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.

A costly Strike– No 107 Squadron 11 October 1941

No. 107 Squadron was one of two Bristol Blenheim Mk. IV equipped light bomber squadrons on Malta during the time of Operation CRUSADER. It carried out anti-shipping strikes throughout the central Mediterranean, as well as ground strafing of traffic on the coastal road in Libya, and bomb attacks on fixed installations. The squadron was commanded until his death in action by Wing Commander Harte, a South African, followed Flight Sergeant (later Air Marshal Sir) Ivor Broom, and then from December 1941 by W/Cdr Dunlevie, a Canadian. In January 1942 the squadron was disbanded and the remnants moved back to the UK, where they reformed and converted to Douglas Bostons.

Operating light bombers from Malta was not a task which would have been appreciated by a life insurance underwriter. The picture below shows the daring of the pilots quite well, and repeatedly there is talk of ‘attack at mast height’ in the ORB. But many of the crews paid for this with their lives.

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. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

11 October 1941 was a bad day for the squadron. Two Blenheims were lost on operations on the day. The squadron ORB has a good account of this, and the Italian official naval history has a full account of the attack on the small convoy undertaken by No. 107 Squadron. Both are given below. The relevant references are AIR27/842, held at Kew, and La Marina Italiana Nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale Vol. VII – LA DIFESA DEL TRAFICO CON L’AFRICA SETTENTRIONALE Dal 1 Ottobre 1941 Al 30 Settembre 1942.

The convoy consisted of the following vessels:

Steamer Priaruggia, 1,196 GRT, built in 1925. Finally sunk 28 November 41 in Benghazi harbour, when she was hit and blew up during a night raid, still carrying the cargo of ammunition she carried on 11 October.

Steam tanker Alberto Fassio, 2,298 GRT, built in the US in 1914. Finally sunk on 26 July 1943 when it hit a mine off Preveza, Greece.

Escorted by Torpediniera (Spica class corvette, Alcione sub-series) Partenope under the command of Capitano di Corvetta B. de Moratti. Finally lost when she was captured by German troops in dry dock after the Italian surrender, while under repair, and broken up 1945.


Partenope in wartime colour scheme. Courtesy of the U.S.M.M. Italian Corvettes 1881 – 1964, 2nd Volume 1974.

The Royal Air Force view.

11 October

Six Blenheims captained by F/O. Greenhill, Sgt. Routh, Sgt. Broome, Sgt. Level, Sg.t Baker, and Sgt. Hopkinson were ordered to attack shipping in the GULF OF SIRTE. 3,000 lb of bombs were dropped. Total flying time was 20 hrs. 50 mins. At 14.04 hours they located one m/v 3 – 5,000 tons, one Cargo boat 1 – 1,500 tons and one corvette in a position 31.53′ N 15.43′ E. They were escorted by ONE twin-engined monoplane. F/O Greenhill hit the large m/v forward and his aircraft was then seen by Sgt. Harrison to be hit in the belly and crash in the sea as he climbed over the ship. The vessel held fire until the aircraft was 50 yards away. Sgt. Broome attacked the same vessel and hit it aft and left the vessel in flames with grey smoke pouring from it. He was chased by the escort plane which did not get within firing range. Sgt. Harrison saw Sgt. Routh attack the small Cargo boat, set it on fire and then crash into the sea having been hit by guns from the large m/v. Sgt. Leven, Sgt. Baker and Sgt. Hopkinson did not make an attack and brought back their bombs. Four aircraft returned safely, but it is not thought that there could be any survivors from the two aircraft shot down. The crews of the aircraft were as follows:

F/O Greenhill, Sgt. Smith, Sgt. Whidden

Sgt. Routh, Sgt. Parker, Sgt. McLeod.

What is noticeable is the reasonably good identification of the size of the vessels (even though they got the type of propulsion and size of A Fassio wrong), the description of the attack, which claimed serious hits on both vessels even though only one was hit, and that three aircraft chose not to press the attack, presumably because of a mixture of respect for the anti-air defense, and the believe that both vessels might have been finished.

The Italian side – the Italian history uses this case as an example of the strong defense put up by the coastal convoys:

From a practical perspective however, the coastal vessels were anything but easy targets, and not only because of their small size, but because they always reacted very lively, together with the escorting corvette, sometimes inflicting severe losses on the attacker. Many episodes could be cited in evidence, but it is sufficient to give just one as an example; that of the attack suffered on the afternoon of 11 October by a convoy consisting of the steamer Priaruggia, the tanker A Fassio, escorted by the corvette Partenope under Lieutenant-Commander B. de Moratti.

