemy was using peculiarly unpleasant anti-personnel missiles known as ‘butterfly bombs’. And while these men toiled on the ground through the midsummer heat, the pilots and aircrews flew, fought and flew again, without time to shave their beards or change their clothes. Certainly they earned Auchinleck's acknowledgment that ‘it should be made clear that R.A.F. support for the Army has been unstinted at great sacrifice throughout the present campaign.’
But the greatest achievement of Desert Air Force came during the retreat to El Alamein; for while the Eighth Army was moving back some 400 miles in a fortnight, it not only escaped destruction on the ground but it also escaped decimation from the air. This second fact was the more remarkable since, for days on end, the coastal road presented the astonishing spectacle of a congested mass of slowly moving troops and transport, a target such as pilots' dreams are made of. A little attention from Stukas and Messerschmitts and the lorries must have piled up in endless confusion. But the enemy bombers did not appear and the Eighth Army reached El Alamein virtually unmolested from the air—during one period of three days when the congestion was greatest, its casualties on the road from air attacks are recorded as being just six men and one lorry. This incredible immunity page 68 was partly due to the inability of the Luftwaffe to keep up with Rommel's advance but, when due allowance is made for this fact, the German dive-bombers could still have wrought havoc among our retreating forces had their activities not been vigorously discouraged by the Royal Air Force. Much of the work of its squadrons was done out of sight of our troops; highly effective attacks, for example, were made on the Gazala airfields as soon as they were occupied by the enemy, so crippling the German fighter effort from the start. Later, enemy squadrons were twice caught on the ground, at Tmimi and Sidi Barrani, at critical moments during the pursuit. And such fighters as the Germans did manage to bring forward were kept so busy trying to protect their own forces that they had little leisure to attack ours. But the Army realised the protection the RAF was giving it. ‘Thank God, you didn't let the Huns Stuka us,’ General Freyberg told Tedder, ‘because we were an appalling target.’1
Coningham's squadrons certainly gave the enemy little rest. After the fighters and light bombers had finished by day, the Wellingtons carried on by night. Released from the Benghazi ‘mail run’—a change greeted by the crews with cheers—they moved up to the Western Desert and flew a steady sixty or seventy sorties every night against the enemy's concentrations. And even though Desert Air Force was continually forced to retire from its forward bases, the effort in the air was increased and not diminished. During the first week of the German attack Coningham's squadrons flew 2339 sorties, but in the last week, when the El Alamein line was withstanding the initial shock, they flew 5458. At the same time, the proportion of aircraft serviceable, so far from declining as the fight continued and casualties mounted, actually showed a slight improvement. All this was made possible by the strenuous and indeed heroic efforts of the air and ground crews, by the boldness of their leaders and the remarkable efficiency of the organisation that had been created. Weeks before, Coningham had had plans prepared for retreat as well as for advance and the landing grounds to the rear had been stocked with petrol and bombs. His squadrons were therefore able to make a steady withdrawal, fighting all the time. And as they moved back, repair and salvage units stripped the airfields of all useful equipment and supplies. The result was that the Luftwaffe advanced on to empty desert while the Royal Air Force moved back on to well-stocked bases from which it could operate with greater intensity.
1 This was after the New Zealanders' brief stand at Minqar Qaim. Actually the Division did suffer two bombings on 26 June, but as its official historian points out: ‘The outstanding feature of Minqar Qaim was not its impact on the enemy or its contribution to Eighth Army's operations, but that the Division escaped annihilation. The Division's concentration on the escarpment made it vulnerable to air attack.’ —J. L. Scoullar, Battle for Egypt, p. 135.
Thus did the RAF give the Eighth Army almost complete and continuous support. The only exception was at Tobruk, where the enemy had things all his own way after the loss of Gambut airfield drove our main fighter force back out of range. But the very swiftness and immensity of the disaster at this point, when our fighters were virtually absent, points the contrast to the successful retirement along the rest of the route where they were so very much present. As the British Prime Minister, ‘watching with enthusiasm the brilliant, supreme exertions of the Royal Air Force in the battle’, told the House of Commons afterwards: ‘When we retreated all those hundreds of miles at such speed, what saved us was superior air power.’
* * * * *
During these eventful months of early 1942, New Zealanders played their part with Desert Air Force in steadily increasing numbers. While fighter pilots gave a good account of themselves in the air battles with the Luftwaffe and in attacks on ground targets, bomber crews shared to the full the dull monotony of the ‘mail run’ to Benghazi and the nightly raids on the enemy's rear areas; they also joined in the land battle with good effect when the opportunity came. And although their contingent was still relatively small, the New Zealand airmen had already achieved something of a reputation for skill and efficiency among their comrades from other parts of the Commonwealth. By June 1942 twenty-five of them had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, four more had won a bar to this decoration and another twelve had received the Distinguished Flying Medal for operations with the RAF in the Middle East.
