Movie Friday – AWM Movie on RAF/RAAF sorties in Libya in January 1942

Movie Friday – AWM Movie on RAF/RAAF sorties in Libya in January 1942

Came across this while looking for something else. Well worth the watch.

https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C188769

Description
Libya, January 1942. RAF bomber squadron prepares for raid;
departure, bombing of target and return; Kittyhawk fighter as escort.
The Squadron is made up of RAF personnel and graduates of the Empire Air
Training Scheme (EATS). The Kittyhawk fighter aircraft are from 3
Squadron, RAAF. Identified personnel are: Sergeant Gray RAAF, Sergeant
Drummond RAAF, War Artist Frank Norton. Aircraft types include: Martin
Maryland, Bristol Blenheim Mk IV, Bristol Bombay and Westland Lysander.Screen Shot 2020 05 15 at 5 32 44 PM

Mystery Plane Loss (?) – Benghazi 31 October 1941

Mystery Plane Loss (?) – Benghazi 31 October 1941

Background

In the records of Marine Bordflak Kompanie Süd, the Kriegsmarine unit supplying German merchants with anti-aircraft capability, there are quite a few records of engagements between the anti-air gunners and attacking planes. Claims were meticulously recorded and verification by witnesses sought.

31 October 1941

One such claim was made in a report on 6 November 1941, by the gun commander of an anti-aircraft gun on the German merchant SS Brook, one of the smaller vessels plying primarily the coastal route from Tripoli to Benghazi. SS Brook was in port at Benghazi at the time, and joined the air defense of the port during an air attack late evening of 31 October. The claim made was for a Blenheim or similar, engaged at 2225 hours.

Screen Shot 2020 04 30 at 4 26 46 PM

Benghazi harbour map, July 1941. TNAAIR23/6489 Rommelsriposte.com collection

Screen Shot 2020 04 30 at 6 09 15 PM

Map of Benghazi, Berka Landing Ground in red. Detail from German January 1942 target map for air crew. From John Calvin’s Collection.

The issue with the claim is that I cannot find a corresponding loss. The Egypt Wellingtons were  not tasked to operate over Benghazi that night, attacking Berka landing ground and store depot instead. As the map above shows however, these are close enough to the port that a plane could have been free-lancing or chosen to cross out to sea via the port. 

Nevertheless, the Wellingtons, as far as I can see also do not report a loss or indeed having sustained AA damage, and reported AA as moderate and search lights as ineffective. The standard work on RAF bomber losses in the Mediterranean, by Gunby and Temple, also does not record a loss due to enemy action that night. There is also no record that Malta-based Wellingtons or Blenheims attacked Benghazi that night, or that the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron R.A.F. did so. South African Marylands did not operate at night, and also report no loss.

So the issue is not just whether a plane was actually lost, but also who operated over the port that night?

The claims report is below.

Current Location, 6 November 41

TO: Marine- Bordflak-Kompanie-Süd

N E A P E L

R e p o r t

on shooting down of an enemy plane by the embarked AA of SS Brook, 31 October 1941 around 2225 hours in Benghazi Port.

At 2225 hours a plane attempted to attack the harbour and was caught by the search light. The plane, which flew towards us, was at a distance of about 16 h/m[1]. At 13 h/m we opened fire and scored 10-12 clear hits until the switchover point (11 h/m)[2]. Hits were scored in the main fuselage and close to the engine on the wing. During impact on the wing it was noted that pieces of the plan (pieces of about the size of a hand) flew out of the wing, at the same time as sparks rained down. After this the plane wobbled heavily. The plane now went lower, escaped the search light beam, and could no longer be observed by us.

We were the first to engage the plane, and the later shots from other guns, which stood about 800m further from the target, were far off it. Furthermore, the plane, which was recognized by us as a Bristol Blenheim, immediately escaped the search light.

Following an inquiry with the Naval Transport Office Benghazi, we were informed that most probably two planes were shot down. I am convinced that the plane engaged by us must be one of them.

The remains of the crashed plane had not been found by the time of our departure from Benghazi, but the search was continuing.

The Armed Forces Communique reported the shooting down of four planes the next day.

The plane was engaged by us with armor-piercing high-explosive rounds, which I had exchanged for high-explosive rounds with the air force anti-air unit.[3]

Paul Hupperts

Naval Artillery Private and Gun Commander

Notes

[1]Hectometre – 100 m = 1,600m and typical engagement range for a light AA gun. The author served on 20mm AA during his time as a conscript.

[2] The point where the plane flies away from the location of the gun, and is no longer to be engaged.

[3] Obviously a very enterprising gun commander.

