How to earn a D.F.M. and horrify Filton? Just fly her into a telegraph pole!

Background

No. 272 Squadron R.A.F. was the only unit in the Middle East equipped with the Bristol Beaufighter IC, one of the most successful British WW2 designs, developed as a private venture utilising parts of the Beaufort light bomber.  The plane had a 2-man crew, was fast, sturdy, and had an immense amount of fire power. It also had a good range, so was used for long-range infiltration missions, ranging deep into Libya from forward landing grounds in Egypt. In the run-up to CRUSADER, No. 272 Squadron’s main task was to shoot up supply lines and airfields in the Axis rear. It’s main base was Idku (or Edku), just east of Alexandria in Egypt.

beaufighter Bristol Beaufighter Mark IC, T3314 ‘O’, of No. 272 Squadron RAF, running up its engines at Idku, Egypt.

IWM Collections.

Operations

In order to operate far into Libya, landing grounds closer to the border were used as jumping off points. On 1 November 1941, the squadron’s forward elements, consisting of 12 planes, 15 crews, an intelligence and a cypher officer,  were ordered to be based at L.G.10, Ghrwla/Gerawala, which was about 13 miles SE of Mersa Matruh. For more information about the L.G., you can find the map location and information at this link, and an aerial picture at this link. The German target information indicates that there was nothing other than the airfield, and some tents, indicating that most of the crews must have lived underground.

Typical activities in the period were patrols covering the sea between Derna and Crete, known to be a flight route for German supply planes, and ground strafing activities on the Via Balbia (e.g. 15 November four planes on the road between Giovanni Berta and Barce in the Djebel Akhbar), or on Axis airfields (e.g. 16 November on Tmimi airfield – this is the raid giving rise to this post)

Those Pesky Telegraph Poles

As I had written in an older post (at this link), if there’s one thing the young men crewing the light bombers of the RAF could not be accused of, it was cowardice, or overly careful flying. As the little excerpt from the Squadron ORB below shows.

L.G.10 Ghrwla

16/11/41 1150 hrs

Three more Beaufighters took off on a ground straffing raid on TMIMI aerodrome and the road leading north from the aerodrome. The crews and the aircraft were as follows:-

A/c “R” F/O. Morris, Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Hilton

A/c “O” P/O. Hammond, Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Bryson

A/c “N” Sgt. Ross, Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Hoadley

P/O. Hammond returned early at 1510 hours with his aircraft damaged. While flying low over the road at TMIMI “straffing” vehicles, his starboard wing hit a telegraph pole and about two and a half feet of the wing was broken off. Some telegraph wire and pieces of china insulation were found in his aircraft when he landed. The three aircraft attacked the aerodrome, damaging two J.U. 87’s and a mobile W.T. Tender. They then proceeded to beat up vehicles on the road leading north from the aerodrome. Thirty vehicles were damaged and some personnel were killed. During the attack upon the aerodrome, a dust storm was in progress and visibility was consequently poor.

1530 hours

Aircraft “R” and “N” landed safely.

17/11/41

Sgt. Lowes took an aircraft up to GHRWLA and returned with “O”  which had its wing tip broken off yesterday by colliding with a telegraph pole while “ground straffing”. In order that it might be flown safely back to EDKU, two and a half feet of port wing was removed. This new version of the Beaufighter with square wing tips looked quite impressive, with an enormous stalling speed, and would no doubt horrify FILTON.

Even with the modification, I am reasonably certain it was an ‘interesting’ flight back to Edku for Sgt. Lowes, and probably quite a high-speed landing on account of the stall speed change (some tech specs for the Mk. X can be found at this link).

Filton was an airbase (see this link for a history), but also the site of the Bristol Aircraft Corporation, manufacturers and designers of the Beaufighter. So the remark was probably aimed at the designers of the plane.

