THE FIRST DESERT CAMPAIGN
AUTHOR - S/Ldr Michael Shekleton
The following document is perhaps the only one of its kind in existence to so uniquely detail the daily activities of a Squadron during the second world war. It is not just a dry listing of operations and their outcomes, neither can it be called a diary in the sense that it simply sets down the activities and events that affected the writer. Rather, it is a unique combination of diary and historical documentary written in the first person as the actual events unfolded, and is "remarkably" balanced between brevity and detail. Intended or not, the highly unique style of the author is such, it has the effect of including the reader in the events. Listen in on the banter in the Sgt's mess, feel the heat of the desert, share in the worry of an overdue aircraft. No attempt has been made to make something from which it was not, It achieves this by having blended snippets of "actual" conversation into the recording of events along with with the authors own thoughts and feelings. The effect is magic.
The year is 1940, You are in Egypt, Europe is all but lost and Britain is on the edge of defeat. Italy has just now declared war on Britain.............
We fly from Helio to Maaten Bagush and arrive late in the afternoon to find our convoys have got in and tents are up for us. Darkness falls. A staff car is seen racing madly along (the road?) from 202 Group Headquarters.
We are shouted into the Mess Tent. Barney says: “Italy has come in. Standby and I’ll let you know the bomb load later.” We expect to take off there and then but hang about until 11pm. and are then sent to bed!
NAMES: Barney -(S/Ldr Keily)
Turned out at dawn. We're to raid Menistir or if there's nothing there then El Adem. From 4am. till 6.45 pm. we hang around our aircraft. At last we’re off. Menistir is 150 miles. We fly out to sea.
I’m with Bob Bateson. Barney is leading with John up. On ETA we turn in and sweep over the coast. There is Menistir but there’s nothing much there except for a couple of Savoias. Barney turns west and we follow. We’re down to 1000ft. calmly flying along a main road.
In a great wadi are hundreds of transports. We steam past a convoy. Sixty-five miles of this and here’s El Adem. Bob yells: “Lord, look at ‘em!” I clean forget to be scared. John drops a stick on the hangars. We follow. A crowd of men on the tarmac (apron) is staring up at us stupidly. They turn and run as I ping off. I have no feelings at all.
John’s bombs (means first stick) burst beside the hangars, mine go through the roofs. On the tarmac are about 30 a/c. I’m sure I miss them and my second stick goes on the field. There’s a ghastly racket under our aircraft (blast from leader’s bombs. Ed.). We circle and return. I loose my third stick. Everything is covered in smoke. Can’t see if I do any good. (! damage) B Flight’s incendiaries are burning everywhere.
Thompson yells “Fighters!” but I’ve still got bombs. Round we go again and I drop my stick on some buildings. Things are hitting our machine. Bursts of ack-ack smoke are filling the sky. We dive with Bob using the front-gun. It’s a circus. We are down to ten or fifteen feet.
O-omph! There's a stink of petrol. It’s our starboard tank. (Filling the well – Ed) We’re off now streaking toward the sea with fighters on our tail. And there’s ‘Basher’ (Beauclair) burning in front of us. Barney’s shouting. “Join up! Join up!” ‘Basher’s’ going down. Two fighters are attached to us. We hear their guns but we are too fast for them. (Later identified as CR32s). We’re away. ‘Basher’ has belly-landed.
Written in dusk at our tent entrance on 13th. There’s been the most glorious sunset!
NAMES: Barney-(S/Ldr Keily), Bob Bateson, John Cleaver Obs/BA, (Tommy)-Thompson WOp/Ag, F/Lt D. (Basher) Beauclair
NOTE: F/Lt D. (Basher) Beauclair and his crew, Sgt Owen and LAC (Sgt) J Dobson survived with burns and became POW's
Nine aircraft did a dawn raid on Tobruk Harbour scoring hits on a battleship and a submarine. CR42s engaged. One shot down with turret fire. Unattributed. The CR42s were fast enough to overtake but as Barney led the squadron out to sea at nought feet and they were able to launch only one diving attack.
I was duty officer so got left in Ops tent.
L8463 - ours - had 13 holes in her after El Adem. Her wings have gone by road to Aboukir.
NOTE: This was a joint operation of 45, 55, 211 and 113 and the navy. Italian records state there were not any CR.42s operational over Tobruk on the morning of 12 June, only the CR.32 of the 8o Gruppo. None were shot down contrary to claims by 113 and 211. The ship was the San Giorgio which was hit by the 113 but apparently not damaged per the ships war diary.
NAMES: Barney -(S/Ldr Keily)
We standby while Owen and Durrant do a recce of Fort Maddelina but there is no target and we return to the mess tent.
A damaged Hind flew in this morning and landed upside down. Pilot unhurt.
Rumours Paris has fallen. John says any minute now and we'll retire to prepared positions on the Crocodile River.' (Wherever that it!)
NAMES: P/O Owen, Durrant
(Note: There were two Owens on the squadron at this time, one a P/O (or W/O) Owen and other a Sgt Owen who was part of F/Lt Beauclair's crew shot down on June 11th 1940)
Bob leads us on a raid on Tobruk Harbour. 9 aircraft. Dropped half our load (small ones) on a satellite just south of the town where there were about 30 parked aircraft, some three-engined things, the rest on assorted shipping. The battleship had so flak much reduced. No one saw the sub.
A string of 42s got up from somewhere and came at us but Bob led us out westward at nought feet in very tight formation and I think our combined fire-power must have been a bit daunting for the Iti pilots. Interesting how spurts of sand got up ahead of us. The 42s are armed, they say, with two heavy (half-inch) guns. The fire rate is quite slow - compared with our Brownings.
`Dickie' Squires had some hang-ups and peeled off to try to shake them off. Three machines were put u/s. The big slugs make nasty holes. Debriefing mercifully postponed till after breakfast.
Four crews go on the Bombay to Aboukir for more aircraft.
At 6.45pm we put up 4 to nuisance' raid Tobruk singly, Bob in the van. It must be very irritating having your dinner interrupted by machines flying in one by one dropping 20s and 40s in penny numbers for an hour or so. We tried to hit transport and oil tanks. The flak is very pretty - looking back, but rather frightening to fly toward!
I said if we had actually hit an oil tank there should have been a lovely blaze. Bob said consolingly that unless the Italians were completely balmy the tanks were most probably empty anyway. Bardia's searchlights waving about as we turn for home. I use Solum's pretty little harbour as a fix and we drive along the coast road. Bob and Tommy squirt from time to time at the weak lights of transport until we cross the wire into our own bit.
The jettison button squawks all the way home - we have hang-up but Bob makes a sublime landing. Rands comes out with a pickup to collect us. Bob Bentley is missing but we hear later he has landed at Fuka.
NAMES: F/Lt Bob Bateson, Dickie Squires, Tommy -(Thompson), Bob Bentley, P/O Rands
Bob Bentley flew in just after breakfast. He brought his bombs back - had frost on the windscreen and got lost.
Photos from the morning recce showed some aircraft damaged at Guppi - the satellite. No one claimed these hits.
Phil Williams, with Peter Wakelin navigating, did a deep recce. Derna, etc.,
Mersa Matruh heavily bombed today. We hear there was little damage so the Italians are no better at it, apparently, than us. But what is the target? We're told Mersa's just a little seaside place for weary Egyptian businessmen! What happens if Egypt refuses to declare war on Italy? Do we retire to Palestine?
A Hurricane dropped in today and we refueled it. Lovely takeoff Merlin roar!
NAMES: Bob Bentley, Phil Williams, Peter Wakelin
Mersa got it again this am. Pilot of a Caproni shot down during the raid landed on our bit. He says Basher Beauclair and his crew (Sgts. Owen and Dobson) are okay. He also says we broke 21 of their kites at El Adem and killed some men.
Had a fine swim in the sea this pm.
The Russians are massing tanks on the Polish border. Thought the Russians were on our side.
NAMES: Basher Beauclair, P/O Owen, Sgt J Dobson, (Note: There were two Owens on the squadron at this time, one a P/O Owen and other a Sgt Owen who was part of F/Lt Beauclair's crew shot down on June 11th 1940)
Fierce dust storm. High wind. Vis nil.
I go to bed at 10pm. Get dragged out at 11pm. Clear sky, a million stars and a big big moon.
Takeoff at 12.15am – one Blenheim. Bob is shepherding two Bombay's. We are loaded with incendiaries and 20-pouners – don’t know what the Bombay's are carrying. We cross the wire at 15000ft. There’s a bit of a headwind. I drop an incendiary to get a drift but it disappears. Still vis is good and we see the surf line at Solum. We turn in to shufti Gubbi, losing altitude. Nothing! No flaming onions, no pom-pom bursts. Bob grins at me in the green glow of the flying panel. The Bombays are big ghostly figures formatting a little above us, their eyes, no doubt watching the little darting blue flames from our exhausts.
Suddenly, on the ground, a big white Savoia shows up and beyond it about 30 dispersed fighters. I click down Selector 1 and press the tit to release my first stick of incendiaries and shout bombs gone. But the jettison light comes on and Bob pulls us up suddenly in a vicious climb. As he flattens out there is a rewarding rumble - our incendiary parcels have come unstuck. I press Selector 2.
Bob takes us round in a leisurely circuit. One Bombay is still with us. The ground below is a living sheet of flame so they must have had ‘matchsticks’ too. Bob goes round again and the Bombay peels off with a quick double-flash of the belly light.
We steam along the dirt road to El Adem and find a lot of aircraft there too They are well-dispersed. (The BBC news said they had 1500 so we ought not to be short of targets). We drop the other two sticks from 8000 to get the clusters to spread, and set out for home, leaving a cheerful glow behind us.
We signal a dummy flare-patch and get its number in reply. 8. Only ten miles from home. I give Bob the course, click my stopwatch. His beady eyes see the glims before Tommy does and he makes the circuit. The Chance flings a great swathe of light for two seconds as we touch down. The CO himself meets us with a gharry at the red. We hang about in the Ops tent nattering for some time while expecting news of the Bombays. Barney finally drives us up to the Mess and we pour ourselves ‘nightcaps’. Rands appears just as we are breaking-up and says one Bombay came back with an undelivered load having lost touch with us. Sounds balmy, the moon was so bright. The other had a 250 hang-up and left us to give it a shake. I wonder how you shake a Bombay?
NAMES: Bob, Tommy, CO S/Ldr Keily ?, Rands,
Bob Bentley did a recce to see what we had done and came back safely at 8.15am. Barney took him and the F24 canister over to Group.
We got into our Mess hut today – marvelous after the EPIP. Some of us built a bar with bomb boxes. The boxes duly name-labelled make excellent personal depositories for drink etc., You just reach across to pull out your bottle of Johnny Walker. They say 55s hut has a fireplace and chimney. “Communications. Must be for sending smoke-signals,” said someone. The Egyptian gaffer presented us with a pair of chameleons – instantly named Gilbert and Sullivan. Every time the door is opened a 'squadron' of blue flies surge in but Gilbert and Sullivan collect them in minutes. It’s bliss.
Knott and another sergeant with Peter in the turret being a ‘gunner’ went off to have a look at Tobruk harbour. John and I slept all the afternoon.
Vicki Boehm took off on a night show like ours with a pair of 216.
Mersa got another pasting today. CO says stores for the Aussies are being shipped in by small coasters from Alex and the Iti's are bombing the dock. It seems there is an Aussie regiment (or is it a division?) a few miles south of us.
NAMES: Bob Bentley, Barney, Sgt Ralph Knott, Peter ?, John Cleaver, Vicki Boehm, CO.
Vicki returned just as were assembling at 5am. for a briefing. ‘Friar’ Tuck, acting as Ops. told us the Navy was in the process of shelling Bardia and Tobruk.
Everything was a shambles. We had been called far too late for the 5.30am takeoff Group ordered. The briefing was garbled (not Friar’s fault) and half the crews got into their kites not even knowing what their bomb load was.
Bob was in a fury.
At last it transpired the target was a huge concentration of transport in a wadi – El Gobi? – 10/12 miles south of El Adem. We are loaded on four selectors with 20s and 40s. 12 takeoff seaward and we go into vic threes. We are strafed energetically by the Mersa flak though well out of range.
We crossed the coast by Fort Maddelena with Bentley’s flight way above us to watch for fighter takeoffs. The formation split. When we reached the target it was anything but a ‘concentration’. The transports were well spaced out for miles. I wondered if they might be dummies. Bob with his flight made four bombing runs and then took us round for a shuftie. It didn’t seem to me we had hit much.
We didn’t see a single fighter. Don Anderson said later he saw a flock taking off from El Adem and someone shouted ‘Fighters’ just once while we were over the target.
Late this afternoon Frith, Boehm and Thornicroft with their crews took off for Helwan on three days leave. Others will go when they return. How amazing! I thought we’d just go on forever. This is a new dimension.
NAMES: Vicki Boehm, Sgt Walter (Friar Tuck) Mason, Bob Bentley, Bob Bateson, F/O Don Anderson, Frith, Vicki Boehm, Thornicroft. NOTE: F/O Don Anderson was KIA 26/11/1940
I've was `shuftie stooge' on the watchtower all the morning. When relieved I wandered back to Ops and hears that Owen, doing a recce, is so overdue it seems we've lost him. But minutes later a Lysander lands and he steps out of it. One of his engines stopped during the recce and shortly after the other showed signs of weariness so he landed wheels down on a bit of thorn a few miles south of 208's strip. He and his crew then walked.
Two war correspondents walked in on us this afternoon, a chap called Matthews and a little American, nannied by a Major Moncton, Intelligence Corp. Yarning went on and on.. A few of us left them to it and picked our way down the escarpment for a swim. The water was glorious.
It's `Dickie' Squires' birthday so we spent an hour or so drinking on him after dusk (We still say `dusk' but it's a bit of a misnomer really because there is no twilight. The sun drops below the horizon, and that's it - light to dark).
At midnight a posse of the Aeronautica dropped a heavy load somewhere quite near. Noisy fellows! They've been at it on and off all day throwing stuff at coastal targets.
The war correspondents told us Cairo and Alex were bombed quite often.
Forgot to mention: `Friar' Mason went off on a lone recce at 5pm. and we were much relieved when he reappeared around nine.
NAMES: P/O Owen, (War Correspondents - Mathews, Major Moncton), Dickie Squires, Walter (Friar) Mason
Had a terrific breakfast today - melon, eggs, sausages and ASPARAGUS - the last donated by the war correspondents.
Pike, with Peter navigating, did the furthest recce to date - all the way to Derna and Appollonia. Coming back an engine failed and they landed at Quasaba. They managed to get a signal through in the evening. John and I heaved a mutual sigh of relief.
An S79, much damaged by Mersa's flak. belly-landed near us today and the MPs collected the crew. The S79 is a wooden aircraft with an obsolescent look but just the same had blue self-sealing fuel tanks of spongy material, similar to ours.
The CO called the flight commanders to a natter in the Ops tent this evening but when they returned to the Mess they evaded our questioning and stayed mum.
NAMES: Pike, Peter ?, John ?,
Early this morning a Valencia flew in. We stared at it in amazement. A Valencia! Where on earth did they find it?