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Flak.- Light embarked AA 2 cm and 3 cm with gun shield; PK Marine West. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv

Source verification and selection – a case study

Source verification and selection – a case study

Background

Many people are aware of the ‘Every tank a Tiger, every gun an 88’ phenomenon, where faulty perceptions of participants are taken at face value. Source selection and verification is a major issue in historical research, and particularly difficult in WW2, where we sometimes suffer from an avalanche of sources. While many of these seem quite reliable, it is necessary to cross-check, even where primary sources are concerned, and most certainly so where secondary sources are involved. 

No. 105 Squadron and the Mystery Schooner

So for this short vignette, I am using something rather closer to home, namely an air attack by Blenheim bombers of No. 105 Squadron R.A.F. on a schooner off Sicily on 9 September 1941. This attack is well remembered and described in Battle Axe Blenheims, the unit history of the squadron, where the target is described as a ’Squealer’, a radio-equipped early warning vessel that acts as spotter for the the defenses on Sicily. 

Four ships had gone out that day, led by Squadron Leader Duncan, the others commanded by Sgts. Brandwood, Mortimer, and Weston. They were looking for a convoy off Cape Spartivento, but did not find it. Sgt. Smith, observer on the CO’s plane, recorded the attack in this personal log. 

Search for convoy SE coast Sicily – not found, but saw a schooner off the coast – later confirmed my conviction. This was a Squealer, equipped with radio sending [equipment], sighting information to Italian Fighter Command. Their SOS was intercepted in Malta.

IMG 8898

Picture of the attack from Battle Axe Blenheims, p. 173

Source Review

Now for the first oddity. there is no mention of this attack at all in the Squadron Operations Record Book (ORB), which is rather strange, since one would presume that the sinking of such a vessel would be recorded.

No105

TNA AIR27/849 No 105 Squadron ORB 9 September 1941. 

At this stage, my inclination would be to file this under over-active imagination, date error, whatever. This is confirmed by a quick check in Navi Mercantili Perduti , the official loss listing of the Italian merchant navy[1], also shows no schooner lost that day. Nevertheless, there is a picture of the attack, and a rather detailed log entry. 

Fortunately enough however, I have received the relevant days from the war diary of Supermarina, the High Command of the Italian Royal Navy. This diary contains a lengthy entry on a note from Naval Command Augusta in Sicily, of an attack on the Motoveliera[2] Anita L.[3] of the Vigilanza foranea[4] at Capo Murro di Porco. During the afternoon of 9 September was attacked and bombed by four enemy bombers. She was hit several times at the waterline and in the masts/rigging. Nobody was hurt and the vessel sought refuge in Siracuse harbour where repairs were ongoing.

Conclusion

So despite no mention in the ORB, it appears pretty certain that the memory of Sgt. Smith is quite correct, and an attack took place, and that this was an operational auxiliary navy vessel. It is wrong however in overestimating the effect of the attack, since the Anita L. was not sunk after all.

To arrive at this conclusion, following interest being triggered by a secondary source, a review of two primary sources, one on each side (the ORB and the war diary of Supermarina) was necessary, together with a check in the Official History of the Italian navy. Interestingly in this case, if one had just reviewed the British sources, the attack would likely have been dismissed as an imaginary event or at the very least wrong in date. Only the combination of sources from both sides makes it possible to come to the right conclusion, and confirm and correct as necessary the record in Battle-Axe Blenheims.

Notes

Thanks go to Lorenzo Colombo of the Con la pelle appesa a un chiodo blog, and Italian naval historian Enrico Cernuschi, for their help.

[1]This is part of the Italian Navy’s Official History set of WW2. Lorenzo Colombo checked it for me.

[2]Sailing vessel with an auxiliary engine.

[3]M/V Anita L of 95 grt was requisitioned as V213 from 19/02/1941 until 02/04/1942, enrolled in Lussinpiccolo (today Mali Losinj in Croatia), and it appears she survived the war. She had registration number 68. Many thanks go to Marco Ghiglino who provided this information.

[4]Part of the Regia Marina, a service utilising requisitioned vessels to stand guard and alert defenses to incoming seaborne and aerial attacks.

105 Blenheim

Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, V6014 ‘GB-J’, of No. 105 Squadron RAF Detachment in a dispersal at Luqa, Malta. Canvas covers protect the cockpit and glazed nose section from the sun. From July to September 1941, 105 Squadron was detached from the United Kingdom to Malta, to operate against targets in the Mediterranean and North Africa, losing 14 aircraft during the period. Note the modified gun mounting under the nose. IWM CM1357

Innovation in Action – Airborne Artillery Spotting

Innovation in Action – Airborne Artillery Spotting

Background

Operation CRUSADER saw a range of innovations on the Empire side, in particular related to the integration of air/land battle. In a previous post I have provided some information on the arrangements for close air support by strike aircraft (see this link). I have also written up a book review of Mike Bechtold’s excellent ‘ Flying to Victory’ at this link). Finally, I have provided some analysis of how effective close air support was at this link.