After having come across the entry above, I noted Daniele Gatti asking a question about No. 272 Squadron crew members on the 12 o’clock high forum (in this thread), and to my surprise, losing pieces of the wing in a collision with a telegraph (and returning to base) wasn’t a one-off.  W.Op/Obs Sgt. Forrest from Edinburgh, also of No. 272 Squadron, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for a similar stunt when his aircraft “B”, piloted by P/o Bartlett collided with another telegraph pole.

 THe Glasgow Herald 7 APR 1942From the Glasgow Herald, 7 April 1942

Citation link provided by 12 o’clock high forum member udf_00.

The details of the incident from the ORB below:

L.G.10 Ghrwla

25/11/41 0630 hrs

Five Beaufighters left at 0630 hours to carry out  a ground straff at JEDABAIA. The crews were as follows:-

A/C “A” W/Cdr. Yaxley, Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Sproates

A/C “B” F/Lt. Bartlett Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Forrest

A/C “S” P/O Hammond, Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Bryson

A/C “C” P/O Crawford, Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Taylor

A/C “T” P/O Watters, Pilot; W.Op/Obs. Sgt. Gill

The five aircraft carried out a low flying attack on JEDABAIA aerodrome and damaged two C.R.42’s and a CA310 on the ground. They also destroyed a large petrol tanker there. A convoy of about 8 vehicles was also attacked on the AGHERBA road, and some were damaged. An enemy transport aircraft was also seen to crash in a hurry about 30 miles E. of the aerodrome. It was not fired upon until after it had crashed. F/Lt. Bartlett collided with a telegraph pole and returned to Base with about 3’6” of starboard wing missing. The assistance of his observer was necessary to enable him to retain control. A/c “C” kept company with this damaged machine throughout the return journey.

Nothing about Filton this time, my guess is the presumption was that this was by now a normal occurrence…

Unanswered questions (not quite serious):

1) did anyone take the pieces of wire and insulation china back to base as squadron mementos?

2) what did the Italian wire repair crews make of the damage when they came to repair the poles…

The Commanding Officer – Wing Commander Robert Gordon Yaxley RAF, D.S.O., D.F.C., M.C.

yaxley

Wing Commander R G Yaxley, Commanding Officer of No. 272 Squadron RAF, standing in front of one of the Squadron’s Bristol Beaufighter Mark ICs at a landing ground in the Western Desert.

IWM Collections.

W/Cdr. Yaxley (promoted to this temporary rank on 9 September 1941)  had already earned an M.C. and a D.F.C. (gazetted on 17 October 1941, see this link and this link) at the time of the 25 November raid, and on 27 November was noted in the ORB to have been awarded the D.S.O. as well (gazetted on 12 December, see this link). He died about 2 years later, aged 31, as a Group Captain and C.O. of No. 117 Squadron, when shot down on a return flight to the Med, in a Hudson over the Bay of Biscay on 3 June 1943 (see this link).

Loss details (thanks to udf_00 from 12 o’clock high): Hudson FK386 No. 1 OADU 3 JUN 1943 flown by Group Captain Yaxley, shot down by a Ju 88 C flown by Lt Hans Olbrecht of 15./KG 40
Among those lost : BURTON Howard Frizelle 33227, HANBURY Osgood Villiers 81357. Other information from this Portuguese site indicates that this was a massacre of middle-ranking RAF officers, with the following killed:

F/O J. B. Bukley +
F/O E. J. McSherney +
F/Sgt D. V. Edwards +
G/Capt R. G. Yaxley (Pass) +
W/Com H. F. Burton (Pass) +
W/Com E. Paul (Pass) +
W/Com D. T. Cotton (Pass) +
S/Ldr O. V. Hanbury (Pass) +
S/Ldr J. K. Young (Pass) +
W/Com J. Goodhead (Pass) +

Finally, to remember the brave crews by, a beautiful 1943 colour picture of Beaufighters above the Med.

beausThree Bristol Beaufighters of No 272 Squadron, Royal Air Force on patrol off the coast of Malta.

IWM Collections.

What’s with all the DSOs?