Somewhat to our horror just before lunch a motley crowd of us were herded onto it, including three crews, plus Bob's Flight-Sgt. and a bunch of riggers.(Pilots: Bob Bateson, Squires and Anderson.) Barney himself took the controls and after running along the desert halfway to Libya the Valencia actually got airborne.
We landed at Helio and Barney told us his orders were to await instructions. He conceded there would be time for a beer. We broke up to find overnight accommodation, with instructions to be at a briefing at 6am. the following morning.
NAMES: Bob's F/Sgt ?, pilots - F/Lt Bob Bateson, Barney-(S/Ldr Keily), Squires, F/O Don Anderson, and crews
We were ordered on to Ismailia and got Gilliard to fly us there. Bob saw the Groupie CO there and got the gen of what it was all about but wouldn't pass it on, except to say we were going on a raid using three `long noses' that had just been delivered. Ismailia is on Lake Timseh which contained three warships.
We get it at last: we're to fly to Aleppo and from there lead a flock of French Martin-Bakers to Rhodes where we are to annihilate a vast ammo. dump consisting mostly of mines intended for the Canal. Sounds fun.
No beds available at Ismailia - all taken by ferry pilots?? - so Bob borrowed a Comm. flight a/c and we went to Abu Sueir.
We return at 5.30am and spend some time checking over our shiny new machines. At 4pm. after all this fuss we're told the op. has been scrubbed. What a way to run a war! It seems Syria, though normally dominated by the French, has thought better about allowing the use of its territory for the mounting of hostilities by foreigners. All bods to return to desert unit (taking the new kites with them) except Bob and `senior-navigator'. They are to report to HQME. We learn we are to do a photo recce of Benghazi (mosaic). (A mosaic consisted of strips of pictures that overlapped by thirty percent to achieve ?? when viewed with the right equipment, a stereo effect. Ed).
Bob flies us to Helio and I look at him in surprise as the Mark IV surges down the strip and takes-off like a `homesick angel' (as they say of the Spitties). He grins, flicks on his mike. "No desert air filters for this flip - doctor's orders," he says.
At the 113 Mess Don Anderson tells us bad news: `Friar' Mason and Sgt. Knott have been shot down in flames and Pike is missing. "It's suicide smacking Gubbi in daylight. Those bloody pompoms are ganged in fours - they put up a solid wall of muck." (SEE JULY 14th)
NAMES: Gilliard, F/Lt Bob Bateson?, F/O Don Anderson, Walter (Friar) Mason, Sgt Ralph Knott, P/O D. Pike
(P/O Pikes crew: Sgt R. Lidstone and Sgt J Taylor) (F/Sgt Ralph Knotts crew: Sgt J Barber, LAC Jason Toner) (F/O Walter Masons crew: Sgt James Juggins, Sgt George K Biggins)
The radio reported today that the Desert Air Force had `continued to carry out extensive raids on enemy positions without loss.'
Flight is fitting our `special' long nose with a camera mount. It has a Frazer-Nash belly-gun mounting with a pair of Brownings. Seems bloody uncomfortable to use but I haven't air-tested it yet.
While having breakfast a phone call orders Bob to HQME. He and I walk in together but I am told to get lost. Bob disappears into the rabbit-warren and I hang about for more than an hour drinking cup after cup of coffee. When he finally reappears he recounts that some G/C wanted to `tear him off a strip' for not having done the Benghazi mosaic. Bob saw a Winkie first though and blamed HQ for time wasting.
In the event the G/C (actually it was the SASO) was `sweet as pie.
We went to Groppi's and gorged on superlative ice-cream, thence to the bank. Lunch at Helio where we found Phil Williams and Bob Bentley. Phil said the CR42s had found more horses and really beat them up on the Guppi raid. Intelligence, he said, reckons their ammo sequence has one `explosive' in five. It's the explosives that kill the Blenheims.
A few days back the Italians lost their air chief, the redoubtable General Balbo while Blenheims were attacking El Adem from high-level. Unaware of this his pilot tried to land. At first there was a great hoo-hah that we had shot him down, but the Air Ministry today claimed he was killed by his own flak.
Bob Bentley and Phil were at Helio to collect new a/c.
NAMES: Bob Bateson, Phil Williams, Bob Bentley
We were due to do the Benghazi photo-recce today but the port engine refused to function. The mechanics toiled over it for hours in the increasing heat without reward and it finally got too late for the takeoff.
I went to the Ops tent and with John looking over my shoulder, checked again the overlap of the three tracks we had decided on - downwind and from the sea.
In the Mess for a pre-lunch drink we came upon Walker, now a Flying-Officer, by the way. He told us one of his runner-beans had already reached the top of his tent. (We were all growing beans up the guy ropes watering them daily with our shaving water.)
Walker (Not Lister Yorky Walker) had been at the Bardia/Tobruk show. He said the Navy had put up a spotter plane, an old Walrus and the RAF was asked to protect it. A Hurricane, three Gladiators and a Blenheim were also up but only the Blenheim had been told about the Walrus. When the Navy came weaving in to start their bombardment they launched the Walrus. At once the `spotter' was spotted. The Gladdie leader seeing a silver aircraft at once put his nose down and all three went streaking after it.
The Hurricane at once joined in the fun. The Blenheim roared after them to try to wave them off! The Navy at once put up a barrage to protect their precious Walrus. The `Allies' suddenly realised their error and hurriedly peeled off whereupon a solitary CR42 nipped out of a cloud, saw the Walrus, and gave it a horrible mauling, disappearing before the Hurricane could attack it. The poor Walrus, too badly holed to attempt a water landing beached itself somewhere just our side of the wire.
The Navy managed to destroy the Bardia hospital killing eight.
NAMES: John Cleaver, F/O Walker,
We've been, we're back, and we've to do it all again. In retrospect it doesn't seem to have been much of a `do' but it was 1500 miles, nearly eight hours, and seemed to take forever. Split new 9319 behaved perfectly. The Aden flight was as long but we had company and a fuel stop. Perhaps because we have to do it again our minds try to minimize it.
We flew there well out to sea and turned in from 30 miles past Benghazi on the sort of course the Italians would use from their mainland. Just as we did so Tommy came through on the intercom: "Oxygen running out, skip." We were at 20,000 ft. - the stipulated altitude for the mosaic. "Set the delivery to twelve thousand, Tommy," replied Bob without hesitation. It was freezing cold.
"Left, left," I called, lining us up to the first pinpoint. He flew an immaculate course and turned out to sea for the next run. I picked up the next pinpoint, steered him over it. We circled for the third run. Bob looked cool and undistressed but my head was splitting and I wanted to vomit.
"All done," I called, switching off the camera. Bob put our nose down and we headed eastward. "How are you, Tommy," he asked. "Bloody terrible. It's all gone, skip." "I know," said Bob as we headed for Benina. I took a couple of photos of the airfield. Three fighters took off but we found a bit of cloud and lost them.
We munched our cheese sandwiches - they were frozen, awful. I made a mental note to buy a pair of wide-mouthed thermos flasks next time in Helio. We'd have hot stewed steak in future.
We snapped the airfield at Barce, nothing there, and set a course for home. After Siddi Barrani we followed the coastal road and felt good, though tired. At Maaten Bagush we refueled and went on to Ismailia arriving at 7.34pm. They turned on a flood for us to land. (9319's air filters were there.)
NAMES: Tommy Thompson, Bob Bateson,
We took the film canister to HQME having landed at Helio and collected a staff car driven by a pretty girl in uniform, so Bob and I promptly adopted our best behaviour. She said she was a WAT and translated that for us as ‘Women's Auxiliary Transport’.
The pictures were beautiful, bright and clear and contrast. But, said the photo interpretation bloke, completely bloody useless. The overlap, which should have been 30 percent was below ten. I couldn't believe it, The preparation had been so meticulous, Bob’s course flying impeccable. With a calm sea and thirty miles out from Benghazi we dropped a ali marker, got a perfect wind direction, and flown precisely downwind with no drift at all.
“Complete waste,” said ‘Tubby’ Mermagen, the AVM, when we saw him. “Go and do it again, Bob, and get it right next time.” We left, deflated. They’d changed the driver. We had a corporal with a hangover.
Back at Ismailia, where 9319 was to have a service, Bob and I, with Dickie and Mac(there to collect a/c), got a couple of sailing dinghies out and careered about a bit, staying well away, as we’d been warned (leg-pulling, I think) from naval vessels.
Early evening we went on to the French Club for a grill. Both bread and meat were the best I’d had since Scribe’s in Paris.
Names: Bob Bateson, Pretty Girl, AVM Tubby Mermagen, Dickie, Mac ?
We got airborne at 5am. There was heavy cloud and we were a bit lost, unable to get down through. We circled and found a gap and there were the pyramids.
At Helio we had a proper breakfast while they processed the film and we got to HQME with it about 10 am. Everything was rosy. The pictures were fine and sharp and the overlap just right. “So why couldn't you have done that in the first place,” growled some G/C Intelligence. Why Indeed? It was still a mystery. John had said it could be the target map we used. It was pretty crude.
Bob thinks up a scheme to get a day in the lake at Ismailia. It’s where 9319’s desert filters are. (Of course there must be spares at Maaten Bagush, but overlook that). We go there, then, in the evening he runs a temperature. We hustle him into Sick Quarters with a dose of sand-fly.
NAMES: John ?, Bob Bateson
I phone S/L Birch at Abu Suier and he says get the long-nose serviceable and he’ll come over in the morning and deliver us and it to MB. Bob is on his feet, a ball of fire, raising merry hell about this arrangement but the doc shoves him back in bed and threatens to ‘sedate’ him.
I do a swim and a flick in the afternoon and spend the evening at the US Club.
NAMES: S/Ldr Birch, Bob Bateson
Birch goes solo to MB with 9319. Says Tommy and I can wait for Bob and ferry another kite that’s ready at Abuokir. Spend the evening with the Constantines and Dr Jones at the Continental.
NAMES: S/Ldr Birch, Tommy Thompson, Bob Bateson, Constantine's, Dr Jones
My poor wretched diary has been neglected for a week. Let’s try to recap.
On the 8th. We did the Benghazi trip again. We had debated the ‘overlap’, my plot had been checked repeatedly by all and sundry - no one fond anything wrong. Bob said, constructively, “Re-plot it for a 50 percent overlap and let’s see what happens.”
It turned out to be a near thing. Bob had ordered the takeoff for 6am. but stopped the pickup at the Orderly Room for a bit to sign something or other. When we reached the a/c we found some enthusiastic corporal had decided to warm up the engines and had over-primed the starboard. It now refused to start. “Cowardly bloody thing,” said Bob. It delayed us for 20 minutes. Tommy and I checked that the oxygen bottles were really full, and this time we had one extra.
We dropped in to Maaten Bagush, where everyone was on standby but no one knew what for. We filled our water bottles, got tea for the thermos flasks, and more wretched cheese sandwiches.
Benghazi looked calm and lovely. We checked the wind. I gave the camera button a bang for a test. But the green ‘running’ light stayed on. “Camera runaway,” I shouted into my mike and furiously pulled out the plug to cut the juice. Bob circled. We tried again. It stuck again. “Tommy will have to hand wind,” said Bob. I was checking with Tommy whether he knew manual when my mike packed up. More fiddling about. Tommy knows about F24s thank god. He finds a dud fuse and replaces it. More checks, yes, it’s running now.
I hunker down to the bombsight and guide Bob toward the first pinpoint. Pretty little harbour: one, two three . . ... nine flying boats, five merchant vessels. Two funnies - warships with camou nets? The camera will know. I press the tit. The camera starts, the light winks, one, two , three, four exposures. It’s gone. The lousy thing has stopped. Would you believe it. Bob calmly takes us out to sea. Tommy finds changes the fuse. Bob had said we’d try once more before going onto manual. The camera runs. We do the next plot and go out to sea for the third, but as we approach the start the camera jambs again. We go onto manual, and somehow get the job done.
As I enter the log I realize we have taken 45 minutes, fifteen more minutes than the time we’d allowed. We’re on our way home. There’s Barce. I take a couple pics. We make a southern leg, drink tea, eat the awful sandwiches. I dream of stewed steak and kidneys and thick gravy.
The starboard engine coughs. Bob glances at the gauges, fiddles with the fuel switches. My mike has packed up again. I glance at the compass. Bob is off course. He nods, and scribbled on his knee pad. “Give me shortest route back.”
It will take us over at least four Iti airfields, I hand it to him and he changes course. “What’s up? I scribble. The outer fuel tanks won’t feed. I glance at the gauges for the inners - 80 galls. I measure the route home. It’s 331 miles to the border. I write Bob a note and deliver it with a bar of chocolate. We are at 25000ft.
Bob tells Tommy to get the camera canister off and stuff it in his flight bag. He now has the a/c wallowing along at IAS 110, but there’s a good strong wind behind us.
There’s Solum. I wonder who holds Solum today but Bob doesn’t chance landing there. The engines pack up, first the starboard, then the port. The silence is eerie. We float on. There’s Siddi Barrani.
We’re at 15000. There’s the wire. This is Egypt.
Bob begins a slow circuit staring down at the terrain. Height peels off. “Put the Very unloaded in your pocket. Bones - Three cartridges. Tommy, put the camera canister in your flight bag and your water bottle.”
We’d made a 360 degree turn, we were down to 5000. He leveled out, pointing westward, slammed down the under-cart, set a bit of flap and tweaked the tail-trim. I looked at my watch, gathered up my map board and log. The under-cart made a satisfying clunk as it locked and green lights came on.
He’d made a perfect landing and we rumbled along a patch almost free of camel thorn. Probably the only bit like it for a hundred miles but he’d found it. We tumbled out, shed our Sidcots. Bob loaded the Very with a red and pulled the trigger. It soared up and burst with surprising brightness in the afternoon sun. The smoked dispersed rapidly, mercifully there was a light wind, enough thank god, to ground the flies. I put the u/c locks on. It would be too bad if 9319 settled on her belly now.
We rolled up our Sidcots and sat on them . Bob pulled out a packet of cigarettes offered them to Tommy. “Come and sit over here with us,” he said. “What now?” I asked pulling in a lungful of smoke gratefully. “There’s an army unit of some sort in a wadi over there near the road. They’re probably having a kip but we hope some dozy sod saw our signal. We wait.”
We didn’t wait long. A field ambulance came careering over a dune and slammed to a halt not 20ft from us. An army lieutenant jumped out of the front and two orderlies from the back. “Anyone hurt?” shouted the Lt medic striding toward us. “No, we’re fine. Just out of fuel, that’s all.” He and the medic hunkered down together in the shade. Bob asked the name of the unit.
“You’ve landed in the right place, then, said the Lt, “we’re laying down a forward supply. “ The orderlies went and sat in the ambulance. Bob and the Lt chattered a while then stood up and shook hands. “I’ll send you some tea as well,” said the Lt climbing in beside the driver.
The fueling was a bit tedious without the usual funnels which you could slap a four-gall tin on and leave it to empty itself, but it got done in the end and we got to Maaten Bagush late afternoon. They were in a bit of a tizzy because we were so late. Bob intended to go on to Helio but Group stopped him so we had a good dinner and went early to bed. John came in an hour later. It was comforting to sleep in your own tent.