This entry concerns itself with another form of support, the utilization of aircraft to spot for artillery batteries. It is something taken for granted today, and indeed became a major feature of the war on the Allied side by 1944, with the famous Auster aircraft carrying spotter/pilots and enabling Allied artillery to strike at will on the battlefield.

In 1941, this kind of support was by no means as well developed, but it nevertheless was utilised by Army Cooperation (AC) squadrons at least. These squadrons flew a range of planes, including Westland Lysanders, and Hawker Hurricanes. Two designated squadrons were operational in Operation CRUSADER, one for each of the British Army Corps – No. 208 Squadron R.A.F. and No. 451 Squadron R.A.A.F. They carried out short-range reconnaissance, message delivery flights, and other duties. 

451 squadron

Hurricane Tac. R Mark I, Z4641, of No. 451 Squadron RAAF, in flight during a reconnaissance sortie over Libya, with another aircraft of the Squadron acting as a ‘sweeper’ in the background. The pilot is Flight Lieutenant G F Morley-Mower[1]. (IWM CM2206)

451 Squadron R.A.A.F. (AC) on 30 December 1941

Just prior to 30 December, No.451 Squadron had been relieved in Cyrenaica by No. 208 Squadron, and returned to the Libyan-Egyptian border, subordinated to 30 Corps for the operation against Bardia/Halfaya that was about to begin. 30 December was a busy day for the squadron, with nine sorties in total. The squadron was based at Sidi Azeiz, ironically until 18 November the base for 2.(H)/14, Panzergruppetactical reconnaissance unit. Sorties on the day were as follows:

General Reconnaissance

SGT.WATTS carried out a tactical reconnaissance of BARDIA. One small ship in 51963957. One large moving from shore at 51943965.

One small moron boat moving about in harbour towards East headland.

Medium A/A from harbour vicinity. A/A positions at 517398

SGT. HOWLANDS carried out a Photographic reconnaissance. After landing at L.G.75 had abandon photographs owing to bad weather. Dummy railhead[2] reported easily distinguishable. 

F/LT. MORLEY-MOWER carried out a photographic reconnaissance, did not quite cover area due to bad weather.

P/O. HUTLEY carried out a tactical reconnaissance of BARDIA area. Small craft reported in harbour sunk.

Bardia451

Bardia Area, Empire 1942 map utilizing the same coordinate system as report below. Red dots mark artillery strike locations. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Artillery Spotting

P/O. ACHILLES carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged and registered target S.B.

F/LT. SPRINGBETT carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Targets T.D. 51673947 and T/F/ 51483908 engaged.

P/O.MACDONALD carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. 4 gun pits 52063874 and MET[3] – tents 52093885, successfully engaged.

P/O. ROBERTSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA HARBOUR. Ships spotted, not engaged, faulty R/T.[4]

LT. THOMPSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA HARBOUR. Engaged one ship successfully, 1 direct hit under water line. A/A 88 and Breda[5]

P/O.HUDSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged dump 51503990 satisfactorily. Heavy explosion observed at 51354013 by ranging rounds.[6]

F/LT. FERGUSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged 4 tanks 51483942, fire ineffective due to movement of tanks and bad R/T.

[1]Flight Lieutenant Morley-Mower served with 451 Squadron in December 1941. This and the type of plane makes me think this picture dates to CRUSADER.

[2]This refers to the Empire dummy railhead at Sidi Barrani.

[3] Motor Enemy Transport

[4]Radio Transmitter

[5]Meaning heavy (88mm) and light (20mm) anti-air guns engaged him.

[6]Marked by red X on the map.

 

 

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Background

Following the retreat from the Gazala position the Desert Air Force quickly moved west in pursuit, and within days had operations going at Gazala and Mechili landing grounds which were used as staging and concentration posts from which to hit the Axis forces, in particular their air force, in the enemy rear areas. 


002 Lage NA 29 Dec 1941 Part 2

German Situation Map, 29 December 1941, by which time Magrun had been occupied by Empire forces for almost a week. Rommelsriposte.com Collection. 

The role of ULTRA

A major effort was made on 22 December to disrupt operations and destroy planes and ground assets on Magrun airfield.