The convoy, which left Tripoli at 1600 hours on 10 October, was attacked by three Bristol Blenheim in low-level flight, about 24 hours later. Regarding this the commander of the escort writes the following in his report:

    At 15.02 the left vessel advised of three enemy bombers which approached the convoy in low-level flight. The formation at that moment was as follows: Partenope in front, zig-zagging, steamer Priaruggia and tanker A Fassio in line abreast (Fassio to the right), with Priaruggia slightly behind. The escorting plane was far off, ahead of the formation. The three Bristol Blenheim planes formed in an offset formation on the left of the convoy, coming roughly from the north-east. Partenope immediately opened fire with its central 20mm gun at a distance of about 800 metres. While turning and climbing the planes dropped a series of small bombs and strafed the convoy with machine guns. Of the bombs, one hit Priaruggia at the base of the funnel, the others drop to the left and right of the steamer, as well as between Partenope and the steamer. Almost at the same time, two planes appear to be hit by the precise fire of Partenope, one in a staggering turn trying to touch down on the water, hitting hard, and then dives into the sea breaking up. The other, on fire, still manages a half turn, then dives into the sea head first, vanishing completely. The third plane carries out a wide turn, then continues to remain cruising for some minutes. During this time three German transport plane pass on the horizon on the westerly route.

I am turning around, and order Fassio to remain in the area, zig-zagging. I am moving towards the life boats and rescue floats of the Priaruggia which, after emitting abundant black smoke and steam, now appears intact everywhere apart from the centre, where it shows damage to the base of the funnel, the masts, and the loading equipment. I am ordering to put the wounded on board of Partenope, and the able to return on board the steamer to prepare the tow. In the meantime I move to the area where the remains of one of the shot-down planes are and where a wounded airman reacts to calls. I set the whaler into the sea to recover the airman and a yellow bag, which contained emergency signalling equipment. The wounded airman is tended to together with the wounded of the Priaruggia. He shows splinter wounds on the right knee and leg, and other wounds on the forehead, the right hand, and the front of his body.

16.00 – 17.58 Fassio extends a tow and commences the turn to move to Ras Cara, in line with my orders. During the maneuver the tow breaks. With a new tow, Fassio moves towards Ras Cara. During the move to Misurata, the tow breaks again. Taking up the tow again to move to Misurata where, by order of Marilibia, the Priaruggia and the wounded have to be brought.

During the last five miles I pull slightly ahead of Fassio, to disembark the personnel.

23.16 – 00.25 Arrival at Misurata. Drop anchor. The Fassio, coming closer, communicates that it has broken the tow for a fourth time, and that neither it nor the Priaruggia have any more cables. It therefore left Priaruggia behind, about five miles off Misurata.

00.25 – 01.28 Leave Misurata and move towards the steamer Priaruggia which I find about four miles at 95 degrees off Misurata with a part of the crew in the launch, about to pull away from the ship.

Communicate to that part of the crew that a tug will soon arrive. At 01.28, with all the crew on board, Priaruggia drops anchor.

I should mention the act of a torpedo operator who threw himself into the sea to rescue the enemy airman while waiting for the launch.

Priaruggia is then towed to Tripoli by the tug Ciclope with the escort of the corvette Cascino, and reaches the port without problems on the 13 November. In the overall account on the positive side are two shot-down enemy planes – one of which, prior to crashing, hits the foremast of the Piaruggia, bursting into flames, and breaking off the mast; – on the negative side the not heavy damage of the steamer which remains immobilised only for a few days.

From the Italian account it is clear that Priaruggia must have appeared very badly hit, but it is also clear that Fassio was neither hit nor attacked. The episode shows very clearly the dangers the pilots on Malta exposed themselves to, and the brutal and very quick end that awaited most of them. Fassio arrived in Benghasi on 13 October.

The lost planes were Z7618 and Z9663. While Sergeant Whidden survived the crash, he died of his wounds in hospital shortly after. (Many thanks to Brian for this information, provided in this thread.) Their loss was not completely in vain however. As is pointed out in this threadPriaruggia was badly enough damaged that she had to return in tow to Tripoli after an initial stay at Misurata. When she arrived (still with the same cargo, including ammunition) in Benghazi six weeks later, after the conclusion of repairs, she was bombed on the night of her arrival, and all her cargo was lost when she blew up.