NAMES: Tommy, Bob Bateson, John Cleaver, Medical Orderlies & Lt?,
Bob fit again. Up at 4.30am but the kite proves u/s. Bob decides we’ll take the mail plane. We stop at Dekaila, Amriya, Daba and Fuka before making it - after 4 hrs. - to Maaten Bagush. Dreadful old Anson, definitely u/s and barely able to stagger into the air. (Thank god there was an erk to wind the u/c up and down. Poor devil must have been exhausted. Pilot deserves a VC).
John and the CO and some others dashed off on a short leave just after we arrived.
Bob saw the Messing Officer and gave him a chit with the name of the army unit that rescued us. “Send them a couple of crates of beer, will you?” he said. “It’s a hell of a long way,” said the MO. “Just do it, please,” said Bob sharply.
Bob and I stood-by the hours in the evening to do a night-nuisance raid but it was called off eventually because of low cloud.
NAMES: Bob Bateson, John ?, CO., Messing Officer, M.O-(Medical Orderly,
The CO inspanned me this morning to do the daily entries of the squadron history which are supposed to be completed by noon daily and sent by courier to Group. It’s a bore but at least one is sitting at a table in Ops and you get to hear a lot more about what is going on.
In the afternoon orders came through to hit some miserable little ship in Bardia harbour and four Capronis that have arrived at Menister. How piffling.
Just two flights. Bob led and Vicky Boehm flew as B. It was a frightful mess. I had this low level bombsight and put the wrong settings on it for 40-pounders. They all went into the water. The Capronis offered no target being far dispersed in mud shelters. Bob said ‘hit the barracks’. We left a few little fires. B flight missed but hit a bit of an ammo store (by mistake) and there was a nice little red explosion with lots of smoke.
I forgot – heard the full story today of the loss of the Friar, Sgt. Knott and Percy Pike, during that awful show at Gubbi when the squadron ran into a flock of 42s and Bredas. Percy had with him Lidstone, his bomb-aimer, and Taylor, his. gunner. The Italians say he crashed on the beach just south of Bardia. The crew set fire to the kite then launched the dinghy and started to row for Egypt. An Italian torpedo-boat patrolling the bay intercepted them.
Back in the Mess we found we had three new pilots.
I haven’t reported the Gubbi raid. We weren’t on it we were doing the second Benghazi mosaic with the quick long-nose, but the adj. has given me particulars for the ‘history.’
Nine a/c made the attack at 4000ft. The harbour produced a terrific barrage of pompoms and a battleship added heavily to the general dirt. The CO did two runs for god’s sake! Ten fighters, high up, awaited them as they flew back into formation. The fighters chased them out to sea and apparently, with the gunners of Friar and Knott no longer firing they just closed right in for the kill and blasted both a/c to bits. (SEE JUNE 26th)
Two fighters were downed.
NAMES: CO., Bob, Vicki Boehm, Walter (Friar) Mason, F/Sgt Ralph Knott, Percy Pike, Sgt R Lidstone, Sgt J Taylor
While I was scribbling in the Ops tent this morning, Rands told me that six Bombays had gone to Tobruk last night and one (Ron Taylor’s) took a direct hit from the large caliber AA shell and exploded in fragments. Another badly damaged force- landed at Alex somewhere.
211 Squadron, he said, lost four Blenheims yesterday.
We have done no flying today. I was Orderly dog so spent most of my time in the Ops tent while the others took pickups to the beach for a swim. I stink like goat and could have done with a swim myself. Late this afternoon I was chased out of the Ops tent when Barney went into a huddle with the flight-commanders. Something must be afoot.
NAMES: Rands, Ron Taylor, (LIKELY 216 SQUADRON), 211 Squadron
Bob and I spent four hours in the El Adem/Tobruk area today searching for Garrard Cole and his crew. A pair had gone on early recce and Cole didn’t come home. We had no luck but took a few photos and did a bit of gunnery practice on convoys on the Tobruk/Bardia road on the way home. The running commentary from Tommy was very witty and he used a vast quantity of ammo. Bob emptied the front gun. This kite had no blister gun for me to play with.
As we came abreast of Fort Cappuccio we thought it was being bombed but could see no aircraft. Then Bob said: “Artillery bombardment.” Tommy reported explosions on motor transport approaching the fort.. We hastily veered away but not before something hit our port wing with a frightful thump.
In the Mess this evening, news that Ron Taylor has survived. His damaged Bombay hit the escarpment near Mersa. He was badly burned and his crew lost. A Mersa army unit took him to Fuka.(?) A chap from Group, visiting, said one of 211 squadron gunners had been found by an army patrol. He’d walked for 16 hours in a 5-mile circle!
A lovely little pile of letter today.
NAMES: Bob ?, Gerrard Cole and crew???, Tommy, Ron Taylor, 211 Squadron
While doing sqdn history this am heard that the wreckage of Ron’s Bombay has been washed up at Mersa containing body of one gunner.
An Arab cobbler has set up a stall near the Mess cookhouse and is making us desert boots. Most of the old Gyppy hands have them already. John and I went and ordered. You stand on a square of hardboard and he draws a chalk line round your foot, and puts a tape measure across – makes a squiggly note. You then print your name on the hardboard. The boots are lovely soft brown suede and reach halfway up your calf. Guaranteed, says Bob, to keep sand and scorpions out. It’s good to be shot of the flying boots – fleece-lined – which though comforting at night could be jolly hot by day. Shoes, of course, are useless.
Ketton-Cremer, returning from a spot of leave, brought back a bunch of papers???. How we pounced on them! The first we’ve seen since coming here, mostly a week or ten days old but marvelous just the same.
Stainless and Floyd went off this evening to fly the Sidi Barrani/Bardia/Menister loop for a WT test for Group. Most of our flying has been done in WT silence. I wonder what this is about. They took a load 40s for the fun of it. At debriefing, around 10pm. Steel said he didn’t know if he’s hit anything but he’s sure ‘scared the hell out of a flock of camels’. (Camels, I’ve noticed, go stiff and rigid as you overfly them). Floyd brought his load back.
The BBC is crediting the ‘Desert Air Force’ with many locals success! Who is doing all the work then? – 55? 211?
NOTE: Several pages indecipherable – appear to be about attacks on Tobruk.
NAMES: Ron Taylor, Bob, Ketton-Creamer?, (Stainless) Steel, Floyd
Note: Ketton-Cremer may be Richard Wyndham Ketton-Cremer KIA on Crete 31/05/1941 serving with 30 Sqd.
Barney’s pet expression: “Gawd stiffen the crows!” Bob’s: “Well blow me down”.
Three armed Swordfish have flown in to refuel. Rand says we’ve to accommodate them and their maintenance crew for the time being.
An S79, part of a raid on Mersa, tried to force-land on our bit this afternoon but fell to bits on touchdown. The pilot is wounded and in our Sick Quarters. The rest of the crew are dead. The daily Bombay has taken the bods back to Helwan. Doc Turner says the pilot speaks perfect English and thought we were on the point of surrender. Bob’s Flight-Sgt is furious – the S.79 is scattered all over our ‘best bit of sand’ and has to be cleared away.
Bob is complaining that the squadron is becoming nothing but a ‘shuftie-outfit.’ “Go and tell Cunningham,” says Barney.
NAMES: Barney, Bob Bateson, Bob Bentley, Rand, Doc Turner,
A nice lazy day. Did the history in the morning and had a bathe in the afternoon. Then round about 6.30pm when I was about to get into gray flannels came news of an op.
Four a/c to do individual raids over Tobruk, Gubbi, El Adem and Bardia. Pilots: The CO, Bob, Ward and Williams. I’m with Bob, John with Barney. Bardia, allocated to Ward being nearer than the other targets we leave him to his own affairs, and abreast of the CO take off at 8.37 and form a three. They briefed us a moon at 8.17 but someone at Group fouled up – didn’t allow for EST – and no moon appeared till 9.21 when we were well on our way.
Poor John, who was leading nav. had no chance to find a wind and led us miles too far west. I sensed it and wrote Bob a note. At last we turned north. Williams was to do El Adem and we were well west of it, but as he peeled off, to our astonishment, according to Tommy, he turned south!
As we nearer the coast, we were already west of Tobruk (the CO’s target) and as we peeled off he turned WEST. What on earth was going on? I pointed down and shouted “That’s Gazala!” Bob lifted his hands in mute despair, and pointed at the bomb selectors. He began to circle to see what was there. “No good,” I shouted into my mike. “We’re loaded with incendiaries” I reminded him. He gave a thumbs up and turned us onto the Gazala/Tobruk road.
I looked down and saw what I thought was a train (silly ass). It was of course a convoy and as Bob put us into a dive toward it most of the lights went out. He raked along it at ten feet with his gun. Abruptly we both realized that it was heading for a concentration. Bob made a sharp climb and took us out to sea to ponder and size things up.
“It’s near Gubbi,” he said at length turning back. “Can you fix us? No matter, I can see the ras.” It was a tiny cape with a bit of white water round it. We slid down to 1500ft. hoping Gubbi would identify itself with a few flaming onions. But as we approached it was clear the field had had a visitor – a strip of incendiaries was still burning. I could see no a/c. Suddenly without any warning we found ourselves surrounded in the center of a swirling circle of lazily moving red tracers - thousands! We’d found it – a vast new army camp that hadn’t been reported by the morning recce.
Bob started violent evasive tactics and a I got a quick look at the altimeter that was winding down rapidly from 800 ft. He flattened a bit. I got sight of a mass of transport and pressed the bomb tit. Fortunately I had selected a half load earlier. They got a couple of canisters of 4-pounders. More and more red tracers streamed past.
In the cockpit we were dazzled by a white flash. The plane lifted and shook violently. Tommy yelled: “Oh, lovely, lovely, sir, smack in the middle.” He gave his guns a triumphant burst. The small arms flak around us seemed to get thicker. Another tight batch of MT flicked past my sights and at once I let go the rest of our load.
Bob was climbing now on rate 3 turn. Another excited shout from the gunner. The bombs were gone but we weren’t out of the wood yet. This was one hell of a big camp. But at length the firing dwindled. We set course for our nearest dummy flare path, and the welcoming glims of MB.
Editorial. Probably not as hairy as the diary suggests. It was a sudden, unexpected encounter. Most Italian army convoys had a truck-mounted machine-gun every twelfth vehicle. This one, we heard later, was some 30,000 troops. We could not, of course, see gunfire on its way UP – the lazy red lights were spent tracers dwindling as they fell. We were seeing the bright little ‘tails’. It was the first time we had seen this phenomenon in such splendour! They belted their .303 ground guns, twas said: soft-hard-tracer and they spat 900 rounds pm. Our airborne Brownings were belted, soft,hard, armour-piercing, soft,hard, tracer, and ran at 1200 rpm. An alert had sounded, no doubt, but they could not see us. A noisy low-flying aircraft attacking you, even with a single Browning blazing, is very daunting. The poor lads below, probably young conscripts, were just ‘ hosing’ the sky. MHS.
We landed five minutes ahead of the CO. He and John had started a good fire at Tobruk but didn’t know what was burning. “Let’s hope it’s that wretched crane,” said Bob at the debriefing. (Overwritten with a note: ‘later found to be a sub.’)
Williams who had overshot badly found his way back to his target but the Oerlikon ground fire was so heavy that his evasive wanderings trying to find a reasonable approach ran him low on fuel and he finished up taking his load out to sea and dumping it to preserve fuel for the get home.
Ward went first to Tobruk then to Bardia. They saw no result for their night’s work and the gunner thought their bombs all went into clear water. Bardia’s inhabitants must be getting a lot of fish to eat these days.
NAMES: CO, Bob, Ward, Williams, Barney, John, Tommy,
A quiet day today, no flying at all. Three crews went back to Helio on a Bombay for 72 hrs. and will return with three new kites.
The rest cleared the Mess of all personal stuff, drink, etc., and went off for a swim while I was lumbered with supervising a small Gyppy crew that came in to concrete the floor. This will make a big difference to life. (I got a box for Gilbert and Sullivan (precious beasts, gosh how fat they are!) and took them to my tent for safety. In the early evening played ‘cricket’ on the dart-board outside with Dickie, Bob and John. Early to bed after listening, with John Dunning to a sickening budget.
NAMES: Gilbert & Sulivan (Squadron Chameleons), Dickie, John, Bob, John Dunning
The CO and Peter Wakelin flying a Valentia (where on earth do they find these old crates – the Science Museum?) for WT calibration, Don and John off on recce to get pictures of the big new Iti camp. Bob and I on standby in the ops Tent..
-211 raided El Adem last night and lost one aircraft. 55 raided Bardia this am.
-The Italians raided Qasaba yesterday.
-The siren was sounded from the tower last night but as usual John and I slept through it.
We have borrowed spades from the concreting man and we’re digging out our tent to provide a ‘basement’. Then we won’t have to leap into a slit trench when the odd strafing fighter sweeps in to spray the place. I have collected a mass of petrol tin boxes to line it. We’re going to have a paneled bed-space.
Today is windy and hot. I am writing up this diary sitting on my bed under a net trying to evade the flies that are sheltering (like me) from the wind.
During the afternoon Don, having borrowed John from the CO, did a recce of the area just west of Gazala and have found a big new area stripped for a/c, with fifty to sixty planes on it – Bredas, Capronis. How about a dawn raid?
This evening a bunch of 208 came in, stamped around admiring our new concrete and downed a vast quantity of whisky. What a mob of line-shooters! Fun fellows, though – you must have a sense of humour to fly a Lysander, surely. Brave fellows. They can keep it.
NAMES: CO, Peter Wakelin, Don ?, John, Bob, 208 Squadron, 211 Squadron, 55 Squadron
The dawn raid! Our target, WE FOUND IT, and they’ve given it to bloody 211! The cheek!
John says it’s our serviceability, or rather opposite. I suggested we might walk over to Flights and find out. “All that way – in this heat? – don’t be ridiculous,” he said. Of course if ‘Flight’ (and we have a good one who hero-worships Bob) won’t sign the form 700s well, that’s it. The a/c stay on the ground. (It must be fiddly and horrible doing repairs under these conditions).
Our 3 Fairy Swordfish have been to Tobruk and sunk four ships with three torpedoes! How do you do that?
Yesterday a couple of Flights of Gladdies from 33 were up to escort 55 to a raid but missed 55 completely and had a jolly hour beating up transport.
In the Mess we have Monopoly, Luda, Chess, and Halma. Also a French game called ‘L’attack’ – or something. Vic and Owen play it. It baffles everyone else.
We were Duty Flight and hung around all morning. Bob and I hurled a medicine ball at each other for a while but I soon collapsed in a sweaty heap.
The squadron history is at last up to date, all Rand’s scruffy little notes properly ordered. From now on it should be a piece of cake.
NAMES: John, Bob, Vic, Owen, Rand, 55 Squadron, 33 Squadron, 211 Squadron
We were called at 4.35am but it was 6.35 before we lurched into the air. Barney had howled at Group for giving our target to 211 Squadron, and we’ve been ‘awarded’ Derna. 3 flights.
Don and John had taken off earlier, with Jock Dunning (Ops) as a stowaway. They were to signal back to Group what was there, and Group to brief Barney. I don’t know if this worked, or what.