ULTRA intercepts during the previous days had shown that the landing ground had become a major concentration area for the Axis air forces, and had also placed the battle HQ of Panzergruppe at Magrun[1], and noted that Luftwaffe supplies going into Magrun were considered inadequate, on 21 December. This was the short period during which Bletchley Park was reading the Panzergruppe communications almost in real time. 

In consequence, 13 Corps and the Desert Air Force command laid on two operations on the ground and in the air, to interrupt the Axis on the landing ground. This consisted of 13 Corps directing 22 Guards Brigade onto Margin late on 21 December, and 204 Group setting up multiple raids for 22 December. These operations on 22 December were therefore what would be called ‘intelligence-led’ today, in reaction to this information, and showed how quickly ULTRA intercepts could be turned into operational action. 

Magrun order

Order to 205 Group to put in maximum effort night 21/22 December. AIR23/6489, TNA, Kew.

In particular, a message from Fliegerfuehrer to his Chief of Staff had been intercepted, asking when additional fuel would arrive for the aircraft that were arriving at Magrun, and informing that i) the delivery on the Regia Marina submarine Micca to Benghazi had only been Italian fuel, and that 16,000 ltrs. of fuel that had arrived at Maraua, the previous HQ, had been entirely used up. It was therefore reasonable to presume that at any given moment the next day substantial numbers of Luftwaffe aircraft would be on the ground at Magrun, either delivering fuel, or arriving to be refueled, and constituting a major target. 

Magrun

ULTRA message to Prime Minister, 21 Dec. 1941. UK National Archives, HW1 Series. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 22 December, the following attacks went in:

1. Night 21/22 December, night raid by Wellingtons. Results inconclusive.

2. Morning fighter sweep (see below)

3. Morning attack by Bostons, claiming four planes destroyed on the ground.

4. Afternoon attack by 270 Wing Blenheims, claiming 2 Ju 52 destroyed, 2 probably destroyed, and 2 more damaged, all on the ground.

5. Afternoon attack by Marylands (2 and 3 of Nos. 12 and 21 Squadron S.A.A.F. respectively), which fail to bomb due to the target being insufficiently covered by patchy cloud at 5-6,000 ft, exposing the unescorted Marylands to too high risk in a low attack.

large_0000008

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 (Courtesy IWM CM2017)

Raids on Magrun Airfield 22 December

Magrun airfield was located 71km south of Benghazi, and was abandoned on 22 December. Prior to leaving there was still heavy activity on it, with crews and stores being removed. It had been used by the Regia Aeronautica, and the first mention of a German plane on the landing ground was not until 20 December, when the Luftwaffe started to occupy it during the retreat. It became the target of a major effort on 22 December. The landing ground had no facilities, but was closely located to the road, and protected by a fort to the north-east.

First went the fighters, a combination of Tomahawks from Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons, out of Mechili landing ground, went to the air field for a ground strafing attack at 0940 hours. The famous No. 112 Squadron (with its Sharkmouth insignia) undertook one of the last operations with Tomahawks.

112 Squadron

A flight of 6 Tommies[2][3] led by Flight Lieutenant WESTENRA took MAGRUN aerodrome by surprise coming out of the sun. F/Lt. WESTENRA damaged a Ju 87 and with Pilot Officer BARTLE destroyed a Ju 87. P/o Duke destroyed a Ju 52 while he probably destroyed a Ju 87 with Sgt. CARSON. A further sweep in the afternoon produced nothing of interest and no enemy aircraft were seen.[4]

250 Squadron

7 a/c in conjunction with 112, 2 & 4 Squdns. made fighter wing sweep to Magrun aerodrome and ground staffed it. Sgt. Dunlow shot down a JU. 87 which was coming in to land – Sgt. [unreadable] damaged one in like circumstances. At least 4 fires were left burning on the aerodrome. A number of JU 52’s being destroyed.

The No. 2 Squadron S.A.A.F. report notes a successful strafing action, with 2x Ju 52 destroyed, 2x Ju 87 damaged, as well as 1x Ju 88 and curiously 1x Do.215 damaged[5].

112 Squadron LG122Pilots of No. 112 Squadron RAF grouped round the nose of one of their Curtiss Tomahawks at LG 122, Egypt. Those identified are, (left to right): Sergeant R F Leu, Pilot Officer N F Duke, Flying Officers J F Soden (on wing) and P H Humphreys, Squadron Leader F V Morello (Commanding Officer), Flight Lieutenant C F Ambrose, Flying Officer E Dickenson (killed in action 28 May 1942), Sergeant H G Burney (killed in action 30 May 1942), Flying Officers D F Westenra, J J P Sabourin (killed in action 6 October 1942, while flying with No. 145 Squadron RAF), N Bowker and J P Bartle, and Sergeant K F Carson. (IWM CM1820)

While the time isn’t clear, it is likely that the Douglas Bostons of No. 24 Squadrons S.A.A.F. went later in the morning, unescorted. It was the last mission of the year for the squadron.