The statistics below show the activity and losses of No. 107 Squadron during October 1941.

Date

Planes Sorties

Planes Lost

Share

Type of mission

3 October 8 0 Bombing
4 October 8 1 16% Shipping
5 October 2+2 0 Recce/Bombing
6 October 4 0 Shipping/Strafing
7 October 1 0 Armed Recce
8 October 6 0 Strafing
9 October 2+4 2 33% Strafing/Shipping
10 October 2 0 Recce
11 October 6 2 33% Shipping
13 October 4 0 Strafing
17 October 6 0 Strafing/Bombing
21 October 6 0 Shipping
23 October 4 0 Shipping
25 October 6 0 Strafing/Bombing
28 October 4 0 Bombing
29 October 2 0 Bombing
29 October 4 0 Bombing
30 October 4+3 0 Bombing/Shipping

Missions were flown on 18 days, and a total of 21 missions was flown. Total sorties were 88, and losses were 5 planes (a loss rate of 5.7%), all on shipping strikes. What is of importance to note however is that all losses occurred on shipping strikes (2 planes were lost by collision, one of them flown by the squadron commander, the other 3 due to enemy action). So for shipping strikes alone, the loss rate was 14.3%, or rather meaning 1 in 7 planes would not return – quite sobering.

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); and 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 had been issued this kind of plane. 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)

Flight Archive – Article on Free French Air Force

Just at the start of CRUSADER, Flight published an interesting article on the Free French Air Force, with some interesting pictures (if anyone can tell me what kind of a plane General Valin is standing in front of, I’d be grateful – I thought it was a Bf 108, but it has a fixed undercarriage, so that can’t be it). The article can be found at this link. The Flightglobal archive is generally very interesting, by the way.

The major contribution by the Free French to the battle was the 1st Bombing Group, known as the Lorraine squadron, a Bristol Blenheim equipped light bomber squadron consisting of two flights. In the course of operations, it lost 1/3rd of its flying personnel killed, missing or wounded, including  its newly arrived commander in December, Lt.Col. Pijeaud, killed on his first mission when his plane was attacked by Axis fighters. After the withdrawal of Axis forces to the west, the Group remained on the Egyptian border, based on Gambut airfield. After helping the Axis on the way by bombing rear area installations such as El Magrun airfield halfway between Benghazi and Agedabia (see below), it engaged in the bombardment of the Axis border fortifications of Bardia and Halfaya (see this older post). In the middle of January 1942 it was withdrawn for refitting to Syria. During the 16 days before the surrender of the Halfaya garrison, the Lorraine flew 300 sorties against it, from Gambut airfield. In fact, together with other light bomber units the amount of sorties climbed to a level prompting inquiries from Whitehall if this was really necessary!

Bombs from Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 270 Wing RAF explode among Junkers Ju 52s parked on the landing ground at El Magrun, Libya, in the afternoon of 22 December 1941. Blenheims, from Nos, 14 and 84 Squadrons RAF and the Lorraine Squadron of the Free French Air Force, made a series of attacks on El Magrun on 21-22 December, which was being used extensively by the Luftwaffe to provide air support for their retiring ground forces during operation CRUSADER

 

This French language site has some good information on the unit, including pictures. At this link you can find a nice colour profile of a Bristol Blenheim Mk.IV in Free French colours. Just ignore the statement that they were operating in the Western Desert in February 1942. Funnily enough, it appears Airfix (ah, bane of my youth) also did a kit of the Lorraine Blenheim (apparently its a good kit too – check the link through the picture below).

Dramatic Artwork of Lorraine Blenheims bombing Halfaya

Towards the end of the CRUSADER battles, the Free French 1st Fighter Group Alsace started operations in the air defense of Egypt, based at Ismailia on the Suez Canal, having just been re-equipped with Hurricane I fighters. Some information on this can be found at this link.

A lot of good information about Free French forces in North Africa can be found at this link.

 

The End of the Halfaya Garrison

On 17 January 1942 the Axis garrison of the Halfaya Pass surrendered, just before a final attack was supposed to go in and capture the pass. It consisted of about 6,000 men, with ca. 60% of them Italian, and the remainder German. The commander was the Italian General Fedele de Giorgis, General Officer Commanding 55 ‘Savona’ infantry division, who was awarded the Knights Cross for the defense he conducted. After the war he became commander of the Carabinieri corps of the Italian army. More famous is the senior German officer, Major Wilhelm Bach, a former protestant priest, who commanded I./SR104, the rifle battalion charged with the defense of the pass.