An interesting feature of this period was the arrival in the Middle East of that outstanding air leader, Sir Keith Park, who took command of Air Headquarters, Egypt, at the beginning of January 1942. The appointment was opportune since, following his command of the most active fighter group in the Battle of Britain, Park was thoroughly experienced in organising and leading an aggressive fighter defence. Shortly after his arrival the Germans began more frequent incursions from their bases on the island of Rhodes and in the Dodecanese, but under Park's direction the air defences of Egypt—day and night fighters, anti-aircraft batteries, searchlights and the radar and observer corps warning system—were organised into a more efficient team and the raiding bombers given a hot reception. During the six months prior to the decisive battle of El Alamein, no fewer than forty of them were shot down over Egypt by our fighters alone. At a time when all three services were struggling to build up adequate supplies in Egypt, this successful defence was of the greatest importance.
Among our fighter pilots with Desert Air Force, Squadron Leader Derek Ward, in command of No. 73 Hurricane Squadron, and Flight page 70 Lieutenant Westenra, who led a flight in No. 112 Kittyhawk Squadron, were again outstanding on operations. Ward brought his Hurricanes back to the Western Desert early in February after spending a few weeks based at Port Said in defence of the Canal Zone; they were now used to defend the bases of the Desert Air Force at El Adem. At dawn one early February morning a flight of German bombers flew in from the sea and Ward took off in his Hurricane to intercept. Here is his report of the subsequent engagement, during which he shot down a Heinkel III bomber:
My approach was observed, and the enemy aircraft dived down to sea level. I carried out an astern attack with no apparent result. There was continuous return fire from the top twin-machine guns. I carried out another astern attack firing at port and starboard engines. Both engines were damaged and oil came back and covered my windscreen. The enemy aircraft could not maintain height and belly-landed on the water, north of Tobruk.
During the lull at Gazala, Ward's squadron continued night operations over the forward area. On one patrol early in May while strafing Barce airfield, Ward caught sight of a large four-engined bomber flying directly in front of him; a short burst set one of its engines on fire and a second saw the bomber enveloped in flames; a few moments later it crashed and exploded in a sheet of flame that lit up the whole area. With the opening of the German land offensive, Ward's squadron returned to day operations and was soon in action over the battle. Ward led sortie after sortie and his Hurricanes did particularly good work in aid of the French Brigade at Bir Hacheim, dropping supplies and intercepting enemy air formations. One of the most successful missions in this eventful period was flown on 12 June. ‘At 1935 hours,’ says the record, ‘twelve Hurricanes were detailed to sweep S.E. of El Adem. It was the fourth sortie of the day. Near Acroma they met a large force of Ju87s and Ju88s covered by Me109 and Macchi fighters and in the hectic fight which followed five Stukas were shot down with four more probably destroyed. The only damage suffered by us was one Hurricane slightly damaged.’ By this time Ward himself was credited with six enemy machines destroyed with a further four ‘probables’. But like so many of his gallant comrades of the early years, his luck eventually failed him. It was towards the end of this same month, while he was leading his Hurricanes as escort to a formation of Boston bombers, that German fighters made a surprise attack. Ward was one of four pilots lost.
Flight Lieutenant Westenra was frequently in action with his squadron. One day towards the end of January when the Eighth Army was pulling back to Gazala, he led an attack on German armour near Fort Sculedine, where six vehicles and one tank were destroyed or damaged. By mid-February the Kittyhawks were flying sweeps from Gambut and on the 14th Westenra's squadron scored a notable success. Led by page 71 the redoubtable Australian fighter pilot, Squadron Leader C. R. Caldwell, later to be credited with the highest number of kills in operations by Desert Air Force, eighteen Kittyhawks encountered a formation of some thirty enemy aircraft over El Adem and claimed the destruction of twenty. On another occasion in March, Westenra was leading seven aircraft of his squadron which took off from their base at Gambut to patrol the forward area. Here they intercepted fifteen Ju87 dive-bombers escorted by Messerschmitt 109s and Macchi 200s. In breaking up the enemy formation Westenra claimed a Macchi 200 destroyed and a fellow pilot a Ju87. Later in the month Westenra was concerned in experimental dive-bombing with Kittyhawks, which led the squadron to turn to this new role.