22-12-41 Nine Bostons bombed aircraft on Sid-amud-el-Magrun aerodrome 60-70 aircraft (including 30 JU52’s) dispersed on NW side of aerodrome. 8x 500 HE bombs fell in and slightly short of dispersal area and 24x 250 HE among aircraft and one was seen to be burning on aerodrome on approaching target. 4x 250 bombs hung up slightly and overshot, falling edge of dispersal area. 7/10 cloud over target. Total bombs 8×500 and 28x 250. Total flying time 22.5 hours.

The second light bomber daylight raid on Magnum on 22 December was fairly typical of the period. It was meant to be a major effort by 276 Wing, putting into the air a large number of Blenheims from all its squadrons for two consecutive raids. The operation order is crisp and clear.

.- Os.C. No’s. 14, 45, 84, and Lorraine [5] Squadrons

From: .- No. 270 Wing

A.659 22/12/41 SECRET Operation Order No. 61

6 aircraft of Lorraine Squadron are to land at GAZALA t 0815 on 22/12/41. Aircraft are to link up with 8 aircraft of 84 Squadron already there. 84 Squadron are to lead formation of 12 aircraft after briefing and fighter escort arranged. 

6 aircraft of 14 Squadron are to land at GAZALA at 0830 hours 22/12/41 and join up with 7 aircraft of 45 Squadron already there.

14 Squadron will lead 45 Squadron on second sorry. Standard bomb load will be carried by all aircraft.

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Group Captain, Commanding,

No. 270 Wing, R.A.F.

Fighter escort was provided by Nos. 2 and 4 S.A.A.F. Squadrons and Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons RAF. The raid encountered two Me. 109F, but no engagement ensued. The fighters reported strong and accurate light AA fire.  

All six operational Blenheims from 14 Squadron accordingly left Gambut at 0515, and arrived at Gazala at 0605. The detailed record explains that due to problems with communication and cloud cover over the airfield only 3 aircraft arrived, the others returning. I suspect the issue was that the aircraft went to Mechili rather than Gazala landing grounds.

Therefore, 14 Squadron ultimately only put up three Blenheims for Magrun, ships 9656 J, 5950 V, and 5947 M, crewed by Wing Cdr. Buchanan, Sgts. Chaplin and Ball; Sgts. Willis, Young, and New; and Pilot Officers Wilbon, McKenny, and Sgt. Webster, respectively. 

Following the raid, the three planes returned to Gazala, from where they left at 1100 to return to base at 1445.

Proceeding to EL MECHILI where fighter escort was provided these 3 aircraft formed part of a wing formation. On the aerodrome at Magrun six Ju. 52’s and six 109’s were seen, and our aircraft at 1320 hours G.M.T. from 5,000 feet dropped 4x 250 lbs bombs each. Two Ju. 88’s[6] and one M.T. were seen to be hit, all the bombs fell in target area. Heavy slight A.A. was experienced, two of our aircraft were hit, but all however returned to base.

German records (kindly provided by Andrew from airwarpublications.com) show that the Allied cliaims on the while were reasonably accurate. They are given below as received. Total losses amounted to one Ju 88 reconnaissance, 3x Me109F, 2 x Ju 52 and 2x Ju 87 on this day.

– 22.12.1941: 2.(F)/123 Ju 88 destroyed by strafing at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: I./J.G. 27 Bf 109 destroyed by own troops at Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crash-landing at Magrun, 40 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: III./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crashed due to Motorschaden, 100 per cent loss [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 300 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 400 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 1 Ju 87 R-4 damaged by bombs at El Magrus [sic], 60 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 2 Ju 87 R-3 force landing due to damage from enemy fighter, 100 per cent loss [loss list]  

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No. 14 Squadron Daily Report Sheet, 22 December 1941. AIR27/199 TNA, Kew. 

Waterlogged1

A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, ‘U’ (serial number unclear) of No. 45 Squadron RAF, undergoes an engine overhaul at waterlogged Gambut, Libya, after violent rainstorms in November and December 1941 rendered many of the forward airfields unusable during Operation CRUSADER.

