Notes from the Receiving End

In a prior post at this link I analysed the Commonwealth close air support system during CRUSADER, and in another post at this link I wrote about the South African Maryland squadrons active in strike missions for close air support, battlefield interdiction, and attaining air superiority. Reading through the war diary of the D.A.K., I found some notes on the effect of attacks during the battle in the Agedabia position around the turn of the year. These are quoted below. The attacks were carried out by No. 11 [1], No. 14, and the Free French Lorraine Squadron (No. 342), all with Blenheim Mk. IV light bombers.


A formation of five Blenheim Mark IVs (Z5893 ‘W’ nearest) of No. 14 Squadron RAF in flight over the Western Desert. A Curtiss Kittyhawk, one of the escorting fighters, can be seen on the far right.

Courtesy of the IWM.


Wing Commander Buchanan DFC[2], who led the raid on 31 December, of No. 14 Squadron RAF, shortly after his appointment as Officer Commanding, No. 14 Squadron RAF. From the outbreak of the Second World War, Buchanan flew Vickers Wellingtons with No. 37 Squadron RAF, participating in many of the early bomber operations from the United Kingdom. He was posted to No. 14 Squadron in the Sudan in late 1940, and saw action with them in Eritrea, Egypt and Iraq. After leading the Squadron during Operation CRUSADER in Libya, he was rested before moving to Malta to take command of No. 272 Squadron RAF.

Courtesy of the IWM.

One raid is reported by the war diary of Ariete division on 30 December as “light bombardment[3] by enemy air forces, light damage.” It likely this, as well as the D.A.K. entry for 31 December below, refers to the 30 December raid by 11 Squadron, which itself reported no observed hits.

31 Dec 1941

11.30 hrs […] Enemy bomb strike of 9 bombers on [Italian] motorised Corps, accompanied by numerous fighters, passes without losses worth mentioning. German fighters intervene immediately, shooting down 2 enemy planes, AA of 21. Pz.Div. shooting down another one. Attacks with the same strength repeat themselves twice today. Since only HE bombs of smaller weight are dropped, and these without being targeted particularly well, no losses were suffered.

On 31 December however 15.Pz.Div. reports two attacks by 9 planes each, and these were carried out by No. 14 and Lorraine Squadrons, but with 12 planes (6 and 6) in a so-called ‘Buchanan Party’. Again one raid at 1300 with no reported damage, and another at 1430 with ‘only light damage’. The first raid was reported to have caused good damage by No. 14 squadron, with confirmation claimed by photo recce, and 12 vehicles reported to have been hit, very likely an overclaim. For the second raid the ORB claims results that weren’t as good as the first one. The ORB mentions the dog fight of the top cover with enemy fighters, and the loss of two Hurricanes as a result. One Me 109F is claimed as well. On the other hand, the Germans also overclaimed, since none of the Blenheims appears to have been lost, based on the reporting by No. 14 Squadron, although it is of course possible that the Lorraine Squadron lost a plane. Nevertheless, this is not mentioned in ‘Croix de Lorraine et Croix du Sud’, so I don’t think a plane was lost, even though some of the Blenheims were damaged by AA, including one of Lorraine.


Blenheim Mk. IV of Lorraine Squadron, clearly displaying the Cross of Lorraine.

From Ciel de Gloire website.

1 Jan 1942

12.45 hrs bombing attack occurs by 12 Bristol Blenheim on 15. Pz.Div. 1 dead, 1 severely wounded, 6 motor vehicles total loss. 1 enemy bomber shot down by AA.

This far more severe raid again hit Schtz. Rgt. 115¸of 15.Pz.Div., and the division reported 1 KIA and two severely wounded. The loss is given as five trucks and one Kfz.81 [4]. The raid is well covered in the ORB of No.11 Squadron RAF which led it, and shows that at least sometimes there was astonishing accuracy in reporting damage caused.

1st January, 1942

Bombed dispersed M.T. at BELANDAH, pin-point 3005 from 2,000 feet.

All bombs were observed to fall in target area amongst 150 – 200 M.T. well dispersed. Top cover fighter escort reported 5 vehicles left burning and one lorry presumed to contain ammunition explode. This formation operated with aircraft of NO.14 Squadron and the FREE FRENCH LORRAINE SQUADRON. One run was made over target without dropping bombs.[5] The second run was made and the target bombed. The A.A. at this stage was intense and on turning away from the target the formation ran over another bunch of dispersed M.T., aircraft NO. 2226, piloted by P/O FROGGATT[6] was shot down in flames and seen to explode on hitting the ground.