For first time all three leaders had cameras aboard. This was later to prove a curse and the mass of pictures taken of bombs in every stage of bursting led to hours of argument about who hit what. They gave the impression we had wrought utter havoc whereas in the last analysis there were precious few hits.
Shrapnel put several a/c u/s. and once again several of us came home with jettison lights flicking and bombs hanging on. Are the release mechanisms really able to cope with desert conditions? You’d think they must have been tested long ago on the North West Frontier. Poor old A Flight, always unlucky in this respect brought back 720lb.
Apart from any other aspect it is also rather wretched not to be able to relax when crossing the border, to be beset all the way home with the notion that one of those dangling forties is probably hanging by a coat of paint and the moment you squat down on your bit of sand, will blow you all to kingdom come. It doesn’t pay to have an imagination. It hasn’t happened to anyone yet!
Altogether a thoroughly unsatisfactory affair. For all the cameras, Group has only plotted 72 bursts out of 200 which means that none of B Flight’s were photographed. Bring back the night raids when everything is a bit more visual!
Six Blenheim fighters have flown in – Beaufighters, they call them – from 30 squadron. Apparently one of our armoured-car units has been having hell knocked out of it by dive-bombers of some sort and a patrol is needed to catch them at it. The Beaufighters went on their mission – there’s a fancy word! – but late this evening Jock Dunning said no ‘dive-bombers’ appeared so they found no target. Meanwhile, said Jock, another nine armoured-cars have been knocked out and the Army is very upset about it.
NAMES: Barney, Don, John, Jock Dunning, 30 Squadron, 211 Squadron
Group has apparently decided that as we have some fighters here temporarily – the Beaux from 30 squadron – they might as well use them before sending them back to their base. It seems there is a certain Army unit in danger of being cut off and very low level recces are needed to size up the position and make a rescue plan. So before we turned in tonight a plan was devised. Two of our a/c would go in with a pair of Beaux on watch at 5000ft.
At dawn the CO (with our gunner, Tommy, on loan) and Owen took off with four of the fighters. By ten a.m. a little circle of us were standing outside the Ops Tent waiting for their return.
Owen came in first, followed by the two fighters. Then for 10 minutes nothing. At last we spied a speck – It was Barney. His kite sounded pretty rough. “He’s flying on one,” said someone. But where were the other two fighters?
As the CO touched down another fighter appeared and went into the circuit. Good-o, but what’s that thing. It was a supply a/c. So one fighter was missing.
In the Ops Tent we heard the whole story. (I sat in on it and no one noticed me – I’d become part of the furniture now. Over the target there was a layer of stratus and Barney and Owen going down through it lost the Beaux. 32s and 42s swarmed up from Gubbi and Adem while they were making their photo runs Barney and Owen darted in and out of the cloud to lose them but they were very persistent. Owen said both he and his nav. got disorientated for a while. They finally darted for the border in cloud.
The CO meanwhile was hotly engaged by a trio of 42s. One got in very close and gave him heavy burst. He saw John crumple in his seat. Just as the 42s overshot Tommy shouted triumphantly: “Got one, sir,” as Barney circled, still looking hopefully for a Beau, he saw the 42 flaming to the ground.
Meanwhile, a Beau had appeared and the CO’s tormentors turned their attention to it. He climbed back into the cloud and to his relief saw John was recovering, so he turned toward Bardia to finish the job in hand. But here another shock awaited him. New defenses just south of Bardia, not previously seen, opened up and he found himself the center of a fierce pom-pom barrage. A terrific clonk hit the plane and the cockpit filled with fumes – a shell had gone through the well. John's tin hat parked under his seat was crunched! Weaving and twisting the CO managed somehow get out of the tangle and set out for home with the port engine leaking oil. He landed on one.
Owen, curiously, on the same sortie, though out of touch had a trouble free run.
(Just after the debriefing the CO’s Flight-Sgt pulled up – he said a .5 explosive had ripped through a spar, then through the observer’s parked parachute pack and, finally spent, thumped John on the back. Curiously, it didn’t explode. John has it as a souvenir.)
The a/c is badly hurt but with full revs now available Bob, with me as passenger, flew it to Fuka for return to the Delta. Not a very comfortable trip, a bit blustery – the bomb-aimer’s front perspex panel was missing, and the undercart wouldn’t retract. (No! I didn’t leave the locking bars on – I had them in my lap.)
We went to the beach this afternoon. That medicine ball soon becomes very heavy. Had a good yarn with Jock Dunning. He is convinced the threat to England is a feint. I protested –what about the massing of barges? Jock thought the real war was going to develop out here.
Early evening: Owen wiped me off a chess board more comprehensively than I’ve ever been wiped before. This life is atrophying my mental ability.
No letters from B. It makes one anxious. Bob and I get to Cairo next weekend, thank goodness. I’ll send a cable.
NAMES: CO, Tommy, Owen, Barney, Jock Dunning, Bob, John, 30 Squadron
Barney called me over in the Mess. “Bones, take my pickup down to Flights and bring back a load of petrol boxes. Build us a decent bar in here with storage for our bottles and personal things. And, Bones,” he reached down beside his chair and hefted up a big lump of melted ali-alloy.” It looked like shiny, lumpy porridge. “Hang this on the end wall there with a notice: ‘Lysander S . . . get the number . . .unrepairable at this unit.” Bob came outside with me. “See George, say it’s for me and ask him to lend us a carpenter.”
Before nightfall we had a lovely bar.
(Editorial: A petrol box held two four gallon tins. These boxes were used for everything. John and I lined our funk-hole with their timber. The petrol tins, too, were fashioned into wonderful artifacts. They were often cut lengthwise. Our Mess cookery had a whole battery forming a ‘chest of drawers’ to hold vegetables and other foodstuffs. MHS)
No operational flying today, most of our machines are u/s. But there was a great deal of ferrying by Bob and Reynolds between Fuka, the satellite and here. So we should now have a few flyable ones.
During the evening some of the 208s dropped in – Bernard, Hardiman and ‘Dixie’ Dean. They told us Jimmy Aldiss had shot down TWO RO37s. With a Lysander!! The story went that he was returning from a recce and saw one going in to land at Adem. He just accompanied it and gave it a squirt and it burst into flames. As he gained altitude Aldiss saw yet another making approach. He latched onto it and repeated the performance! The pair of Gladdies giving him protection just sat up at 2000ft and watched the whole show.
Group sent for him and he didn’t know whether it was for a gong or a court-martial. If you’re sent on a recce, that’s it, you don’t play at being a fighter (unless you’re Jimmy Aldiss). He got a smack on the wrist inside SASO’s office, and a pat on the back outside.
John, Taff Owen and I sat up till nearly twelve, yarning. I think I did too much of the talking.
NAMES: Barney, Bones (F/Sgt Michael Shekleton, Reynolds, George, John, Taff Owen
(208 Squadron - Bernard, Hardiman, Dixie Dean, Jimmy Aldiss)
Yet another quiet day. Thornicroft did a recce of Derna and the pics show that the Italians have now removed all their aircraft from there except those we hit during our two small raids. Question now, is where have they hidden them? Barney, back from Group, says there are no targets for us except the huge concentration of troops and transport. Apparently they have been widely dispersed and so are difficult to hit with any hope of doing much damage.
I spent the morning on my logbook and find I now have 78 operational hours but am still 7 flying hours short of my 200. (I wonder what is supposed to be so magical about 200?)
NAMES: Barney, Thornicroft
Funny morning. Started off my typing out Jock Dunning’s wonderful scheme for attacking the forward MT.
When he came back from Group he had a nice little yarn. The photo-interp bloke said he was looking casually at a camera-test photo exposed by someone south of Adem – following a camel track actually – when he noticed that at one point the camel’s meandering briefly became a straight line. Funny, thought, camels don’t walk in straight lines. Group had sent someone to photo at a lower level and they found there was a biggish area enclosed by a fence. The camel train, or whatever, had come to it and followed it till it ran out. Two of 55 (was it 55? I think so) were sent to bomb it a bit and caused a beautiful convulsion. It seems to have been a well-camouflaged ammo dump! Jammy, eh?
I went to cookhouse and showed our cook how to make a large omelette. His first effort was remarkable good. (Beginners’ luck?)
NAMES: Jock Dunning, 55 Squadron
July 31st. contd.
Did a bit of carpentry and a board for a map of Libya for Jock. He has stuck little flags all over it.
No flying today. All is ominously quiet. CO came back from Group, announced ‘No targets’ to the Mess at large and disappeared. He seemed grumpy. Wrote letters.
Quite a cheery sort of evening. S/L Harrison came in bringing with him my flight log of the Derna raid, with criticisms. I was able to show him my log was right and the leader’s log wrong. Full of suppressed indignation, though mollified by his apology, I proceeded to get a little drunk. Sounds as if Bob and I will get the coming weekend off.
Have I recorded that Balbo WAS killed by our bombing. Official. Segrim came into our Ops Tent one morning and announced it.
Our latest Italian prisoner is a snooty major (says Jock). He had the cheek to down one of our Gladdies, but one of ours pranged him. He has a broken ankle and two broken ribs, says Doc Turner, who had him in his truck for running repairs. The damage was caused by a bad harness design, and hitting his own tail-plane. The parachute, though, is gorgeous white silk and has been spirited away by the CO. 30 rang Rand and claimed it. Fat chance.
Extracted from him by Jock: The CR32s are just as fast as 42s and more handy to fly; Gladiators and Blenheims are good, the Blenheim gunners ‘very brave’; when the Tobruk sirens sound Gubbi’s Capronis are dispersed to satellites in the south. Our captured aircrew are well-treated by them and are sent to Benghazi.
NAMES: Jock, CO (Keily), S/ldr Harrison, Bob, Balbo - (Italian General), Prisoner -Italian Major, Doc Turner, Rand
Our wedding anniversary! Two years. Had hoped to send B a cable for it but there are new restrictions that prevented. May manage in Cairo if we get this weekend off as expected.
An inspection this am by the AOC. Stood about for two hours and it was then a very perfunctory affair. No patriotic speeches! The crews were lined up and given a courteous good-morning and we then all dismissed into the Ops Tent. Once in the shade the AOC told us he was being made to conduct limited operations until we received reinforcements and in particular heavier bombers. One anecdote gave us a smile. Wellesleys were doing a leaflet raid by normal chutes over Abu Simnel and a gunner thought he could hurry things up by shoving a packet or two out of the rear gunport. Package of 2000 leaflets broke and the leaflets plastered the inside of the cockpit, including even the flying panels. The pilot had to do some fancy feel flying before the crew cleared the mess away.
Steele did a recce near Bardia and 55 followed him at high altitude. Army Intelligence had long believed there was an underground ammo dump that way and now Steele thought he had found it. He spoke to the 55 leader, went in low and marked it with a canister of incendiaries. 55 hit the spot with armour-piercing from 20,000 and caused the biggest bang ever heard in Libya. Steele’s pictures showed that the Italians had stockpiled nearby on the surface and this is what had caught his eye. Owen was sent to have a look and his photos show a huge crater. Some nearby concrete buildings have disappeared completely. One of 55’s Flights had been sent down to 7000 ft. and even at that height got a buffeting.
A few 208s drifted in this evening - their Mess is still in an EPIP so they enjoy our hut and the Turf Club chairs. (Ed: Stolen from the Turf Club Cairo on Al-Maghrabi Street) Bob, Dickie, John and I played Sevens for a while but wandered off to bed about 10pm. having had our fair share of swimming and medicine ball during the afternoon.
Owen photo'd 34 fighters at El Adem. Now that’s a target - what about it?
NAMES: A.O.C, Steele, Owen, 208 Squadron, Bob, Dickie, John, 55 Squadron
I took this diary with me on leave but didn’t bother to write anything. Now I have to try to reconstruct. I am back in the Mess. John and were together. We find the lads have done two raids in our absence so are very unpopular with us!
It was a very special weekend. We set out Friday noon so had THREE nights on the loose. It was also very expensive! We flew into Helwan because the machines were in dire need of servicing and only Helwan could do it. Bob (with Tommy and me) collected our kite from the satellite and brought it back to MB to clear the bomb load. The others had taken off ahead of us. Then, funnily enough, we arrived at Helwan first! The other Flights had been crawling because Owen’s starboard leg had failed to retract and he flew the whole way with it hanging down. Much ribaldry at his expense. Bob made the most awful landing at Helwan having forgotten a certain well-known ‘ridge’.
At Helwan we separated. Bob got us a lift on a very posh-looking Cord but on the way it burst a back tyre and it took two hours to repair and change. A friendly Egyptian, who’d stopped, had sent us a taxi from Cairo, so we thanked the Cord owner for getting us part way and left him and his driver to sort themselves out. We booked in at the Continental and later went on to Groppi’s, finishing the evening at the hotel’s cabaret show. Met many odd bits of Air Force there.
Next day (3rd) spent the whole of the unslept portion of the morning shopping. We ran into John, who joined us, packed up at the Continental and, taking a taxi, moved into Hel House. Thence to the Club for a swim in the pool and the company of young ladies. We had planned to go to the Metro after dinner. To our pleased surprise the Constantines walked in. We crowded into their tiny Hornet but got to the Metro too late for the show so went on to Tommy’s bar. From there at midnight onto the Continental’s cabaret. Back to Hel House at 2.30am. still vaguely sober.
A late-ish breakfast on the 4th. Then to the Gezara for another swim and a sandwich lunch. Bob had arranged to see some local friends, so John and I went off to look at the Pyramids, which we did in proper tourist style, with wobbly camel rides. Next tea, expensively, at Meena House Hotel. Back to Hel House for dinner and a flick, which, owing to EST, didn’t come out till 12.40am. Found Bob with friends in the bar and stayed chatting till one thirty when we broke it up for a 7am takeoff.
NAMES: Bob, Tommy, Owen, Constantine's, John
Taxi to Helwan. Airborne at 7.20. Got back to MB before 10. to hear stirring news of things done in our absence. There had been two raids - one on Saturday, the other on Sunday. The Saturday show was a wing combination, eight 113’s plus 211 and 55 - 24 a/c in all; the target, ships in Derna Harbour. 113 was delayed at takeoff by bomb handling troubles, but finally got up at 11.38 am to fly 340 deg. with the coast about 25m N. By Sidi Barrani the wing had got into order with vics spread about 5 m. Williams developed engine trouble and turned back. Nearing Derna the wing went out to sea for some 12m then turned in at 16,500 ft and did a flat-out approach, vics in line astern, to bomb at 10, 000 - individual aiming, and release.
55 was reported later as having done the most damage but no ships were actually sunk, though a jetty was demolished. 211 dropped small stuff all over the place, like confetti at a wedding. The paper today cracked it up as something terrific, but it wasn’t.
Andy had two 250s hung up but managed to shake them off over a satellite near a couple of Bredas that were lining up for takeoff. They didn’t, so perhaps he hurt them. He was pretty high still. The gunner said the pom-poms were bursting below them.
The second raid was rather hotter. It was again supposed to be a wing effort but 211 didn’t show up at the rendezvous and 113 had only four serviceable machines, 55 only two! (It’s getting ridiculous.) So six in two flights crossed the border in search of a small armoured-column reported earlier. The approach was at 12500 and the column easily located. Then the fun began.