Two other fighter pilots prominent during these months were Flight Lieutenant J. E. A. Williams,1 flight commander with No. 450 Kittyhawk Squadron, and Flight Sergeant Joyce flying Hurricanes with No. 73 Squadron. Williams shot down a Messerschmitt while leading his flight over Gambut one day in June; about the same time, Joyce, on night patrol in defence of our desert airfields, shot down one of the Ju88 bombers that were making frequent raids after dark when our fighters were grounded. Sergeants Baker,2 Howell,3 Musker4 and Wilson5 did good work flying Hurricanes and Pilot Officer Mitchell,6 Sergeants Newton7 and Thomas8 as Kittyhawk pilots. And it is interesting to record that two New Zealanders, Sergeants Bailey9 and Burman,10 flew some of the first Spitfires that reached Desert Air Force in June 1942.
1 Squadron Leader J. E. A. Williams, DFC, m.i.d.; born Wellington, 6 May 1919; joined RAF 17 Jan 1938; commanded No. 450 Sqdn 1942; prisoner of war, 31 Oct 1942; shot attempting to escape from Stalag Luft III, 29 Mar 1944.
1 May 1942. Three aircraft took off at dawn on strafing expedition in Agedabia area. Found and attacked five lorries near Bigrada; one towing a petrol bowser blew up in a most satisfying fashion. Later sighted twelve vehicles heading north each towing trailers carrying oil drums. Spectacular fire followed our attack. Further north came upon larger convoy and attacked with machine guns, causing fires and confusion. Soon after this “R” chased a Ju 52 near the coast and it forced landed on the beach. On return his Beaufighter showed a rifle bullet hole in the fuselage directly under pilot but bullet had been deflected by elevator control.
Crews were not always so fortunate. On 15 June, when twenty-six sorties were flown to cover a large convoy bound for Malta from Alexandria, six aircraft were lost, two being shot down by enemy fighters and two more possibly by our own naval guns; another stayed with the convoy to the utmost limit of his endurance and may have run out of fuel on the way back. However, one also reads that on this same day a crew on reconnaissance patrol ‘found the Italian Fleet, made careful observation of its composition and position and then flashed “a rude word” on the aldis lamp at the nearest cruiser, which promptly opened fire, very inaccurately.’ They then went on and shot down an Italian fighter.
A highlight in Beaufighter operations was the low-level attack on 2 July against the group of landing grounds at Sidi Barrani, where four Ju87s and two Messerschmitts were destroyed and another thirteen other aircraft damaged.
The men who flew heavy bombers, the Wellingtons and the few newly-arrived Liberators, had a less spectacular part to play; but it was none the less important and it is now known that during the retreat to El Alamein the larger bombs they dropped caused considerable damage at enemy landing grounds and among supply vehicles.
We were briefed to attack an enemy convoy steaming towards Tripoli [he writes]. After flying up to advanced base in the afternoon we took off for our mission just after dark.
Everything went smoothly until we crossed the coast north of Benghazi, when suddenly the port motor of our Wellington started to overheat and in a very short time it seized up; the plane started losing height very rapidly, although the starboard motor was at full throttle so the captain ordered everything possible to be jettisoned, and turned back. We crossed the coast again and let go the bombs. The plane seemed to hold its height for a time but soon the good motor started to heat and we began to lose height again.
After only a few hours walking in flying boots over the terribly rough ground in this region we were all worried with blisters. About two O'clock we almost bumped into an enemy tank and in trying to get round it came across some more. Whichever way we turned we saw tanks; we must have walked into the middle of an enemy laager in the darkness so decided the only thing to do was to try to work our way through them. In single file we crept past tank after tank and although we could hear the crews coughing and talking we were not seen and when we finally realised that we had passed through safely we were six considerably shaken men.
Shortly after this the moon came up and we were able to see where we were placing our very sore feet. We continued walking with ten minute breaks every hour until just as it was getting light in the East, we were suddenly stopped with the cry of ‘Halt’, at which we all threw ourselves flat. From the voice we could tell it was not friendly so after a hurried whispered conference we crawled back the way we had come and tried to get round him to the South only to walk into another challenge. This time we decided to try the North and were able to go about 200 yards before once again the cry of ‘Halt’ rang out, this time accompanied by the noise of a rifle bolt being worked. We simply froze to the ground expecting a bullet every second. After a few agonizing moments we crawled back the way we had originally come.