Two other aircraft of No. XI SQUADRON were also hit by A.A. but slight damage resulted and the aircraft returned to base safely.

The A.A. was light and medium calibre very intense and accurate as to height and direction.

Weather:- Fair over target – wispy clouds. Visibility:- Fair.

Bombs dropped:- 20x 250 lbs G.P. fitted with extension rods.

Participating aircraft:

5604(?) S/ldr. Murray, Sgt. Cameron, F/Sgt. Ware, lead aircraft

2226 – see note below

5819 P/O H.T.L. Smith, P/O Sayers, Sgt. Alderton

5586 Sgt. White, Sgt. Stair, Sgt. Watt

7685 Sgt. Payne, Sgt. Burnside, Sgt. Cameron

What is of interest is that this raid was carried out at a considerably lower height, only 2,000 feet, compared to 4,500 feet in the raids on 31 December. W/Cdr Buchanan, according to ‘Croix de Lorraine et Croix du Sud’ chose bombing height such that it was at the edge of prevalent AA range, in this case the light 20mm guns.

Nevertheless, also on 31 December it is noted that the decision by Rommel to retreat from the Agedabia position was due in the first instance to the weakness of the Axis air forces, which had a range problem in covering this position, and the consequent ability of the English (sic!) air force to smash Axis tanks and vehicles at their leisure. One wonders if this is the first instance of Rommel’s fear of the Allied air forces, that was later to play such a prominent role in the German command debate on how to react to the landing there.

[1] No. 11 Squadron was back in action in Libyan skies during 2011, this time flying Eurofighter Typhoons.

[2] W/Cdr Buchanan DSO, DFC, Croix de Guerre (Belgium) died at sea after his Beaufighter was shot down south of Athens in 1944 and he managed to escape into a dinghy. He was by then CO of No. 227 Squadron operating out of Malta. See this link and this link for some background on this very interesting officer.

[3] spezzonamentispezzoni were light (10-20kg) bombs used by Italian planes. It says something not very favourable for the impact of 250lb GP bombs that they were confused with 20-40lb bombs.

[3] Version of standard light Krupp truck. The Kfz.81 was the ammunition carrier version for the 2-cm AA gun. So again a clear confirmation of the claim.

[4] Presumably to ensure that the target was Axis, and not friendly, vehicles.

[5] With P/O Froggatt were Sgt. Prentice as observer and Sgt. Young W/Opw/AG – the whole crew was killed in the crash, and are buried on the CWGC cemetery in Benghazi.

Sources used:

  • National Archives, Kew: AIR27/193 and AIR27/199, ORBs of No. 14 Squadron. AIR27/157, ORB of No. 11 Squadron.
  • NARA, College Park, MD: war diaries of Deutsches Afrika Korps and 15.Pz.Div.
  • Ferry, Vital ‘Croix de Lorraine et Croix du Sud’.

4 Battle Sorties

Having purchased some of the RAF Squadron ORBs, I thought it might be interesting to type up what life at the sharp end was like for members of RAF Aircrew. The quotes below are from the ‘Record of Events for:

  • No. 80 Squadron (Hurribombers, Nov.41);
  • No. 107 Squadron which operated over Libya, Italy, and against Axis shipping from Malta (Blenheim Light Bombers, Dec. 41);
  • No. 108 Squadron (Medium/Heavy Bombers, Jan. 42); and
  • No. 208 Squadron (Tactical Recce Hurricanes, Jan.42);

They refer to typical missions. I hope this is of interest.

Fighter Bomber

No. 80 Squadron – this unit was equipped with Hurricanes converted to carry 8x40lb bombs under the wings. They had only converted to ground attack in November 41, and this was the first instance that an RAF Squadron in the desert had been issued this kind of plane. No.402 Squadron at Manston had been converted to the bomber role in October 1941, but carried 250lb bombs, instead of the much lighter bombs carried on the Hurricane Is of No. 80 Squadron. The aim was to be able to have two ‘gos’ at the enemy, first to bomb, and then to ground strafe.