113 suddenly realized they were flying over a collection of 27 mixed CR 32s and 42s and just ahead of them were 9 Breda 65s. This formidable outfit had turned in the direction of Fort Maddelena where the 8th Army were busy massing troops. The presence of the Bredas suggested those troops were about to be ground strafed. The little biplanes climbed rapidly to our altitude whereupon the wing dumped their bomb-load and went into a near vertical. Bill said the Blenheims actually clocked over 300 (computed). Quite a lot of the 42s hung on grimly (waiting for their wings to come off?) and the air was full of .5 tracer.
Fletcher, in particular, got hit quite a bit. He was pulling out of the dive when a CR42 overtook him. His gunner had been blazing at it and thinks he hit it because it went down in flames. He picked holes in another and it turned away. The wing tightened formation and crossed the border without loss (except of face!) The hectic action had lasted 12 minutes and three of the kites were put u/s. One of 55’s gunners was wounded but declared mendable. The Bredas sailed on and took no part at all.
This evening we heard with joy that Barney had been awarded the DFC. The Mess had a party. Liquor flowed.
NAMES: Williams, Andy, Bill, Fletcher, Barney-(S/Ldr Keily), 55 squadron, 211 squadron
What a day of fuss and muddle! Spent the morning pottering about doing my usual chores then about 3pm. when I was enjoying Anne Lindberg’s delicious book “North to the Orient” a recce was called for. (Ed: A first rate book highly recommended, nothing worse than having to put down a good read to go bomb Italians) The CO elected to do it but as John was duty-officer, I took his place as nav. At first the recce was to be Bardia but while we were warming up a cancel came through (by motorbike) and Barney shutdown and we sat there, sweating on our Sidcots, waiting for fresh orders.
Then Bardia was on again. The CO started first the port then the starboard then back to the port for full revs. And one mag. had clonked out. Our Flight-Sgt roared up in his pickup to find another kite. Then Bardia was canceled again! Well, it was too late anyway. Jock arrived with a fresh signal while Flight had found another a/c. We all got into Jock’s pickup and trundled over to the other plane.
The signal: a Sunderland was down in the sea just off Tobruk having been badly mauled by 42s; proceeding toward Tobruk was an Italian destroyer escorting a tanker; proceeding to the wounded Sunderland was another Sunderland with a view to rescuing the crew. At MB were two armed Swordfish. And due any minute a pair of Beaufighters. The Swordfish - it went on - were to sink the tanker, and if possible the destroyer for good measure. The second Sunderland was to rescue the crew of the first and then sink the floating crane at Tobruk. Our orders were to overfly everything and radio back what was going on.
Someone got the timing wrong. By the time we got their an Italian torpedo boat was close to the Sunderland. I thought it had our flying boat in tow but we were too high to be sure. The destroyer and the tanker were safely inside harbour and as we sidled over for a closer look up came the flak. The destroyer joined in - evidenced by the balls of black smoke with red centers. Barney cruised round out of range looking for the second Sunderland. We never saw it.
This delicious signal reached Jock Dunning at 1.30am: “Recco Bardia Harbour at dawn. Use 20 inch lens at 20,000 ft. Object - ascertain quantity shipping in Tobruk Harbour.” It’s true!
NAMES: CO -(S/Ldr Keily), John, Barney-(S/Ldr Keily), Jock
Reynolds and Durrant did the recce above, Jock having decided Group meant both harbours. They met with very heavy naval flak at Tobruk. A couple of warships must have snuck in during the night. So now we are expecting a show.
Here is the HQME report on the death or glory stuff of the 4th. “One Lysander of 208 escorted by four Gladiators left at 1700 hrs to recce enemy MT 12m east of Bir el Gobi. The formation was attacked by 50 CR42s and in the ensuing combat three CR42s were shot down. Three Gladiators are missing but it known that two are safe. At 18.30 nine Blenheims from 55,113, and 211 Squadrons attacked the MT. Fifty CR42 attacked the Blenheim formation. 113 gunners shot-down two EA. One Italian fighter was shot down by friendly AA.”
Who is the wizard that counts the fighters? This evening 208 crews paying a social visit said they had two Lysanders, but saw one pilot bale out.
Well, as expected, something did happen today, and what a nonsense it was. Round about two pm. we got a standby. Steele had gone off on a recce to see if the two warships were still at Tobruk. Whether Group intended them to be a target for 113 is still a mystery. Our three Swordfish (who controls these fellows?) had taken off just after Steele. Bob said the Swordfish had been ordered to land at Sidi Barrani and refuel.
At 4pm. Steele transmitted the digit ‘2’ that meant yes, the warships were still there. Perhaps it didn’t convey anything of the sort to Group. Anyway, as three of our lot got airborne with orders to bomb them, the three Swordfish returned. Our flight was joined by 4 of 55, and we who were left behind went off for a swim.
Everyone got back in due course but with no sort of a story. The warships had departed. 55 somehow got ahead of Barney, who was supposed to be leading and dropped their load on ‘nothing in particular’ (according to John) Barney chose an alternative target, warehouses on the waterfront. 55 meanwhile had disappeared.
Meanwhile, Owen had followed them to recce results. No one hit anything of significance.
The three Swordfish have been to Tobruk and come back whole. Ock (Jock?) has pictures showing the havoc they wreaked. Clear to see, lying on their sides in the harbour, are one destroyer, one submarine and a small tanker. Two merchant ships seem to be beached. (Could they have done all this with three torpedoes?)
NAMES: Reynolds, Durrant, Jock, CO-(S/Ldr Keily), 208 Squadron, 55 Squadron, 211 Squadron, Steele, Bob, Barney, Owen
Bob and I dragged out at dawn to do a recce, but it is now 9.30 am and we are still in the Mess waiting for orders. They came at last, and we flew east.
There are now several targets in the eastern section of Libya. The Italians are massing troops in the forward area. We have found a fuel dump near El Adem, and there are dozens of aircraft dispersed round the airfield. There is also a newly cleared area w. of Tobruk with a number of tri-motored a/c on it.
This is probably the only diary entry I shall make in the air. We have collected L9319 from Abu Suier and spent the night at Hel House. This is the kite we took to Benghazi that first trip - when the oxygen supply dried up. Now we are to go again, this morning at 11am. We left Helio at 6.30 and we’re an hour into our flight to MB.
Last evening was half briefing at HQME, and half having a party. We left the HQ in Cairo about 9.30pm. and joined a dance party the Kay's had arranged. Max was there. We stayed on till near one. Getting up again at 5.30 am was no joke!
Some days later:
Since writing that big on the plane a lot has happened. How’s my recall, Benghazi first: it was a long and uneventful trip but produced some interesting results. We set out a 11.20 am on the 9th. Just as we were running up, Jock dashed out in a car, and asked us to have a look for a sub reported near Mersa. That made a muck of my pretty flight plan. We went out to sea for 30m at low altitude and then turned towards Sidi Barrani. Saw no sub so we altered course inland, climbing, and began the 320 odd m. of desert to Benghazi. So we approached from well south having been briefed to keep a sharp lookout for new landing grounds.
Benghazi looked as pleasant and peaceful as ever lying warm and snug under a thin haze. Benina challenged us with an Aldis light. How on earth do they manage to see us at 20,000 ft?
Bob’s compass verge had shifted a bit on the way and when we picked up our first pinpoint we were well off course. It took us half-an-hour to get back. The harbour was very full, as we expected, and both Benina and Berca airfields looked very well-off for aircraft. North of Benina scattered all over the desert were lots of Breda 88s. In a leisurely fashion we made three photo runs across the harbour. This time still not knowing why our overlaps were too narrow we had plotted for 50 percent to be sure of getting stereo. (Why we failed last time was still a matter of open debate).
Then we set off north for Tocra, but found nothing there. They’ve lots of hangars on the airfields, though, and I suspect they feel pretty safe at this range. The hangars are probably stuffed full. Barce’s little batch of fighters were supplementing by a pair of big bombers. From Barce along the road of red sand to Cirene. Nothing here, so on to Appollonia one tiny civil a/c. Derna next. Pretty little harbour. Where are their planes? They boast of having 1500 in Libya. Well, plenty at El Adem and the forward bases, but not 1500.
Derna was our last target. We had used a whole canister of film. We turned out to sea and slid down to 17,000 the job finished. It is 4.30 pm. Now for some grub. The sandwiches were frozen and snapped like toast. We’ve tomatoes and sliced cucumber. The cucumber is like potato crisps. Spoonfuls of marmalade are best, followed by gulps of hot tea. We each eat a bar of chocolate. Poor Tommy is frozen stiff. His turret is jammed and we cannot close our top canopy window. So (particularly when the camera window was open) he’s been abiding in a considerable draft. We’ve brought him up to the well where we have some blankets and cushions to protect from the spars.
We finish the trip without any hitches, Sgt. Lucas is there to grab the film, we debrief and get to the Mess stiff and tired. It is midnight before we hear the pictures are fine. Gosh! How I want to sleep! We stagger to our tents for a short kip. We're to be called at five am to get the pics to Cairo. Fortunately, the guard makes a mistake, and we sleep on till 6.10 am.
We get off at 7.30 am with a set of prints and land at Helio. (Helio is 225 m from MB). W/Commander Willetts is enormously pleased with our stuff and steers us in to receive personal congrats., from the C in C (Sir Arthur). It seems we’ve done a good job. (Ed Note: No one in Cairo lets on at the time that the target maps are ‘up the spout’, though it is widely known in HQ. P/O ‘Skeleton’ is left with the burden of that little failure.)
And now before I go back and describe what the other lads have been doing I must have a natter with Jock to get the gen. (No one does the official ‘history’ when I’m away. I’m forever playing catch-up.) Bob and I came back yesterday, the 10th. Barney has signed 9319 onto our strength so I suppose there will be more long recces. Bob got himself a swim at Helio before we came back but I fell asleep for an hour or so in the Mess there.
The squadron has been busy in our absence. On the 9th. They went to Tobruk intent on sinking the big floating crane. The Army doesn’t like this thing because they say it is capable of off-loading tanks. The early recce had revealed it unloading stuff from a cargo ship on the west jetty, but it moves about and you can never be sure where to find it. Three 113s joined up with three each from 55 and 211, and the little ‘wing’ set off after a rendezvous over Ras el Kenias. They had alternative targets of Naval oil tanks a bit to the north. The blessed crane was tucked away (Jock guessed at its refueling point, and 55 leading circled everyone round and round, but couldn't find it. So they broke formation and individually bombed whatever too their fancy.
Williams developed a wonky motor and got left in the target area. Peter Wakelin saw two approaching ships, so they bombed those. ‘No hits observed’ said the gunner at debriefing. Seems to have been a rather silly show.
The next day, the 10th. They tried again. Another little ‘wing’ of ten kites from the three sqdns. (There must be a helluva lot of stuff u/s at Flights). Vicki Boehm, with Peter, turned back with a dud port engine. The target was a huge new military camp. They didn’t even find it! But they hit a little one next door and caused considerable mayhem. All got back in one piece - even Vicki.
We all have the feeling things here are coming to the boil. There are big troop movements being made by both sides. Jock says our pictures of the roads east from Benghazi reveal dozens of tank transporters very widely spaced - offering no sort of target. The three harbours are constantly full, and Italian aircraft abound everywhere. Bob says there’s no point in counting them so carefully the way Group do. They are moved so often they get counted twice!
The Italians are massing in their forward camps. A big new camp has popped up just 30 miles inside the wire. Gobi, of course, is now monstrous. A large mine-laying destroyer has appeared at Tobruk with 12 torpedo boats. When we were in Helio there was a definite air of expectancy. “When is the blitzkrieg going to start?”
Here at MB we’re all a bit ‘malesh.’
NAMES: Kay's, Max, Jock, Bob, Tommy, Sgt Lucas, W/Cdr Willetts, C&C Sir Arthur, P/O Skeleton-(Bones -P/O Shekleton ??), Barney, 55 Squadron, 211 Squadron, Jock, Williams, Vicki Boehm, Peter
No ops today. I spent the morning on this diary and the ‘history’. (It has to be written to a precise format: target, number and type of a/c; names of those taking part; brief description; any observed damage; status of returned a/c. Leader’s comments.) Very dull.
Swimming in the afternoon. Guests this evening from Group, so a slap-up meal. Everyone turned in early.
And that’s all there is to say about the 11th.
I keep meaning to make a list of the expressions we use here, but when I try to make a start, I can’t think of them. The use of the odd Arabic word is, of course, common in the Delta, and we have brought some with us. ‘Shuftie’ - having a look. Latin ‘dekko’. The ‘shuftie-king’ today - the chap doing the dawn recce. ‘King-pin’ = the leader of any enterprise. ‘Split’ - a polite contraction of ‘split-arse’ = any mad aerial maneuver. ‘Shoot-up’ low-flying intended to frighten people on the ground/ (The Mess is frequently subjected to this by pilots returning from leave.) A ‘line’= telling a tall story. Some messes, including ours, maintain a Line Book in which are recorded the most outrageous ‘lines’. The officer’s name is appended, sometimes with a cynical remark by a superior. ‘Like a ding-bat’ - anything that travels very fast.
Gilly has appeared with a Bombay and the armourer’s are loading it with 500lb. armour-piercing. He’s here for ten days. Harvest moon? Surely to hell they’re not going to put him over Tobruk. Perhaps it’s that bally crane. It has a charmed life that thing.
We did two recces, Steele and Thornicroft. 211 raided something - no news of result.
Group has issued new maps of Tobruk with a grid of little squares. We are in future to report sightings as ‘in sq. so and so, ’like a BBC football commentary'. This, of course, is all about locating that crane!
Steele, by the way, at 23,000ft. encountered very heavy naval flak. Cruisers?
Typed a long letter to brother Paul, and played table-tennis with Dickie.
NAMES: Gilly-(not 113), Steele, Thornicroft, 211 Squadron, brother Paul-(Shekleton), Dickie
Another operationless day! We seem to be busy servicing other squadrons but not doing anything ourselves. Rand, who appeared from Group first thing this morning, says we are down for something tomorrow. He’s come because Jock has been whisked off to Mersa for a confab with Army top brass.
I am orderly-dog today and have whiled away the time reading Wells’ “Chrstine Alberto’s Father.” Jock reckons aircrew spend 99 percent of their time doing ‘damn all’ and one percent being shit-scared. I think he’s right - not for Bob, though. I don’t think Bob is scared of anything. He scares us, though.
Our three Swordfish have been joined by three more, this afternoon. What’s on? They left their torpedoes on Alvis trolleys and took off to get more.
Gilly has taken his Bombay to satellite 5. Someone went with him and brought him back. He’s a nice cheerful chap to chat to in the Mess.
Something has been planned for 55 and 30 Squadrons tomorrow but we’re not included. We have seven serviceable a/c but some pilots are on short leave.
NAMES: Rand (Group Hdqt) Jock, Bob, Gilly, 55 Squadron, 30 Squadron
55 escorted by some of 33’s Beaufighters did a nice show at Bomba. (It was our show really because we found the 15 flying boats there and should have been given a stab at them. These things have been patrolling up and down outside Tobruk for some days now. They are big things, proper Balbos, and are said to carry a 2000kg. bomb - not funny even if you’re a battleship.