This is a bit of a bitter entry about who got Distinguished Service Orders (the second-highest Commonwealth decoration after the Victoria and George Cross) in the first round of decorations for CRUSADER.

On 20 January 1942 the London Gazette published a special supplement (at this link), in which awards for operations in the Middle East were announced. It includes three names that are hard to understand, given the absence of other officers who at least in my view were far more deserving.

The three names are Brigadiers Gatehouse ( 4 Armoured Brigade – Bar to the DSO), Davy and Scott-Cockburn (7 and 22 Armoured Brigades, respectively, both DSO). Notable by their absence are Brigadiers Reid, Willison, and Watkins (Reid becoming CBE on 9 September 1942 for the capture of Gialo, and the latter two receiving the Bar and the DSO respectively on 20 February 1942), and indeed any of the New Zealand Brigadiers (Brigadier Barrowclough and Colonel Clifton received bars the 20 February 1942, and Brigadier Inglis received his DSO on the same day).

It is hard to understand the precedence being given to the three who were on the first list, given the comparative achievements. Brigadier Gatehouse is probably the best of the three, given that he had at least not lost all of his armoured brigade. The other two are notable for having lost their Brigade in less than one week (Davy), and having lost it twice (Scott-Cockburn).

I guess there is a lesson here about decorations, which is especially pertinent given the refusal to grant one to Lieutenant McGinlay (see this older post), who at least from where I sit looks to have been thoroughly more deserving than Brigadier Scott-Cockburn. But at least some more junior officers such a Robert Crisp received their DSOs in the same round as the first three Brigadiers.

You can read more about the background to the DSO at this link.

11th Indian Brigade in Crusader

11th Indian Brigade was one of three in the “Red Eagle” division (after its shoulder patch), 4th Indian Infantry.  The other two were 5th and 7th. 11th and 5th did not join the division until later in the operation, they began as reserve force to XXX Corps.  11th Indian Brigade it consisted of the 2/5 Mahratta Light Infantry, 2nd Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and 1/6 Rajputana Rifles, under the command of Brigadier Anderson.

Bir el Gobi

The Brigade was not involved in the battle of the Omars on the Egyptiian frontier, and only entered battle attacking the Italian strongpoint at Bir el Gobi on the desert track south of Tobruk.  The attack was badly prepapred due to a lack of time (faulty intelligence, and no communication with the supporting artillery) and this, together with the heroic resistance by the Giovanni Fascisti (Young fascists), led to very high losses of the attacking units of the 11th Brigade, in particular 2nd Cameronians on the first day. While it was believed that the objective of the 2/5 Mahrattas was strongly held, while the objective of the Cameron Highlanders was lightly held, in reality it appears to have been vice versa. But as a consequence of this erroneous assessment, the available 12 Valentine Tanks were split 9 for the Mahrattas and 3 for the Cameron Highlanders. The Mahrattas captured their objective in a bayonet charge, taking 250 Italian prisoners and capturing 50,000 gallons  (about 2,000 tons) of precious fuel. After this success, the Mahrattas tried to support the Cameron Highlanders, in two further attacks but even this did not help to dislodge the defenders. The next morning, 5th December, a silent attack was tried, but again to no avail.

A Sepoy (private) in 2/5 Mahrattas was awarded the Indian Order of Merit medal for his actions during  one of these attack, a decoration available only to Indian soldiers, and ranking one or two classes under the Victoria Cross. The history (probably working from the citation) reads:

Notable devotion to duty for which he deservedly won the posthumous award of the I.O.M. was displayed by Sepoy Babaji Desai who, when his section commander had been killed, took command and used his Bren gun very effectively in assisting the advance of the company against heavy  enemy machine-gun fire.  Later the Sepoy was ordered to remain in position covering the withdrawal of his company and carried out his task so well that the company suffered few casualties from the fire of the enemy’s machine-guns on its immediate front.  Sepoy Babaji Desai and the two men with him were killed before they could themselves withdraw.