A head and shoulder portrait of Major The Reverend Bach, facing slightly to the right. He is in uniform with an iron cross around his neck.

The final two weeks of the defense must have been hell for the defenders, and the ca. 75 Commonwealth POW which were encircled with them. There were little to no rations left, and access to water had been lost as well. The surrender became inevitable after this. Just a few days before a vicious little battle was fought for the town of Lower Sollum, which was captured at a cost of about 100 casualties by the South African forces of 2 South African Division, which besieged the pass. The position was under constant bombardment by the Blenheim light bombers of the Royal Air Force and the ‘Lorraine’ Squadron, the first operational unit of the Free French Air Force in the Western Desert. Attacks were so heavy that questions were raised about the efficacy of the effort in Whitehall. A token effort was made to bring in supplies to the garrison by air from Crete, but this was hampered by weather, lack of communications, and interference by Commonwealth night fighters.

The continued defense of the pass, even after Bardia had fallen to the assault of 2 South African Division on 1 January 42, contributed to the serious supply shortage that hampered Commonwealth operations west of Tobruk so severely. It had a major strategic and operational impact, and the loss of the garrison was well worth it, as far as Axis planners were concerned, even though it is clear that Rommel himself felt badly about leaving behind so many of his men, and so much material.

The Australian War Memorial has a series of pictures of one of the raids, which I reproduce below, followed by some pictures taken after the pass was re-captured. The text is the original text associated with the photos. A big round of applause to the Australian War Memorial for making these pictures available to all.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. En route to a raid on Halfaya, this pilot of a Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft looks through his gunsight as the raiding aircraft sweep down on the isolated Axis positions. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. En route to a raid on Halfaya, the observer of a Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft peers down on the target as the raiding aircraft sweep down on the isolated Axis positions. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. Missiles speeding down on the targets during a raid on Halfaya by Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft aircraft. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. Missiles speeding down on the targets during a raid on Halfaya by Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft aircraft. The rugged nature of the terrain is clearly illustrated. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Aerial photograph taken by an Air Ministry photographer soon after the surrender of the Axis garrison at Halfaya on 17 January 1942. It shows transport of the Imperial forces travelling along Halfaya Pass. The rugged nature of the terrain is clearly illustrated.
Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Devastation caused by the incessant raids of Free French and RAF squadrons which played a big part in bringing about the capitulation of the garrison on 17 January 1942. This aerial photograph was taken by an Air Ministry photographer flying over Halfaya a few hours after the surrender.
Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Flying over Halfaya soon after the surrender of the garrison on 17 January 1942, an Air Ministry photographer took this aerial photograph which shows knocked out tanks, armoured vehicles and emplacements. To the right can be seen the graves of members of the garrison.

Luftwaffe Appreciation of RAF Strength in North Africa, 20 November 1941

The item below is from the UK National Archives. It is an ULTRA/Enigma intercept, and I am comparing it with the actual RAF strength (another National Archive file kindly provided by Michele Palermo) for the same week. There are some assumptions in there which I’d happily correct, if someone knows better.