128 L.G. 21.11.41 Weather:- Sun and cloud intermittently, wind cold.

First operation in the morning was acting as close escort to formation of Blenheims which were bombing M.T. and dumps near Bir Hacheim. From 80 Squadrons’ point of view the trip was uneventful, no enemy aircraft being seen. The squadron set off on a bombing and strafing sortie against a semi-permanent camp on the coastal road N.W. of Gambut. The bombing was much more accurate and all bombs fell in the target area. Huts were seen to be wrecked. Pilots then strafed this camp and other tents in this area. The success of the sortie was completely marred by the fact that the Commanding Officer, S/Ldr. T.M. Horger, D.F.C., failed to return. His machine was hit by A/A fire; he was seen to belly land and then walk away from his machine. Hopes were held for his safety as British troops were supposed to be in the area where he crashed. Several other machines were damaged by light A/A fire of which much was encountered. Again it must be repeated that ground strafing will be an expensive business. F/Sgt. Wintersdorff and Sgt. Swire landed in the late afternoon. They had force-landed 30 miles S. of Maddalena; pilots were unhurt and machines undamaged. 6 aircraft of No. 73 Squadron, stationed at Barrani, arrived to operate with 80 Squadron. Nobody seemed to know why or by whom they had been sent.

Comments:

M.T. = motor transport; A/A = anti-aircraft. D.F.C. = Distinguished Flying Cross; Ranks: F/Sgt. = Flight Sergeant; S/Ldr = Squadron Leader.

This was the second bombing sortie, and the first one was not seen as a success in terms of accuracy, and disillusionment about the life expectancy at ground strafing sorties had already set in at the first sortie. It appears to me that the target, a semi-permanent installation (in fact, probably a pretty permanent workshop or supply installation of Panzergruppe) was a proper target more for the light bombers, or even the mediums, rather than the fighter bombers.


Pilots of No. 80 Squadron RAF gather in front of one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at a landing ground in the Western Desert, during Operation CRUSADER. In the middle of the group, wearing a white flying overall and smoking a pipe, is Squadron Leader M M Stephens, who commanded the Squadron from November until 9 December 1941 when he was shot down and wounded. During CRUSADER, 80 Squadron acted in close support of the Army, their Hurricane fighters being fitted with bomb racks to carry four 40 lb GP bombs, as seen here. Their first effective sorties as fighter-bombers were conducted against enemy vehicles south of Bir el Baheira on 20 November. (From IWM Collection)

Light Bombers

No. 12 Squadron S.A.A.F. – Please see this link for an older post.

No. 107 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with Blenheim light bombers and was based at Luqa on Malta, whence it undertook a range of missions over Italy, Libya, Greece, and the Mediaterranean. These included ground attack against Axis truck columns and railways, shipping attacks, level bombing, and reconnaissance.

Luqa, Malta, 24 Dec. 41

Three Blenheims captained by Sgt. Fuller, P/O. Mockridge and Sgt. Crossley were dispatched to attack a m/v in ZUARA HARBOUR.

The three aircraft flying in formation made their landfall exactly off ZUARA so that the defences were warned and opened fire before the Blenheims had crossed the coast. Sgt. Crossley leading the formation passed East of ZUARA, making a tight turn over land and then attacking a large schooner moored against the Western Mole. Altogether there were two schooners, a Hospital Ship and two smaller vessels in harbour.

Sgt. Crossley was seen to hit a stay of the smaller schooner with his wing tip. The aircraft turned over on it’s back and presumably crashed. His bombs fell so close to the schooner that they probably pierced it under the water-line. Sgt. Fuller machinegunned the schooners but his bombs fell short. His aircraft had bullet holes in the fuselage and wings, but was not seriously damaged.

P/O/ Mockridge dropped out of position in the steep turn and attacked the same target from dead astern of the other aircraft. The observer, P/O. Paul was killed by a cannon shell, another went through his tail. The aircraft bombed the larger of the two schooners, results were not observed, but bombs thought to undershoot.

Comments: As No. 80 Squadron had found out, and as can be seen here, low-level attacks were an expensive business for the RAF to engage in. In the seven days from 17-24 December, the squadron lost three planes, piloted by P/O. Keen (17 Dec, attack on transport between SORMAN and ZUARA, unknown cause); Sgt. Hanley (22 Dec, attack on transport 50 miles west of SIRTE, crashed into sea, presumed hit by return fire from an armoured car), and Sgt. Crossley (see above). On the 22 Dec Sgt. Crossley also attacked transport west of SIRTE and carried away some telegraph wire, which indicates how low the Blenheims went in. These raids on minor harbours and on transport on the Via Balbia at random places along the coast must have placed a very heavy load on the Axis defences, necessitating placing AA guns along the harbours, and providing escorts to truck columns far in the rear areas.