112 Squadron Pilots 

Three notable pilots  of No. 112 Squadron RAF, photographed on reaching the end of their tour of operations with the Squadron in North Africa, (left to right): Flight Lieutenant D F “Jerry” Westenra, Flying Officer N F Duke and Flight Lieutenant P H “Hunk” Humphreys. Each of them wears the top button of his dress tunic undone as the (unofficial) mark of the fighter pilot at the time. (IWM CM2504)

Westenra was a New Zealander from Christchurch, who joined 112 Squadron early in 1941, flying with them in Greece, Crete, and in the Western Desert where he was made a flight commander. He is reputed to have urged the adoption of the ‘Sharkmouth’ insignia by the Squadron in September 1941. At the conclusion of his tour in March 1942, he received the DFC for shooting down five enemy aircraft. In 1943 Westenra flew with No. 601 Squadron RAF in North Africa, and commanded No. 93 Squadron RAF in Italy. In March 1944 he was appointed to commandNo. 65 Squadron RAF during the Normandy Invasion, returning to New Zealand in September 1944.

Duke was posted to 112 Squadron in February 1941 after serving with No. 92 Squadron RAF in the United Kingdom. Despite being shot down twice, he achieved an impressive tally of eight confirmed victories in the Western Desert before leaving the Squadron in April 1942. He was then posted to El Ballah as an instructor at the Fighter School before rejoining 92 Squadron in the Western Desert in November 1942 and a adding further 14 victories to his total. In June 1943 he became Chief Flying Instructor at No.73 Operational Training Unit at Abu Sueir, but returned to operations as Commanding Officer of No. 145 Squadron RAF in Italy in March 1944. He returned to the United Kingdom in January 1945 with 28 victories to become a test pilot with Hawkers.

Humphreys joined 112 Squadron as a flight commander in November 1941 after serving with Nos 152 and 92 Squadrons RAF. Like Duke, he left theSquadron in April 1942 to instruct at the Fighter School at El Ballah before returning to operations with No. 92 Squadron RAF in early 1943. He later took command of this Squadron and led it to Malta, Sicily and Italy before another rest from operations in November 1943. In April 1944 Humphreys returned to Italy to command No. 111 Squadron RAF, and left for the United Kingdom in November 1944 on his appointment as Station Commander at RAF Castle Bromwich. He was killed in a flying accident in 1947.

Notes

[1]Incorrectly, since Panzergruppe HQ was in Agedabia at this time.
[2]Tomahawk P-40 fighters
[3]Only five in the ORB, ships AN303 F/Lt. Westenra, AN289 Sgt. Carson W., AN 274 P/O Bartle, AK531 Sgt. Carson K., and AK354, P/O Duke.
[4]This sweep was probably the escort mission for the Blenheim raid.
[5]The type wasn’t present in the desert, although it could have been an older Do 17Z operating as a second line aircraft with the staff of Fliegerfuehrer.
[6]No. 342 Squadron R.A.F.
[7]Should probably be Ju 52s.

Book Review: “Flying to Victory” by Mike Bechthold

Book Review: “Flying to Victory” by Mike Bechthold

Five Stars out of Five – Buy

Large 000000colli

Air Commodore R Collishaw, the Air Officer Commanding No. 202 Group, surveys the ruined buildings on the airfield at El Adem, Libya, following its capture on 5 January 1941 during the advance on Tobruk. (IWM CM 399)

Overall

In a nutshell, if you are the least bit interested in the development of air support doctrine on the Allied side in WW2, and/or the desert war, you should get this book. This is a rare book in that it comprehensively challenges the established wisdom, and does so without resorting to hyperbole or manufactured conspiracy theories. The author has done his homework, and clearly sets out his case based on his research. Having looked at some of the same material, I cannot but agree with the conclusion, which means that the way in which we consider the development of army/air cooperation progressed in the Empire forces, and by implication the Western Allies as whole, needs to be reconsidered, and a man who should be recognized for having delivered in 1940 army air support of a quality that wasn’t considered possible until then.

Considerations

The book covers the career of Collishaw, with a clear focus on his background as a fighter pilot in the First World War, and how this influenced his approach to operations. It is relatively silent on his personal life, and treats his life after his (likely) forced retirement very briefly. There is an autobiography however which is available to those interested in more of this detail. 

The clear focus of the book is on the leadership of Collishaw during the campaigns in the Western Desert, which it treats with substantial detail, and does very well of putting his actions and performance into aa clear context. The picture that emerges from this is of a man who has almost been written out of history, by the writing of his superior, Air Marshal Tedder, who seems to have had no good word for him. The consequence of this is that the picture of the early air war in the desert is skewed, and the two men normally credited with developing the army/air cooperation system in the desert (Tedder and Coningham) did not do so, but rather built on the system that Collishaw put in place and then demonstrated successfully. I have myself made this mistake in a previous post (at this link), and I am very glad to be corrected in this.