After abandoning the attack, 11th Brigade leaguered in the desert west of el Gobi when 2/5 Mahrattas were attacked and overrun by the tanks of the Afrika Korps.  The history of the Mahratta Light Infantry states:

The 2nd Battalion was again heavily engaged in the action at Bir el Gobi on 4th/6th December 1941, when during a powerful enemy counter-attack two companies were overrun by a concentration of German tanks losing in casualties 3 British officers, 5 Indian officers, and 240 other ranks.

What happened was an attack of about 25 tanks, according to ‘The Tiger Kills’, with supporting infantry.  They overran A and C companies of the Mahrattas, but in the process were delayed and engaged sufficiently to allow the remainder of the battalion to withdraw.

The Djebel

In fact, 11th Brigade had been mauled so badly that it was withdrawn into Tobruk, out of line for the pursuit of the Axis forces to the Gazala line. It also lacked transport to participate in a more mobile battle.  It re-entered the campaign at a later stage, when it occupied part of the Djebel on the coast between Benghazi and Ain el Gazala.  One of its battalions (1/6 Rajputana Rifles) was detached as security detail for the HQ of XIIIth Corps in the Msus/Antelat area. One of its companies was overrun by German tanks during the retreat, while the remainder of the battalion had a close shave due to lack of transport (and at one time refuelled at one end of a dump while the Germans were using the other end) but managed to escape.

11th Brigade as a whole was cut off in the Barce area with the rest of the division following the loss of Benghazi to the Axis counter-stroke on 21st January. During a brilliantly executed retreat, it managed to disengage and cause heavy damage to the Axis forces. The defensive action of the Brigade was instrumental in allowing the whole of the division to escape the trap it found in relatively unscathed. In the brief history of the division printed shortly after the war, this engagement of the 11th Brigade is described as “[…]perhaps the most brilliant defensive engagement in divisional history.” The battalion commander of the 2/5 Mahrattas, Lieutenant-Colonel M.P.Lancaster, was awarded the DSO for his “[…]able handling of the battalion in successive rearguard actions covering the withdrawal of 11th Brigade from the Barce-Benghazi area from 24th January to 4th February.”

After CRUSADER

When 4th Indian Division came into the Gazala line, it was immediately split up, and its brigades distributed all across the Mediterranean for several months. 11th Brigade eventually ended up defending the eastern sector of Tobruk during the gazala battles, and was destroyed when Tobruk fell.  It was pretty much left alone in the face of the German assault, and could not withstand it due to its over-extended frontline.  In a letter written to a senior officer in India by Major-General Tuker, GOC 4th Indian, he refers to 11th Brigade as the finest fighting formation in the desert.

Lieutenant McGinlay’s DSO

Appendix to the War Diary of 7 RTR, which was in the Tobruk fortress during the battle. Many thanks to the Tank Museum for their great work in transcribing these, and the very courteous handling of my requests to get them copied in pieces and shipped to France.

STARTS

32 A. Tank Bde. 70 Division 8 Army Corps

Unit – 7 R Tanks

Rank and Name: Lieut. McGinlay, Alexander Oliphant

Recommended by Major J.R. Holden, DSO

Honour or Reward DSO.

TOBRUK – 22nd to 30th November 1941

Lieut McGinlay was in action continuously from the night 21/22 November to the morning of 30th November. During this time he performed his duties with the utmost gallantry and was largely responsible for three successful attacks on enemy strongpoints.  On two separate occasions he led the tanks to a startline on foot when under the most intense artillery and mortar fire, with a complete disregard for his own safety.  He has acted as troop leader, liaison officer, reconnaissance officer and even F.O.O. and at all times has been absolutely reliable. His magnificent courage and unquenchable cheerfulness have been unsurpassed.  His leadership and advice have been first class at all times.

Sd/J.R.Holden, O.C. “D” Sqdn. 7th Bn., Royal Tank Regiment

ENDS

His Bar to the MC was gazetted on 24 February 1942, his original MC was numbered 140577.