While the picture below does not show No. 107 Squadron, it illustrates the nature of the low-level raids very well.


Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 18 Squadron RAF head back for Luqa, Malta, at low level after bombing a target in the port of Locri, Italy. Photograph taken from the mid-upper turret of the leading aircraft. (From IWM Collection)

Medium Bombers

No. 108 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with Wellington medium bombers and saw a lot of action on the run to Tripoli. In December it began conversion to heavy bombers, Consolidated B-24 Liberators, but this project was never completed.

Fayid 4/1/42.

Seven aircraft proceeded to A.L.G. El Adem to operate against the enemy. Five operated, the other two returning to base. Captain’s were (“G”) P/O Waddington, (“D”) P/O R.J. Alexander, (“F”) P/O Smith, (“L”) P/O Hill, and (“H”) P/O Duplex. The primary target was a convoy in the Mediterranean, but owing to 10/10th cloud alternative targets were attacked. Aircraft “D”, “G” and “H” bombed Buerat El Haun dropping 12 500lb. tail fused H.E., two 250lb. nose fused H.E., and one 250lb. extension red – only burst were seen. After bombing “D” and “G” came down low and machine gunned tents and M.T. between target and Sirte. Aircraft “F”, owing to 10/10th cloud down to 1,000ft. returned to base with bombs. The cloud was also too thick for aircraft “L” to locate primary target, and so attacked Ras el Ali M.T. dropping four 500lb. tail-fused H.E. and one 250lb. extension red at foot of jetty – bursts were seen 50 yards off M.T. “L” then came down to 2,000ft. and machine-gunned a barge alongside the jetty – this seemed to be hit and returned fire with two machine guns. Quite a lot of A.A. from Sollum was encountered by this aircraft – this was flown over as the Captain thought it was in our hands. All aircraft returned safely to base.

Comment:

A.L.G. = advanced landing ground; Ranks: P/O = Pilot Officer

The failed attack on the convoy was a major failure, in that it presented the last chance to do some damage at least to the very important M.43 convoy that brought the reinforcements and supplies enabling the Axis counter offensive later in January. It is of interest to note the bombs of choice for shipping attack, tail-fused, heavy H.E. bombs. I don’t know what extension red means. I think it is very impressive (and brave) to take a large aircraft such as a Wellington down to ground-strafing levels. Sollum was not actually in Commonwealth hands, the pilot probably misread the capture of Bardia to mean that the whole of the border had been cleared out.


Vickers Wellington B Mark ICs, formerly of No. 15 Operational Training Unit, parked at North Front, Gibraltar, while staging through the Mediterranean to join operational units in Egypt. BB459 ‘K’ (right) went to No. 108 Squadron RAF at Fayid, while Z8960 ‘P’ (left) joined 70 Squadron RAF at LG 104/Qotafiyah II. (From IWM Collection)

Photo Recce

No. 208 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with tactical reconnaissance Hurricanes with a fixed camera installation. In a pinch it functioned as a fighter squadron too. It was broken up in a number of smaller flights stationed at various airfields.

Detached Flight. Antelat. 17/1.

“RECONAISSANCE” (Contd.) Despite heavy showers throughout the date a medium Tactical Reconnaissance of the MARADA Oasis and the track north to (X) B. 2218 was carried out. The Pilot reported a small garrison and confirmed previous reports of enemy positions and movement on the track running North. The aircraft encountered severe small arms fire over MARADA, a shell bursting in his outer starboard tank, fortunately this tank was already empty and no loss of fuel or fire resulted and the Pilot was able to continue with his reconnaissance.

Comment: Marada was the southern end of the Axis position, running north to the Med at Mersa el Brega. 13 Corps was concerned that the Axis might have troops there to turn the Commonwealth position in front of the Axis line. The garrison was a small German detachment with Italian armoured car support at this time which had only arrived in Africa a few weeks before, and obviously was quite willing to ‘have a go’.

Click this link to see a No.208 Squadron PR Hurricane. (From IWM Collection)