The author has gone through a lot of detail to better lay out and analyze the performance of the RAF in the early campaigns up to and including BATTLEAXE, and shows clearly how the latter differed from the prior operations in that the RAF acceded to the wishes of the Army, with almost disastrous consequences. While I remain to be convinced that a different approach to air support in BATTLEAXE could have delivered a different outcome, a worthwhile case for reconsidering the operation in the light of the failure to apply a tried and tested air support model is being made.

The book is strongest where it takes the after-action communications written by leading participants and subjects them to a comparison with actual performance or earlier statements by the same actors. Almost invariably it shows the politicization of the messaging.

Collishaw, the main subject of the book, emerges as a man who was unduly overlooked for his contribution to the Allied victory, and who used his experiences in the Great War to a very good effect. One wonders how his career would have gone had O’Connor not been captured during Rommel’s first offensive.

Room for Improvement

There are some minor errors which could easily be corrected in a new edition, which would also benefit from reducing repetitions. None of this affects the fundamental thesis of the book though. On the whole, I think a revised edition would substantially benefit from using Axis sources to ascertain the actual impact that RAF operations had, something which is being done in this version through the post-war studies undertaken by the British authorities, which in turn relied on Axis documentation, but which are not as powerful as going straight back to the source.

Another wish of mine would be to compare in detail the arrangements for air support of the army in COMPASS and CRUSADER. While the broad brush comparison is clear, it is in the detail that CRUSADER provided innovation, in particular the system of ‘Tentacles’, which was well ahead of what the Wehrmacht was practicing at the time. It would also be interesting to compare the COMPASS system to the 1940 arrangement for close air support in the Wehrmacht, in particular in regards to reconnaissance assets.

If I had one major criticism, it would be the absence of a more in-depth exploration of why Tedder so disliked Collishaw. There is some speculation, but nothing definitive, and it appears odd that personal dislike could be leading to such harsh consequences.

Production

The Kindle version is well produced, footnoted throughout, and very readable. Maps were produced by the author, they are clear and informative, allowing the reader to follow events. They are also being used well to highlight specific issues, such as the distance of Crete from the North African coast.

The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented.

As can be expected in an academic work, the bibliography is extensive and a full index is provided. The research that has gone into this book is clearly extensive, and the bibliography provides ample avenues for further research.

Notes

The review is based on the Kindle version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Not Crusader – Report on the Crash of Hans-Joachim Marseille

Not Crusader – Report on the Crash of Hans-Joachim Marseille

Background

As noted, every so often I post something not related to CRUSADER. The document below is a report by the unit that recovered the body of Captain (Hauptmann) and Squadron Commanding Officer (Staffelkapitaen) Hans-Joachim Marseille, at the time the top scoring German ace in North Africa, when his Me 109 went down in flames on 30 September 1942 in the area of Pz.Gren.Regt.115 of 15. Panzerdivision.

Hans-Joachim Marseille Fighter Pilot Captain Hans-Joachim Marseille. Knights Cross with Diamonds, Oak Leaves, and Swords, 3 September 1942. Courtesy Bundesarchiv

Marseille was a major part of German propaganda about the war in Africa, and the way the immediate actions after his death and recovery went demonstrate this. He was generally regarded as an exceptional fighter pilot, and had been awarded well over 100 victories at the time of his death.

Aircrew-Luftwaffe-JG27-ace-Hans-Joachim-Marseille-Der-Adler-June-1942-01

Spanish edition of the Luftwaffe propaganda magazine Der Adler (The Eagle), 14 July 1942, Marseille on the cover, explaining a dog fight.

Copy

M o r i t z, Lieutenant in the Staff of 

Pz.Gren.Rgt. 115

O.U., 30 September 1942

Report on the Crash of Lieutenant[1] Marseille

On 30 September 1942, at 11.42 hours, 6 German Messerschmitt fighters, coming from the east, fly towards the location of the staff units of Pz.Gren.Rgt.115. Directly above the position of the heavy infantry gun company[2], in about 200 m of altitude, one of the planes suddenly started trailing black smoke; while the pilot escaped, and then, since the parachute did not open, fell from 200 m of altitude smashing into the ground, the plane spun almost vertically down and exploded on the ground.  Remaining parts burned.

Immediately attending soldiers of the heavy infantry gun company, as well as the doctor arriving five minutes later, could only note the death of the pilot because his brain was smashed in (in addition to a complex fracture of the femur). The time of the crash was 11.45 hours. Further investigations showed that the pilot was Lieutenant Marseille. He carried the following private items on his person: 2 rings, 1 medal, 1 letter, 1 watch, Knghts Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords[3]. These things and the whole pilot’s dress, including parachute, were picked up shortly before 12.00 hours by Sergeant W. Wal, L-21658 Munich II (7.schw.Flum.Kp.Ln.Abt.Afrika).