Addition:

Following contact with the daughter of the late Major ‘Jock’ McGinlay MC and Bar, it turns out that somebody higher up the foodchain in 8th Army decided that a DSO might be too much, and the decoration was downgraded to an MC. A difficult to understand decision, unless one presumes that what Lieutenant McGinlay did was somewhat expected of a troop leader.

It appears from some further research that a DSO for a junior officer was seen as an indication that this officer had just about missed a recommendation for a Victoria Cross. Given that this recommendation came from a very experienced Squadron Leader, who himself had been in command at the very tricky action against 15 Panzer at Capuzzo/Pt.207 during BATTLEAXE, it speaks very well of Lt. McGinlay.

Lt. McGinlay was wounded during the last stand of 4/7 RTR outside Tobruk in the desastrous Gazala battles, and captured in hospital when Tobruk fell. He returned to the Royal Armoured Corps in Italy in 1944, commanding Churchills after his escape from captivity, and fought until the end of the war.

See also this post about some information from the Major McGinlay’s papers.

I would still be interested to hear what became of Major Holden DSO.

Jock Campbell’s VC

In the Sidi Rezegh battles of 21/22 November Brigadier Jock Campbell, commanding 7th Support Group, the non-armoured element of 7th Armoured Division, won his Victoria Cross for his brave and energetic leadership of the defense forces on Sidi Rezegh airfield against the German assault. The best online account of the battles I am aware of can be found at this link.
Bob Crisp memorably describes the action in ‘Brazen Chariots’, and I think Cyril Joly in ‘Take these Men’ also describes it.
Today I came across this very dramatic drawing that encapsulates it very well, and I contacted the National Archives to have it properly identified, which they did very quickly, but unfortunately then changed back to the old text again after a while. Probably too speculative for them. I think it’s a shame, since the drawing would properly belong into their ‘Valour’ colleciton.  Click here for picture
Here is the citation of Campbell’s VC, from the 2nd Supplement to the London Gazette of 30 January 1942:

War Office
23rd February. 1942.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to Brigadier (acting) John Charles Campbell, D S O, MC (13594), Royal Horse Artillery, in recognition of most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Sidi Rezegh on the 21st and 22nd November, 1941.

On the 21st November Brigadier Campbell was commanding the troops, including one regiment of tanks, in the area of Sidi Rezegh ridge and the aerodrome His small force holding this important ground was repeatedly attacked by large numbers of tanks and infantry. Wherever the situation was most difficult and the fighting hardest he was to be seen with his forward troops, either on his feet or in his open car In this car he carried out several reconnaissances for counter-attacks by his tanks, whose senior officers had all become casualties early in the day Standing in his car with a blue flag, this officer personally formed up tanks under close and intense fire from all natures of enemy weapons.

On the following day the enemy attacks were intensified and again Brigadier Campbell was always in the forefront of the heaviest fighting, encouraging his troops, staging counter-attacks with his remaining tanks and personally controlling the fire of his guns On two occasions he himself manned a gun to replace casualties During the final enemy attack on the 22nd November he was wounded, but continued most actively in the fore-most positions, controlling the fire of batteries which inflicted heavy losses on enemy tanks at point blank range, and finally acted as loader to one of the guns himself.

Throughout these two days his magnificent example and his utter disregard of personal danger were an inspiration to his men and to all who saw him. His brilliant leadership was the direct cause of the very heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy In spite of his wound he refused to be evacuated and remained with his command, where his outstanding bravery and consistent determination had a marked effect in maintaining the splendid fighting spirit of those under him.

Jock Campbell rose to Major General and GOC 7th Armoured Division, but tragically died in a car accident just a few weeks after taking over his new command.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia:

Brigadier John Charles Jock Campbell, VC. CO 7th Support Group, 1894 - 1942

Brigadier John Charles 'Jock' Campbell, VC. CO 7th Support Group, 1894 - 1942