The plan was simple: 55 were to go in and bomb with lots of 40s and 20s and the Beaux were then to pitch in at low level with their five-apiece Brownings. Everything went according to plan, except that the expected opposition never materialized so they made three runs instead of one. They all came back, the Beaus, of course, to us. But debriefing was at Group so we heard nothing directly. We’d love to know how many they pranged. (Three, escaped we know. One of our recces reported them on patrol as usual.)
When Jock came back later that evening he told us eleven of the flying boats had been smashed to smithereens, and by luck a stray bomb had hit a petrol store. There was some cock-up at Group. Earlier they’d thought only four had been hit and laid on a dawn show for 113. This was subsequently cancelled. Not so with the guard, however, John and I were tumbled out of bed at 5.30 am. and didn’t find out about the cancel till we arrived at the Ops Tent.
Bob took Gilly and his crew over to the satellite to pick up the Bombay. He was sent solo to Tobruk with a load of 250s and came back about 4am. having smashed the submarine jetty, with, hopefully (as yet unconfirmed) a submarine alongside.
I forgot: at 12.15pm a flock of Iti heavy bombers flew over us at 4000ft., and Group sounded the alarm just as they faded out of sight.
A new order today says we are to disperse to satellites each morning. Each flight is to do this for two weeks and is to be at ‘standby’ while at the satellite, ready to take off - bomb loads 20s and 40s. Who can have dreamt this up? And for why? Bob has smartly chosen sat. 14 which is within walking distance of Siwa Oasis. What’s special about Siwa, I asked him. “Best dates in the world,” he said.
(NOTE: The above paragraph is of extreme importance as it explains why the various Squadron members seemingly report conflicting stories about where they were.)
Rumours today that the real party is about to begin. The Army is laying down a heavy barrage on forward enemy troops.
NAMES: 55 Squadron, 33 Squadron, John, Bob, Gilly -(not 113),
Bob Bentley is said to have been posted today to Rhodesia as an instructor. I'm glad of this. He's had his share of the war.
News that eight new long-noses have arrived at Helio. Wonder who'll get them?
It has been quite a day for the Italians. Taff Owen started things off by having a look at Bomba this morning from 4000 ft., and there found four nice little ships. He radioed Group. Now what could they be doing there? Bomba is not a harbour. The ships were a submarine, a mother-ship, a destroyer and, well, another little ship.
So roundabout 10.30 am three Swordfish that had gone to spy out Sidi Barrani for a target, were diverted by WT to Bomba and sank the lot, just like that! I suppose if we had enough of them, with replicas of these chaps to fly them, Swordfish could win the War on their own. A little later Dickie went and photographed the four ships lying peacefully on the bottom.
This evening `Canada' and his Bombay boys to do some dicing around Bomba and started three nice big fires. And bit later the CO took a flight to El Adem by way of being a nuisance, He ought not to have gone, said Peter, who went as his nav. He was already dog-tired. Anyway when they got back the Chance Light refused to operate and Barney, one wing low, landed in a mess. Peter got a heavy thump on the head but it otherwise okay. The machine is a bit of a heap. Flight will be furious, it was almost split new.
`No casualties to personnel,' I am instructed to record for posterity.
Bob Bently, Taff Owen, Dickie, C.O, Barney, Peter -Nav,
I am orderly-dog today with Jock as Ops. He was up all night so spent the morning snoozing in a deck-chair while I held the fort.
The CO with three crews went off on leave in the supply Bombay.
A signal came in ordering Bob (with John) to do a Benghazi recce tomorrow. It has him cussing because it will leave us with only five crews and tomorrow we are on standby in `urgent state of readiness from 7 am.' because the Fleet is to have another bash at Bardia, far more fun than that lousy 7 hour recce.
No operational flying for us today and with the moon about finished there won't be any tonight We were surprised to hear that some of 216 had been sent on a rampage.
Jock, CO., Bob, John, 216 Squadron
It is 7 am and we are on standby.
Early yesterday evening the sirens started up and those of us in the Mess leaned across the bar, picked out our bottles of whisky (in expectation of an hour in a slit trench). We stood around a while staring seaward, but nothing happened and we went back into the hut.
I had to take charge of the Ops Tent after the evening meal to give Jock a rest. During the night there was some heavy bombing and a few heads popped out of nearby tents. I expected the Group siren to go off, but it was poor old Mersa getting it again.
Amendment - it was the Army at Gerwala, less than ten miles away, that had the raid. That's why it sounded to loud.
The Navy duly did their stuff at Bardia and not a single enemy a/c attacked them. Funny. Perhaps the Italians have become over wary of standing fighter patrols.
At 1 pm the state of emergency we have been on for so long was lifted. We just did the odd recce.
Bob and John got back safely from their Benghazi shuftie. Bob was disappointed that their pictures revealed nothing of importance, but seemed quietly pleased he had missed anything aggressive.
During the evening there was a pretty heavy celebration party at Group with the FAA boys who performed so spectacularly at Bardia. Our senior pilots were invited.
Around 11pm several distinguished gentlemen were wandering around vaguely looking for their tents by starlight.
News during the day that all our old short-noses are not to be replaced with Mark IVs. These will also have belly guns. At last.
One Bombay with `Durban Archie' (don't know his surname) as pilot did a wander round Libya this morning, object indefinite. They carried a few bombs and destroyed an El Adem hangar with them. It would be nice to think those hangers are all full of a/c but the wisdom of Rand has it they are empty.
Jock, Bob, John, Durban Archie -not 113, Rand
Bob and John have gone into Cairo with their pics.
Have just heard that the Bombay accidentally' flew into the Tobruk barrage last night when coming home at 4000 ft. Had a nasty fright but emerged intact.
Vicki did a recce this morning but we have had another quiet day. The AOC, they say, is anxious to keep his depleted squadrons as intact as possible until the expected blitzkrieg by the Italians starts up.
I fancy we'll get a show or two when the long-noses arrive. The serviceability of our Mark 2s is now very poor.
The weather is already noticeably cooler. It is now thought that is what the Italians are waiting for and their push will begin early September. (Cooler tank engines?)
Bob, John, Vicki, AOC
Still the waiting game goes on. We have done no ops again today and so far as Jock knows neither have the other Blenheims.
What we have done is to listen to the news -the bulletins have become very frequent. London is enduring a further series of awful random bombing. It sounds unbelievably awful. We yearn to hear that we have hit Berlin by way of reprisal but the raids reported are always military targets.
Meanwhile the news here is that we pouring more and more troops and aircraft into Egypt, and I write more and more letters home!
Two of the Lysander pilots looked in on us this evening and entertained us with some good yarns. One of their lot, a Lt. Pittman, taken prisoner marched into the Iti Mess and shouted: "Who in here speaks English?" A small Italian shot to his feet. "I speak-a d'English," he said. "Then f--- you for a start," said the 208.
This yarn was told by an Italian pilot who is now our prisoner. I feel there should be more, but that's it.
80 Squadron fighters have become renowned for shooting down CR42s and disliking newspaper men. On the day they shot down 15 of the Italian biplanes they were asked what tactics they used. "We don't bother with tactics," they said, "we just knock the little buggers out of the sky."
Their ace, Pete Wykeham - Barnes was himself shot down recently and walked back 16 miles, carrying his flying boots round his neck. "Wouldn't want to wear them out, you know," he said. "Made specially for me."
Jock, Lt Pittman - not 113, 208 Sqd, 80 Squadron, Pete Wykeham Barnes - not 113
This is becoming ridiculous. We haven't had a squadron raid since the 9th. Do we enjoy this inactivity? Some of us must, I reckon, or there would be more grousing. All we have done today is recce the usual targets.
Now that we are fully equipped with Mark IVs we can reach many targets in the Benghazi area. Incidentally our old friend 9319 had turned up - now with a pair of Brownings in the belly turret.
Our grub here gets better and better. To me it is a sheer miracle. The cookhouse is a small black wooden hut that looks like a chicken coop, an effect enhanced by the fact that a few scrawny-looking fowls peck at the sand around it. At the back of this little hulk is an annex with walls built of old petrol tins (full of sand?) then oiled and sanded.
The cookers are Valor Perfection run on paraffin. The cooks? - one English, one Bulgarian.
The Cook's, Blenheim 9319
The past four days have been unusually full and I have had no opportunity of writing this diary. And now I come to write it up in retrospect I find myself in a Mess where the usual good spirits are subdued by tragedy. It may be a bit odd to talk of tragedy in the midst of universal catastrophe , but here in the desert, although we are fighting a war, although we hear broadcast news and know what is going on in the world, we are not yet accustomed to joking with a friend at breakfast and mourning him at lunch.
Today we have lost `Mouse' Reynolds. He was such a lovely chap, always smiling, always with a quip.
But I must go back to August 31st. because it was rather a stirring day for us. Bob and I, with Dickie and Peter should have been off on weekend but a standby order for Saturday came in and we went off to the satellite to collect machines. We got them armed and hung around waiting for the show to begin.
At length we got briefed. We were given Derna and the Tobruk satellite, 55 got Bomba and Tunimi, 211 El Adem and Gazala.
The raids were to be half-hourly throughout the daylight hours, a/c to be in pairs, and each pair to do two raids. We mustered everything we had and I suppose 55 and 211 did too.
The object of all this was to try to keep the Iti's so preoccupied they would be unable to attack an important convoy the Navy was trying to sneak through. All three squadrons began at 6.30 am and carried on till 4.30 pm.
Bob and I went off at 7 am. with Dickie flying No. 2 Near Sidi Barrani the exhaust ring on our starboard engine began to come to bits, and lumps of it peeled off at intervals during the next three hours.(When we landed most of it had gone and the engine sounded very `sportive'.)
This trip was quite uneventful. We bowled along 1500 ft above a Breda at one point but he must have been dreaming because he never even saw us. I dropped the best bombs of my `bombing career'! They went in a stick straight along a line of aircraft, mostly S79s, that were parked far too close together and looked a sad mess as we flew round on a shuftie, only one blew up though.
While we were over Derna three other pairs were dropping an assortment of muck on nearby targets. The Italians must have wondered what on earth was going on. By late afternoon they must have been thoroughly browned off with us, and very few could have enjoyed their siesta. Only the CO engaged any fighters. His a/c had a single bullet hole in it.
Our a/c was of course u/s at the end of our first trip but we collected another. This, too, let us down on run-up when a mag. failed to do its stuff so we were washed out.
Early in the evening Jock brought a message from the CO up to the mess: "Convey successfully protected and now safe. Congratulations." Drinks all round.
Later we heard that one of 55s planes blew up and the crew was killed. No one seemed to know what happened.
113 did 22 sorties and flew 80 hours. No doubt the other sqdns had similar figures. Jock - the information man - told us that during the `previous' war 110, in Turkey, had flown 139 hours of operational flying in a single day. This record was later broken by an Australian sqdn by half-an-hour. He estimated we had probably covered more than twice their distance.
And that was Saturday. With the congrats signal came one saying we might proceed on leave. It was now too late - we decided to go in the morning.
There was a fantastic amount of dithering about in the morning. I've no idea what it was all about. But it was ten before we took off for Helwan. When we got there most of the morning had gone and we were told we should have gone to Helio. At Helwan we were in the way - 45 were busy packing up to go South. (I wonder who's running this war?)
However we were allowed to stay and parked the short-noses we'd brought in a hanger. We had a couple of drinks in the Mess then got Phil Williams' car from `transport' and made our way to Cairo for lunch.
This `green' drive is always pleasant. Today the mealies were being reaped, the date palms were heavy with ripe fruit, and the cotton busting out of its pods. We booked in at the Continental-Savoy and had a fabulous lunch there. Gorged, Bob and Dickie opted for a snooze while Peter and I did a wander round the few shops that were open, though we did not succeed in reducing the formidable shopping lists we had brought with us from MB. By six-thirty we were all at Groppis' Garden to hear the orchestra. Peter and I had looked forward to this because the orchestra is a very competent one and plays a lively programme of popular music and more serious stuff. Bob however regards all music as a background to conversation and said during a lovely Schubert piece that he couldn't bear `the interminable silences.' Dickie remained neutral. Groppis (china tea and glorious ice-cream) whiled the time away until sundowners. We then went back to the hotel for a shower and a change before meeting to have a long wrangle about where to have dinner. Eventually we decided on the big, noisy Groppis and had a splendid meal followed by a flick. The film was "Midnight", which Peter and I had seen in England but is such an excellent comedy we enjoyed seeing it again. We rounded off the evening on the Continental's roof-garden. We missed the cabaret but enjoyed the band and watching the dancing.
Peter and I had to go to the bank in the morning so rather late we all went to Helio to the Sick Bay to see Vicki Boehm and others there. They were all full of beans and retailed many encouraging stories brought by new pilots from England. There were dozens of new pilots at Helio indicating that a lot of new planes must have been ferried in. Many of them were Wellington's (or Wimpeys as the drivers called them) and the expectation is that many many more will be coming.
At Ismailia 21 new long noses have arrived. Some are for Aden but six are to be flown on to 113 - making us to 18 - and the next shipment in a few days time will re-equip 55 and 211.
Things appear to be moving at last.
We were late-ish getting away from Doc Turner and others at Helio but got away soon to sit down to a sumptuous meal of lobster mayonnaise at the Continental. Bob and Dickie had visits to make so lunch over about three pm they went off while Peter and I got down to the serious business of `squadron shopping'. It took four hours and when we staggered back to the hotel we had bought, among other things, a camera, an ice-cream-making machine, a leather waistcoat and a nutmeg grater. By then it was of course time for yet another meal. The other two had returned bringing with them a black puppy. It was a present for Phil Williams from a friend. After the usual discussion about where to eat we decided in Groppis' again leaving the pup locked in one of the rooms. After dinner Peter and I went off to the Metro while Bob and Dickie chose some other show. We all got together once again around midnight on the hotel roof. The cabaret show was quite good.
Some of the English ferry pilots there were and we picked up a few first hand stories. Bombing so far has been sporadic and quite a few dud bombs have landed - all marked Czecho-Slovakia. But Londoners are under no illusions. They know at any moment Gorring is likely to unleash the whole might of the Luftwaffe on them. Wellington's, we heard, can carry 18 250lb bombs for short distances. `Stirlings' are four-engined bombers and are already operating over Europe. They can carry a ten-ton bomb load. They must be huge. There are 800 a/c of all types ready to come out here. The Germans don't trust their aircrews and sometimes a Gestapo agent is aboard . . . The tales are endless and some rather dubious.
At 7am we set out for MB. I nursed the puppy the whole way.
Mouse Reynolds, Bob, Dickie, Peter, 55 Squadron, 211 Squadron, C.O, Jock, 45 Squadron, Phil Williams, Continental Savoy, Groppis, Vicki Boehm, Doc Turner
So to Sept 4th.
Today we have had a repeat performance of last week's convoy protection thing. Once again we were to fly in pairs. The difference is today we can put up ten a/c.
Bob and I, Dickie and Horton, go off first at 6.30am and fly over thick white cloud. Our target is Derna airfield where the Italians have now brought forward two squadrons of bombers. We almost overshot and my ETA had come and gone a minute before when Tommy suddenly yelled: "There it is!" and we got a glimpse of the harbour. I saw it, too, just for an instant. What luck!