I arrived at 12.00 hours myself, and immediately recognised Lieutenant Marseille based on the published pictures. I ordered immediately, following the doctor’s cleaning and wound-dressing of the body, to lay it in state. Lieutenant Marseille was laid up under a large awning, covered by a Swastika flag, and surrounded by a honour guard of six men with rifles. At the same time, the commanding officer of the 1st battalion, 10cm Artillery Group Littorio, stationed nearby, Captain Luisiana, arrived with 3 officers and put two wreath fabric pieces in the national colours of Italy onto the chest of the dead Lieutenant Marseille, under the ceremonial greeting of all those present.

At 13.15 hours, Lieutenant Marseille was collected in ceremony by all the officers of his squadron, led by his squadron commander[4], and transferred to his base.

Signed Moritz

Lieutenant, Staff Pz.Gren.Regt.115

 

 

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Marseille with his 48th claim, a Hurricane Mk. II of No. 213 Squadron R.A.F., in February 1942. Courtesy Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.

Thanks to RodM on the 12 O’Clock High Forum, I can now add two ULTRA intercepts conveying the news of Marseille’s death to authorities in London. This is again a highly unusual step, showing that Marseille was not just recognised on the German side. The intercepts are to be found in the UK National Archives, DEFE 3/573 – Intelligence from intercepted German, Italian and Japanese radio communications, WWII, CX/MSS/C 1-533, 1942 Sept 16-1945 May 15.

What is notable is the discrepancy in the height given at which Marseille baled out of his plane, compared to the report by Lieutenant Moritz above.

TO: C.S.S. Personal

From: Duty Officer, Hut 3

Following neither reported in CX/MSS nor signalled abroad

CX/MSS/C44

MEDITERRANEAN

AIR PERSONALITIES

On 30/9 Fliegerfuehrer AFRIKA reported the death of Hptm. MARSEILLE, Staffelkapitaen in JG 27. He was not killed by enemy action. His engine caught fire and he baled out at 3,000 m. His parachute failed to open and he crashed at 0940/30/9 7 km south of the mosque at SIDI ABD EL RAHMAN, in his own territory. He was flying a Messerschmitt 109G.

 

TO: C.S.S. Personal

From: Duty Officer, Hut 3

Following neither reported in CX/MSS nor signalled abroad

CX/MSS/C45

MEDITERRANEAN

AIR PERSONALITIES

AMSEL Ia[5] to 5th Air Corps[6] for Feldmarshall[7], on Hptm. MARSEILLE 2nd Report.

His engine began to smoke from unknown causes over the front area, at 6,000 metres. He then glided towards our territory, during which time the Geschwader[8] control heard him speaking continuously. The enemy did not interfere. MARSEILLE’s voice was perfectly clear. He supposed himself that his engine was on fire. He let his companion in the Schwarm[9] guide him as the cockpit was full of smoke. Flames were first seen as he baled out, which he did at 3,000 metres 7 km. S of SIDI ABD EL RAHMAN ….. (several sentences illegible) …. The a/c was burnt out. Engine and parachute have been found. Funeral probably in the afternoon of 1/10 at DERNA.

0827/1/10/42 GMT 

Notes

[1] His actual rank at this time was Hauptmann, Captain or Flight Lieutenant

[2] Unusually, at the time the regiment had two heavy infantry gun companies, normally equipped with 150mm sIG33 guns, the 13th, and the 15th company. It is not clear which one is referred to here, and I do not know if both were physically present with the regiment at the time.

[3]He should also have carried the diamonds.

[4] Marseille was the Squadron CO until his death.

[5]Codename for Chief of Staff (Ia) of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika, the commander of Luftwaffe forces in North Africa.

[6]5a Squadra, the Italian air force command for North Africa.

[7]Probably Field Marshal Kesselring

[8]Wing, a unit composed of three Gruppen, the largest tactical command in the Luftwaffe. Comparable to a regiment.

[9]Flight. A sub-unit of a Staffel or Squadron, comparable to a platoon. The six Me109 reported by Lieutenant Moritz would have been the Schwarm on this occasion. As an aside Schwarm is a very old word, originating possibly in Sanskrit, and being very similar in German, English, and Norwegian/Danish.

MarseilleCrash

Burned wreckage of Marseille’s Me109G. Vehicle in the back at the point where his body impacted the ground. Unknown photographer, courtesy of Wikipedia.