  1. Operational Units
    1. Single-engine fighters: 19 fighter squadrons with 450 – 500 Tomahawks and Hurricanes, of which at the moment 390 are in the front area, according to air photography. [actual: 17.5 squadrons and one flight of Fleet Air Arm Martlets, with another 4 more forming, 280 operational with another 394 operational in 14 days – so this is a serious over-estimate by German intelligence]
    2. Heavy fighters: 3 squadrons with 60 Beaufighters, at least 1 squadron of these in the front area. [actual: 1 squadron with 16 aircraft, with another 3 forming, and 8 more aircraft becoming operational in 14 days – another serious overestimate]
    3. Day bombers: 12 squadrons with 200-250 Maylands and Blenheims, of which at the moment about 170 are in the front area according to photography. 1 squadron, equipped with Boeing Fortress I aircraft, probably being formed in the Delta area. The greater fighting value of the Maryland as opposed to the Blenheim permits its employment as an auxiliary heavy fighter: low-level attacks and, above all, attacks on transport aircraft have frequently been successfully carried out (armament: 4 fixed MG’s firing forwards, 2 firing backwards, and in addition one moveable twin MG firing upwards and one firing backwards: this has been established from captured aircraft.) [actual: 9 squadrons of light bombers with 2 squadrons and 1 flight of Maryland/Blenheim reconnaissance, with a total of 144 bombers and 36 reconnaissance operational; none forming, and another 193 light bombers becoming operational in 14 days. 3 Fortresses only, which were on special assignment. Also half a squadron of Boston III active with 8 planes, with the half forming, and 15 Boston III to become active in 14 days – this is a reasonably accurate estimate; regarding the use of the Maryland as a heavy fighter, it rather appears to me that (with one exception I am aware of), Blenheims served in this role]
    4. Night bombers: 5 squadrons with 125 Wellingtons, night attacks on Cyrenaica are carried out every night, aircraft starting from Suez Canal area, with advanced landing grounds in the Western Desert (gliding attacks and flare-dropping carried out). [actual 5 squadrons with 100 planes operational and another 22 to become operational in 14 days no squadrons forming – this is an almost perfect estimate flare dropping however was carried out by Fleet Air Arm Albacores, which are not included in this strength report]
    5. Transport aircraft: 2 transport squadrons with 25 Bombays and/or Valentias and 20 Lockheeds. 6 Bombays were employed on night 16-17/11 to drop parachute sabotage detachment in Cyrenaica (this is confirmed by the shooting down of one aircraft and the papers recovered from it). [actual 2 squadrons with 24 Bombays/Valentias operational and another 4 to become operational in 14 days, no squadrons forming; 1 squadron with no Lockheed/Douglas active, and another one forming, with 16 planes to become operational in 14 days – again a very reasonable estimate)
    6. The shortage of personnel existing after the units have been brought up to strength as regards material seem to have been overcome. It must be assumed that there exist strong reserves in aircraft parks for fighter and bomber units, since there has been a constant flow of supplies by air to Africa (U.S.A. material) and via Mediterranean (English material) (cf. air photograph of aerodrome 25 km west of Hedouan. [this is a correct interpretation of the situation]
  2. Scale of Effort

    Night bomber units since 1/9/41, regularly at about 15 per cent daily. It is probable that with the increased scale of effort since early November the maximum possibilities of these units have been reached. On the other hand fighter and day bomber units have been carefully withheld up to the beginning of the month. Their present increased scale of effort is normal, having regard to the situation (scale of effort since … at the moment reaches at the most 25 per cent of the actual strength). It thus appears that scale of effort in present form is possible for some time ahead, and may even rise for a while.

Actual scale of effort:

  • Assuming 2 sorties per day for single-engine fighters, the capacity usage was 10% in this week, although that is a big if, since 521 of the 673 (plus 18 Hurricane recce and 16 Hurribomber sorties) sorties of all fighters are unspecified and could include Beaufighters and Blenheims. For the Beaufighters (assumed 1 sortie), usage was 26% of capacity, 29 sorties.
  • Assuming 2 sorties per day for Blenheims and Marylands, the effort was about 9%, 185 sorties (plus 5 Blenheim fighter sorties) with 144 operational planes, but there are also 64 unspecified bomber sorties, some of which will be Fortresses, some others Wellingtons and light bombers.
  • For the reconnaissance Blenheims and Marylands, usage was only 7%, assuming one sortie per day as capacity. A total of 18 sorties was made. But there are another 23 unspecified sorties.
  • Assuming (based on nothing but my own thoughts, if someone knows Luftwaffe capacity assumptions, please let me know) total capacity is 1 sortie per day for the Wellingtons, the effort in this week was about 21%, at 148 sorties compared to 100 operational planes.
  • For the transport fleet, utilization was also low, at 9% (assuming 1 sortie per day), 15 sorties of Bombays are recorded]

The numbers appear to show a very strong focus on the initial gaining of air superiority. For example, in the following week, the Blenheims and Marylands had 265 sorties with unchanged operational numbers, a rate of 13%. Wellington sorties remained practically unchanged, while fighter sorties increased to 777 on unchanged numbers, or a rate of 20%. Unspecified bomber sorties tripled however, so the actual utilization was higher.

Compared to the Luftwaffe expectation, the Desert Air Force was operating at a low capacity rate, if the assumptions are correct. This is partially explained by the longer distance planes had to fly to get to their area of operations, I guess. But there are also questions raised e.g. by Australian Wing Cdr. Geddes in a special report, about the efficiency of the ground crews.