Bob turned in from the sea and began a quick descent. We broke through the solid cloud layer to find scattered cloud at a lower level. Momentarily I had sight of a corner of the airfield and Bob and I both saw a couple of S79s. He swung us round in a tight turn and I glanced at the altitude and hunkered down to the bomb-sight hastily setting the height. "Completing turn, on course again," said Bob. Bloody cloud! Ah, there they are. "Left, left, steady." I released a small stick of 40s. "Bombs gone."
We had announced our arrival. Bob took us round in a wide circle. "Anything, Tommy?" "Not a sausage." Bob took us down a bit, woke up a few gunners, and we went seaward for a while. No fighters. After a while we set course for Bomba.
There were ships in the harbour, such as it was, but no seaplanes. Which was a pity because Bob wanted to shoot them up with our five Brownings. We tooled up and down peering toward the bay wondering what the ships were. Suddenly great spouts of water came up from their vicinity moving across the bay, and behind the white spray fountains of red sand from the shore line. We peered upward looking for the bombers. "Wellingtons?" murmured Bob. And I envied that massive bomb-load.
We resumed our patrol. After a few minutes we saw a couple of specks below us. Vigilant Tommy reported them. "CO," probably, muttered Bob.
When we got back a squad refueled us with the bowser that had arrived the day before. Several pairs were still in the air. We had two hours before our next sortie so we just dropped in at the Ops tent and then wandered up to the Mess for some brekker. Just as we got there the phone rang and Jock said we were to standby for takeoff in thirty minutes. We gobbled our eggs and bacon and made for the latrines.
Meanwhile Ops had received a message that one of our pilots was seriously hurt and the `observer' was flying the a/c back. Within a few minutes two machines landed. That left Ward and Reynolds still to come. We stood outside the tent staring north and at last they appeared. One had its feet down and we knew this was the one with the injured pilot. They made a normal approach. One peeled off as they reached the glide path, the other continued, gave a little burst of revs, throttled back and hit the ground with a heavy thwack. But the u/c took it and the kite, safely down, ran and ran.
We all breathed again.
"Must have been the pilot," said someone, "but no brakes."
It wasn't the pilot. `Mouse' Reynolds was dead. Corporal Blair had made the landing. An amazing performance
Doc Turner went out in the ambulance and Jock took a pickup to the Sick Bay. He came back just as we were about to clamber into our pickup. "One shot to the head," he said to Bob. "Doc is keeping Blair there for the moment. Group will want to see him."
The convoy got through safely.
Bob, Dickie, Horton, Tommy, C.O, Jock Dunning, Ward, Reynolds, Corp (Ian) Blair, Doc Turner,
NOTE: Ward guided Mouse Reynolds aircraft back until it was on the glide path, Ops was aware of the situation before the aircraft landed. Corp Blair is briefly held at Sick Bay by Doc Turner for Group HQ. See also Sept 5th and 8th
This morning we had our first funeral parade. It was for `Mouse'. We buried him in the British Cemetery, Maaten Bagush. There is a white board lettered in black that called it that. (This little fenced square, I discovered later, last received an interment in 1876 - MHS) It was some miles south of the township with no road or trail nearby, just a lonely bit of arid desert, touching in its bleakness. The AOC came. We marched in neat order from our transport. No bugler had been found. The firing squad had insufficient blanks but the volleys was fired just the same - with due reverence.
Mouse Reynolds, Maaten Bagush, AOC.
News today that SL Ax, 211 Squadron's CO has forced landed in Libya.
Today a letter from B, bless her. It is dated June 27 and has come by sea.
Last evening Birdwell and Jimmy Aldiss from 208 dropped in and there was some pretty heavy entertaining that involved Bob, Taff and self. We got rid of them around 11.30 and Bob went off to bed. Taff and I stayed on yarning till some ungodly hour.
Incidentally, the half-dozen ferry pilots who flew the long noses in the other day made a clique in the corner of the Mess and couldn't be persuaded to join in. Odd. I feel the place is rather happier without them. They departed on the ration Bombay.
Had a bathe this afternoon. Sea quite rough.
S/Ldr Bax - 211 Squadron, Birdwell and Jimmy Aldiss - 208 Squadron, Bob, Taff
Since the last `do' at Bomba and Derna we've had no ops but rumour has it we are to have a smack at Benina now that we can reach it. This is an established airfield, the most important in western Libya. We already have a supply of 100 octane for our outer tanks.
Getting the convoys through to Alex has turned out to be a great boon to us - we've had stacks of letters from home in the last two days.
The CO, in the Mess this evening, just back from a visit to Group, growled: "It's not leave we want, it's pilots." I thought it would be nice to have both.
A cable from B today to say all is well with the family, thank God. The fearful air raids continue however and here we all have our anxieties, particularly those with relatives in the southeast.
Blair's flight gave him a party last night at the satellite. The CO and one or two others went. He has, deservedly, been awarded an immediate DFM.
Ward did a long recce looking for a big troop concentration reported some miles west of Giarabub but did not find it. It was worth looking for because it is thought an Italian push is now imminent.
Last night eight of us were invited over to 211 at Qasaba and had a cheerful evening that included a splendid four-course dinner. They have moved to their satellite today because they've been quite heavily bombed and there's a bit of clearing up to do.
A prisoner tells us when we bomb Sidi Barrani airfield they take shelter in a massive Roman tomb.
CO, (Ian) Blair, Ward, 211 Squadron, Bomba, Derna, Sidi Barrani, Benina,
Note: The first few paragraphs of my diary for Sept 9th are difficult to read and in this account are not verbatim.
Today we have had fun and games over Derna, while 211 and 55 have been stirring up Tobruk West and Gubbi. It is a long time since the squadron has put up nine machines together, and it was something of a thrill to have a line abreast takeoff of two flights. The third had to come from the satellite and had a rendezvous with them on the coast. At Derna there were three targets, one for each flight - the harbour, the aerodrome and a nearby concentration of MT. We got the aerodrome and a miserable target it was. True there were about 30 a/c there but widely dispersed with 500 yards of empty desert between them.
The journey out over the sea about 25 miles off the coast was uneventful except that Dickie, flying as usual as a wing-man to Bob, developed engine trouble and had to turn back.
(Oddly, because I have hardly any recollection of these ops I remember this particular occasion because, I think, of the rapport between Bob and Dickie. They had been friends since EFTS and, in fact, went solo on the same day. Now they exchanged brief hand signals (we observed radio silence on outward trips) and Dickie peeled off. "You there, Tommy?" said Bob over the intercom, " Mr Squires has a sleepy port engine so he's off home. I've told him to follow the coast road so we'll look out for on the way back." I grinned to myself. How had he conveyed that with a few sketchy gestures. "He's just dumped his load," answered Tommy.)
We carried on. The squadron split up at Derna as we turned onto our separate targets. At 16000 ft. Bob made a smooth run across a line of dispersed a/c - me squinting at the bomb sight and calling directions. And soon had the satisfaction of seeing something we'd been waiting for - a 40 lb bomb falling smack in the middle of an S78. There was a violent explosion, lots of smoke and flame, so it must have been armed. The rest of the stick seemed to fall pretty close to other a/c so it looked pretty good.
Over to our left Blomfield's bombs seemed to be hitting the sea though the other flight was knocking the MT pretty hard. I had the floorboard up to operate the blister guns and get a shuftie at the bombing. Thompson said some flak had found our height, but Bob had gone into a dive anyway and we were heading out to sea. The next instant something came through my phones that sounded like "Fighters" and I heaved the guns every which way staring frantically in the mirror and seeing nothing except sea and Derna Harbour. "Where the hell are they?" I called repeatedly and got no reply. My microphone had been switched off. After a while I crawled sheepishly back into my seat and checked the coast line for a pinpoint.
On the way back we turned toward the coast road near Sidi Barrani and searched for any sign of a forced landing - Dickie. And miraculously, we found him and his crew standing by their shiny new long nose. Bob gave him a bit of a beat-up and landed nearby. Dickie's port engine had seized up. We got them aboard and nipped back to Maaten Bagush.
The CO was naturally anxious about the safety of the stranded a/c and Bob took Dickie and Samuels back to it. They made an effort to get it in the air but failed and came back after dark. It was brought back the following day.
211 Squadron, 55 Squadron, Dickie Squires -pilot, Bob -pilot, Tommy -WopAg, Blomfield, Thompson, Samuels
Spent the morning updating the squadron `history' and cleaning my guns which I had fired yesterday - at nothing.
In the afternoon ten of us collected a pickup and went for a swim.
Sgt. Thornicroft did the morning recce and came back with news of a large concentration of Italian MT near the border, and Group decided to raid it. At first Bob was nominated and we went to standby but this was later scratched.
Four of the six pilots who were sent at 6 pm had never landed a Mark IV at night so we were all in a bit of a tizz. The MT had by then been reported to be on the move near Sidi Oman. Bob was in charge of the flare-patch - 3 glims and a red - and I joined him as a driver should there be an accident. Soon after eight-thirty six machines appeared all at once and began to circle, some with their lights on, others distinguishable only by their exhaust flames illuminating their pale blue under bellies.
Victor had gone off ahead of the raid to do some sort of shuftie so we were looking for a total of seven a/c. We were a bit concerned because the raid was in the playpen of the CR42s. who were reported to be on standing patrols. The first two landings were okay then the CO made his approach, followed closely (as we discovered later) by Taff Owen. Bob gave Owen a red but the still came on and hit the ground with a resounding thump with ONE wheel, just as the CO was reaching the end of his run. It was altogether too exciting having a machine careering about in the blinding light of the Chance Light. (Of course, it had to be Peter in the nav. seat. He seems to attract these lively cock-ups.)
Taff had a busted oleo - or should that be Taff busted an oleo? The others came in without incident. Victor had landed by mistake at Fuka where 55 was night flying and turned up half-an-hour later. In the Ops tent was finally got the story. The whole show had been a flop. No one had found the MT and they mostly brought their bombs back, though some were jettisoned.
From Group we heard this evening that the AOC acting on one of his famous hunches put up a patrol near Mersa of two Hurricanes and the fighter Blenheim which intercepted a gaggle of five S79s. One Hurricane shot down two of them, the Blenheim one, another force-landed (apparently voluntarily, sensible fellow!) and the fifth scuttled home to tell the tale.
So round about midnight the Italians came back under cover of a moonless night and crossly gave Mersa a thorough pasting.
Sgt Thronicroft, Bob, Victor -pilot, Taff Owen -pilot, Peter
They turned us out at 5.30 am this morning to do another raid on the MT found yesterday. Andy went off earlier to have a look at it and the radio back any change in position. He found it had moved quite a bit during the night and reported 200 vehicles, previously said to be 500. Magic.
We stood by our machines for an hour, then Andy returned and the CO whisked him off to Group. More hanging about. Half-an-hour later we were released to 'standby''. It is now 2.40 pm and we've now all read even the small ads in the month Times in the Mess.
Blair has had lots of (deserved) publicity on the BBC and Hankinson has been mentioned in despatches.
Nine Swordfish have arrived. I wonder what they're up to? The crews must have gone to their new hut - we haven't seen them. Later. The Swordfish have been refueled and taken off again for their carrier, out there somewhere. Did a shuftie of that MT. Yes, another, takeoff at 6pm Ops has given us a standby the 7 am. tomorrow.
Andy, C.O, Ian Blair, Hankinson
Turned out at 5.30 am. Got some brekker in the Mess. I asked Taff the date and suddenly realized it's my birthday day/ Gosh! I'm 33 - Old Bones, all right. Bob was 27 a few weeks ago. Hope we won't have to do a night show.
We hear the famous MT that Group seems so anxious about is belongs to a new division the Italians have just landed at Tobruk.
Stood-by all morning, released about noon. Had an afternoon snooze. Told a dawn raid `highly probable'.
Michael Shekleton and Bob Bateson Birthday
John shook awake around dawn. "Oh, God," I groaned, "Is it on?" He laughed and flung back the tent flap. "What do you think?" We were wrapped in dense fog! We lay back snugly in our camp beds surveying it. What a friendly sight! We had no idea Egypt could produce such a homely atmosphere. It is 8.30, we've had breakfast and the fog is lifting. Some poor soul has gone off on a recce.
Although we were grounded yesterday there were two small incidents.
We seem to be having a spot of bother with our `long-noses'. Dickie had a forced' landing as related earlier, and now Victor had to abandon a flight yesterday with a faulty mag. and this morning another a/c brought up from Flights for Bob has been taken back with a faulty engine.
Sgt. Thornicroft managed to get airborne for a look at Bomba and ran into a flock of fighters there. He dived seaward at plus-9 and managed to out-fly them. The Italians don't really like flying over water at nought-feet. But only just, because as they turned back and he leveled off one of his props, complete with reduction gear, flew off and went whirling into the sea. Thorni kept his head and turned inland to force-land wheels down near the road at Sidi Barrani. Bob took Flight and a couple of fitters to have a look-see. They set about getting the wings off it. You can't change a Mercury engine at the roadside so transport and rations were ordered over the RT. Just as they started work there was a terrific `crump' nearby and they flung themselves flat waiting for the rest of the stick. Nothing happened. It must have been a time-bomb left over from yesterday's strafing. Bob left Flight and the fitters there and flew Thorni and his crew back.
Today we have two new pilot-officers - Jones, a pilot, who arrived on a ferry flight, and Broome, our first officer air-gunner. He had had a seven week journey by sea!
Yesterday a lovely long letter from B. On my birthday. How clever of her!
John, Sgt Thornicroft, Bob, (Fitters), Jones -pilot, Broome -WopAg
We stood-by all day until about 4pm. when the week-enders (the CO, with John, Andy, and Mann) pushed off for Cairo. Major Segrim came over from Group and told us in the Mess that the Italians had made a little push on Solum and Group had wanted to lambast it. But it turned out to have stopped very near one of the 8th. Army units and Group was worried we might hit the wrong troops!
I've been told to entertain the new officers.
I was doing just that when about 9.45pm there were heavy crumps outside. Taff and I were near the door. We looked outside and saw flashes half-a-mile away in the direction of Group. We each collected our bottles of whisky from the bar and turned back to find everyone departing for the shelter. But then heard the three-engined drone of an S79 overhead. There were no more bangs and we went back to our yarning.
Woke up about midnight to the sound of bombing somewhere down the line. From the tent it looked as if Fuka and Daba were getting a pasting.
CO., John, Andy, Mann, Major Segrim, Taff
Have just heard in Ops that Victor did a recce yesterday afternoon and was attacked by eleven fighters. During the chase four more appeared. His aircraft was badly damaged and he was hit by a bullet that grazed the side of his head. Another hit him in the shoulder. But he stayed conscious and got the plane down in one piece about ten miles south of Sidi Barrani. Sgt. Johnson, his navigator was hit in the leg. An Army medical unit went to their aid. So the superb A Flight trio is at last broken up. A sad day for 113.
On the whole we've been very unlucky with our Mark IVs.