By this time it was getting quite light so we crept back looking for cover but could find nothing except an occasional stunted bush about a foot high, so settled down to await the coming of the search parties we were sure would be out the moment the sentries reported our presence, yet although we lay all that day in clear view of several parties of Italians, working on roads, no attempt was made to find us. However we had one or two scares, once when a motor-cyclist passed within 20 yards of us and another when about ten tanks rumbled past about 200 yards away. We had bully beef and biscuits with us but we were unable to swallow them on our ration of two mouthfuls of water each twice a day.
As soon as it became dark enough we set off on a compass course we had worked out during the day and were able to pass the enemy parties apparently before sentries had been posted. That night we covered a considerable distance without any alarms and when morning came we reckoned we had covered about 30 miles from the crash. As there was no sign of life anywhere we decided to keep walking before we got too weak from lack of water so on we went. Our ten minute spells every hour had become by this time twenty minutes and even thirty minutes. Every step was agony. The one member of the crew who had shoes, had them fall to pieces about this time so we had to bind them up with blankets. Although we were suffering terribly from the heat at this time we still kept our blankets and Irvine jackets because the nights were so cold.
About mid-day we saw a plane very low, flying straight for us and couldn't tell because of the haze, whether it was a Hurricane or a M.E.109. By the time we could see the markings and recognise it as a Hurricane and were able to fire our flare pistol and wave our shirts, it was right over us and we were not seen, a great disappointment.
Shortly after this we came across a bird's nest among the stones with two eggs in it. They made a delightful drink when beaten up with a little of our nearly exhausted water supply. We each had two and a half spoonfuls.page 75
Later in the afternoon we had to climb a fairly high hill and on top we found an old observation post and in it half a bottle of red Italian wine which we shared out after a few thoughts of poison. About this time we must have started having hallucinations from lack of water because we all saw what looked like deserted British trucks and Bren carriers down the other side of the hill; but when one of the crew volunteered to climb down to search them for water he found only empty desert. After a rather longer rest than usual we set course again until after dark when we had another experience of seeing quite clearly a truck looming up out of the darkness which just disappeared as we approached.
Soon we came to a bigger bush than usual with, of all things, green grass growing under it, so as we could go no further lay down to sleep. We must have slept for quite a time for when we woke, the grass was very wet with dew and we were able to lick off quite a bit of water before forcing ourselves to walk on. We were now down to about 15 minutes walking every hour and realised we were about at the end of our endurance, but thought we must be getting near our lines as the lack of movement convinced us we must be in ‘No-Mans Land’.
Just before dawn we collapsed and fell asleep where we lay. We were awakened by one of the crew shouting and we looked up to see him pointing ahead towards a group of trucks parked on the horizon facing West. We could make them out as British and guessed they were a party on the road from Tobruk to Gazala, stopped for breakfast. With new strength and very pleased with ourselves we set off, waving and trying to shout and firing off our revolvers. As we approached we could see a small group of men on a slight rise examining us through glasses and then two of them started walking in our direction. When they were about fifty yards off we realised they were German but I think we were all too far gone to take it in enough to worry.
The officer greeted us in English and told us to follow him. Sure enough as we approached we could see that the trucks were British but were being used by the Germans. We had walked into an anti-tank group and behind the guns were the German crews watching the British tanks about two miles away. One of the officers even lent us his glasses so that we could get a good look at them. The Germans gave us what water they could spare and we were soon bundled into a staff-car and taken back by stages to Derna where we were able to get our feet attended to and as much water as we wanted.
1 Squadron Leader D. M. Rolph-Smith, DFC, Order of the White Eagle (Yug); born Auckland, 19 Jun 1919; salesman; joined RNZAF Apr 1939; transferred RAF Jan 1940; killed in flying accident, 18 Nov 1943.
At first the Liberator crews concentrated on establishing contact with the partisans, dropping leaflets to explain their intentions and parachuting down agents who would act as liaison officers and send back radio reports and instructions as to the best dropping areas. Then, after a few weeks, regular supply dropping sorties began. The usual round trip meant a flight of some thirteen hours, much of it over wild, mountainous country. There were other difficulties. Meteorological reports were either non-existent or unreliable, the weather was frequently appalling with rain, icing, electrical storms and thick cloud and there was always the danger of interception by enemy fighters. Navigation was especially difficult, since wireless aids often could not be used because of static and astro-navigation became impossible when the stars were obscured or the sextant mirror frosted over. All too often crews reached the vicinity of the dropping zone only to find that thick low cloud covered their pinpoints, hiding the signals of the reception party—then there was no alternative but to return with their containers and packages. But undaunted, they went back again; and by their persistence they enabled the partisans to receive sufficient help and encouragement for them to hold out during a very difficult period of constant German pressure.