Bob was to have gone off this morning with a crew to collect Victor's plane. It had been located earlier and cleared of armament. But last night we had an S79 cruising round and round, and laid neat little rows of `silent' bombs across our airstrip. Fortunately, Taff was on duty down there and heard the thus, so we knew they were there. We called them thermos bombs because they looked like thermos flasks. In fact, Jock heard a report that recently a passing Bedouin had picked one up and had his head blown off. Ironically, his camel survived him.
We have had to mark the airstrip with petrol tins to warn off unwary a/c. It is estimated there are about 450 of the devilish little contrivances to be cleared. There are also 30 or more scattered around the camp.
Bob with Dickie and various fitters managed to get airborne despite the `thermi' to collect Victor's machine. Although he had made a comfortable landing the previous day on this occasion he had the misfortune to drop his tail oleo in a deep hole and the whole assembly was wrenched resulting in stretched control wires. They set about stiffening them but just when they thought they had them right a couple of Bredas appeared and beat them up. Surprisingly, no one was hurt and the a/c suffered only minor damage.
They set out for Fuka and all went well until Bob was in his glide. Then he found the wretched kite wouldn't respond. He had the stick right back in his tummy and nothing happened. He managed to get level with a burst of engine and landed in one piece. They all returned to MB by transport.
Victor, Sgt Johnson -Obs, Bob, Taff, Jock Dunning, Dickie, (Fitters)
Note: Victor & Johnson shot, they & aircraft survived
Up at dawn -no, an hour before it. Bob and I plus Andy and John took off for Benghazi to do a recce for the Fleet, and a look-see a Benina for ourselves. The usual dull flight out. We took pictures of tanks being landed and RT'd a coded message to Group. A couple of fighters took off from Benina but failed to make contact.
This evening was marred by an event so sudden and unexpected it affected us all. During the afternoon the Aboukir had delivered a new long-nose and Flights had armed it. A bit before dark young Roberts, lately arrived from the UK volunteered to fly it to the satellite. For some reason known only to them Group had cleared MB of aircraft for the night. There was, we were told, to be a squadron takeoff from there at dawn for a Benina raid.
Roberts took off rather later than planned but the satellite is only five miles away and there was ample time for him to do it in daylight. Dickie Squires was over at Fuka waiting for one of our kites that was promised by six pm. When he didn't return it was assumed he would be staying over because our Chance Light and crew was on loan to 211 Squadron and Dickie was aware of this. In the Mess at about eight we heard the drone of a Blenheim. The CO jumped up shouting, "My God! Dickie Squires! Lights, quick!" He dashed out followed by Bob and I. The CO's car was there and two pickups ready for the morning. We all tore through the camp to the strip and made a row with headlights on. Bob's pickup had a Very pistol and a torch. We stood looking up at the sky and quickly located the errant a/c. It was making a wide circle to the north with its nav lights on. Just as Bob was loading the Very to indicate our position to our bewilderment Group's siren started up and a moment later the a/c which had turned beyond Group and was now headed toward us was caught in a hail of light flak. It came on towards us rapidly losing height in what seemed to be an approach. Group sounded an all-clear but by then the a/c which or may not have been hit had climbed again and was headed toward the satellite where, as we heard later, a flare path had been laid out and probably picked out by the pilot.
The CO said he'd drive over there and 'pick him up' meaning Dickie, and Bob and I drove to the Ops tent where Jock was standing anxiously at the entrance. Seconds later engines sounded again and a Blenheim dived into the airstrip with an almighty crash followed at once by the heavy thud of 250s exploding. Bob jumped straight back into the pickup and I piled in after him. He drove toward the fiery mess. Bob had done a bit of thinking and at once eliminated Dickie because that machine would not have been bombed up. But I had forgotten Roberts. We stood and watched as the machine burned itself out. No one could get near it though the fire truck hurled gallons of water at it.
Roberts had already done some months of operations from the UK and had flown the Blemheim out from there to Egypt. His log book revealed he had made lots of night landings though none out here. Bob had flown with him and judged him to be an excellent pilot - indeed he had already asked Barney if he could have him for A Flight to replace poor Victor. He was only nineteen.
Another Savoyia came over during the night and did a slow circuit of the area. It was met by a surprisingly fierce barrage of small arms from Group and an Army unit parked by the road. Loud among the bangs was a captured Breda - it hurt the eardrums. Soon after heavy bombing started up all around us and went on for hours but all we got was another load of the thermos things.
As we had to turn out at 4.45 am the bombing was something of a hardship. We would have preferred a good night's rest. Besides we were all desperately anxious about the safety of our precious long-noses over at the satellite. However, when we got there they were all intact.
Well, the flap is really on at last. The Army is apparently drawing back from their most forward positions. It seems an odd way to start the land war but that's the way of it. Jock says Wavell is trying to draw the Italians into an area where hey can be blasted by our entrenched artillery. Can they be that stupid? Apparently, for they are certainly on the move.
When Bob and I were returning from our Benghazi recce the other day we were attracted by a number of large smoky fires near Sidi Barrani. We sallied in the look at them. Bob concluded they were fuel dumps being abandoned by the Army. (Part of the enticement?)
The Italians now have 700 vehicles on top of the escarpment at Hell's Corner. 211 squadron and 55 squadron have bombed them today. Just the same their forward divisions have advanced about 60 miles to a point about 30 miles east of Sidi Barrani.
We have done exhaustive recces throughout the day and Jock things Group will mount a proper raid on them any minute now.
Bob, Andy, John, Roberts, Dickie Squires, C.O, Jock, Barney, Victor, Wavell, 55 Squadron, 211 Squadron
Today was in the nature of being a great day for 113 because at long last with three Flights of long noses we have been able to mount a squadron raid on Italy's pride and joy, Benina, the big airfield near Benghazi.
It's always rather a dreary journey out. We cross the coast at the Ras (a key pinpoint) and turn westward on a course that takes us clear of the coast but close in to Derna (for the last key pinpoint). The prevailing wind at this time of the year in invariably from the west and today is given at briefing as 20mph. We usually get a check on it from a sea-marker near Derna. The distance, including the turn in from a point north-west of Benghazi is 500 miles, say two-and-a-half hours, We romp home, of course, in about two, and the trip is enlivened by a meal of diced filet steak from my redoubtable wide-necked thermos flask.
We had prepared ourselves for the worse possible kind of fighter opposition. "There'll be hordes of `em," Dickie has forecast. Dead on ETA Barney wheeled us in toward the coast. His hand appeared in his open top canopy and he made a first twice. We desynchronized engines. A few minutes later and he waggled his wings and we went into flights-line-astern "Sea-marker," called Tommy and I hunkered down to get a drift on the shiny silver disc on the sea far below. I set it on the bomb-sight and checked the TV and altitude while I was at it. Then the four switches for the first drop. John's navigation had been impeccable. We crossed the coast exactly over the chosen point west of the harbour. A bit of flak came up but they had the range wrong and it was well below us. None of those sinister red/black bursts the warships put up, I noticed.
I set my stop -watch and entered the log as we sailed inland. Bob knew the course. He reached forward and set the compass, then the gyro. Now we were in a steep dive towards 6000 ft for the bombing run. I saw Benina's outbuildings appear at the far end of the sight-lines. We leveled. "Right . . . ri . . .ght, steady," I droned, and the hangers now appeared. They were the aiming point. "Bombs gone."
Bob swung to port making a wide circle for the second run. I clicked down the rest of the bomb switches. Fighters were in the air now but still well below us. Down went the second stick and we were off toward the sea. There were some fires burning. Nothing much for all that effort. A comforting sheet of stratus appeared as we left the coast and Bob slid us into it.
"Can you see B flight, Tommy? Called Bob. "Way back, to port, below us.!"
"Grub-up, Bones," he said a minute later, "Join us, Tommy." I broached the big thermos. It was full of stewed steak in a thick gravy.
At debriefing we heard that Sgt. Cator, flying wing to the CO had turned back near Tobruk with engine trouble. He returned safely.
Benina. No excitement. Nothing. It had been a piece of cake. I wonder what we hit.
Dickie, Barney, Tommy, Sgt Cator, C.O
*Mem. I have had to rewrite part of the above to make sense of the original which is a bit garbled. MHS.
Early today Thornicroft and Horton went off to mosaic Benghazi Harbour. They ran into a swarm of CR42s but were able to outpace them. It's curious how reports vary, only the other day 55 had a nasty tangle with them.
We buried young Roberts this morning. It was a very simple ceremony because the squadron was in standby.
We hung about till five then heard the job wasn't, as we'd thought, a nice little troop strafing do near Sidi but a/c to knock off at Timimi landing ground near Bomba. A long weary haul. We were to return overland by night to the satellite because the New Zealanders, who camped a bit west of us, are very trigger-happy and shoot at anything that flies by night - even moths, we're told.
Conditions were a bit wretched for the flight out - flying directly into the sun above light cloud. The target was a batch of about 50 S82s - the big troop carriers. The Army is particularly wishful they should be destroyed. We flew nine a/c with the CO + John leading. This landing ground is quite tricky to find but approaching from landward on this occasion we found it easily because it was covered in a dust haze and we guessed that fighters were up and waiting for us. Orders were to make two runs because the S82s as photographed were dispersed along the north and south boundaries. As we ran in line astern I could not see anything like the reported numbers, but four machines appeared between my sight wires. The next instant there was a splash of bombs from the leading flight and I had to shout to Bob, "No target, no target!"
Bob swung round to make a fresh run and we then realized that the CO was darting out to sea, having apparently dropped everything in a single run. Bloomfield with C Flight behind us was also making for the sea. Bob turned us in again and this time I picked up a good line of the big troop-carriers and let go everything at them in a long single stick. Tommy was calling: "Fighters, fifteen fighters." And as we pulled off seaward I saw there was a terrific dogfight up ahead of us, a/c milling about in all directions. One fighter burst into flames and dropped like a stone. A Blenheim followed it a moment later. Bob swung away southward and in my gun-mirror I got a glimpse of several a/c burning on the ground. We seemed to have done a fair amount of damage. The sun went down swiftly and within moments we were flying in haze.
We climbed to 8000. We had been down below two. We carefully avoided Bir Hachem and Bir el Gobi and flew south-east for a while then north toward the sea. Sidi Barrani turned up nearly on ETA. I gave Bob a correction and Bob slid down through the light cloud and we coast-crawled all the way home. Mersa flicked on three searchlights as we approached. The trusty Ras crew gave us 00 and we turned toward the nearest dummy flare-path. The Aucklanders gave us a few rounds from a couple of machine-gun.
Bob turned over the DFP and minutes later made a perfect landing at the satellite. Only Taff Owen was ahead of us. The others straggled in over the next hour, everyone tired out. Owen's a/c was badly shot up but with no damage to crew. Mann had an explosive bullet in the cockpit which smashed his windscreen and opened up a cut in Smithy's left cheek. Jones and Blom both went all the way to Alex on the way home having wildly overshot. They attracted the barrage and the searchlights but still managed to find their way home in the end. Most of us had seen a Blenheim go down in flames and one or two reported a parachute. At 11 o'clock we were still standing around hopefully. Bob then ordered us all back to MB. About midnight they came into the Mess and we knew - the CO S/L Keily was lost, with my friend John Cleaver.
The Bombays, we heard, had also been out in force tonight bombing all the way along the coast from Sidi B to Derna. Two of them were shot at by our guns near Sidi. On returning they were supposed to land at the Fuka satellite but one of them put down on ours.
Thornicroft, Horton, 55 Squadron, Roberts, John, Bloomfield, Tommy, Taff Owen, Mann, Smithy (Smith ?), Jones, S/Ldr Keily, John Cleaver
Bob has taken over temporary command of the squadron. (Bob Bateson new C.O) I found an indelible pencil among my stuff and have marked in the thin line on his shoulder straps. We have done only recces today. Sgt. Carter on one of them was chased by a gaggle of fighters but got away undamaged.
The Italians are now well this side of the frontier, only about 70 miles from us.
Last night 6 Wellingtons from 70 squadron pounded Benghazi. We hear that on the night of the 16/17th the Bombays also hit Benghazi so they are now having a lively time over there.
The Army have been clearing the thermos bombs for us, making a hell of a racket. We must have been showered with hundreds of the wretched things. A few Bredas have been over putting holes in our tents.
This morning we were told to standby to move in total to the satellite because we are getting hemmed in by troops. It seems there is an altercation going on between the Army and the RAF about this particular spot. The Army says we shouldn't be here. This spot is shortly to be the venue for a battle, they say, and they want to churn it up to prevent the Italians from landing troop-carriers here.
Gen. Wavell has been here, at Group, today, so we expect to hear something definite any minute now.
It has been reported that there are some of the new quick Bredas at Adem. Nasty. Still, there seem to be quite a lot of Hurricanes around now.
This evening Jock brought some recent pictures taken by Thornicroft and Horton of Benghazi Harbour. They are excellent. Unfortunately they did not do Benina at the same time so we've no idea what we did there.
The Fleet Air Arm has done huge damage at Benghazi. Jock says the Illustrious paid a visit there and sent in ten Swordfish.
In the photos four ships, including two destroyers, are lying on the bottom A big merchantman looks to be heavily damaged and the whole harbour is criss-crossed with oil streaks.
Bob Bateson, Sgt Carter (Cater Cator ?) 70 Squadron, Wavell, Thornicroft, Horton, Jock
No air-raids last night though Mersa got a bit of a hammering just after the moon rose. But large and by peace and we all got a good night's sleep.
We have half- a-dozen FAA pilots lodging with us now. There's a roster for minding the satellite and Dickie and Don are there now, but we are still rather crowded and don't have enough chairs to go round in the Mess. One of these chaps has dumped his kite in the middle of our airstrip. Its undercart has collapsed and it is squatting on torpedo like a mother hen. They spent all day yesterday stripping the machine down - very gingerly, you'd think - and the torpedo hasn't gone off - yet.
The BBC is becoming a lot more informative lately about what is happened to London. Today we hear that John Lewis, D.H.Evans, the British Museum and many other prominent buildings have been hit. The bomb that hit Buckingham Palace was mentioned last week.
Someone has coined the word `jitter-bomb' for the thermos things.
This morning we have two new officers - F/Lts. Glaister and Tony Irvine.
The Italians continue to advance and we've been expecting our area to be heavily bombed but so far it hasn't happened. Meanwhile we are attacking their forward positions pretty heavily with our tiny air force. The Bombays are showering them with GP 20 pounders carried loose- and heaved out of the door in addition to the stuff on their normal bomb racks.
We 211 squadron and 55 squadron have been troop-strafing today and no doubt this will be our next job.
No news yet of our proposed move.
Dickie Squire, Don, F/Lt Glaister, Tony Irvine
Last night we had our first HE bomb raid. A single Savoia came over first about midnight and dropped some heavy stuff on Sidi Haneish, two miles from us. We waited in a trench while he wandered out to sea and a few minutes later came droning back. The next stick was closer and we wondered what he was trying to hit. Us? He wasn't having much luck. The blighter kept us up till 2.15. Bob reckoned he was after the Swordfish which were parked at this end (Officers: Mess) of the camp.
While we were `cowering' in our trench six Bombays were doing their stuff. Jock told us about it in the morning. One was set on by a pair of Bredas and the pilot tried blinding them with a couple of flares. Seems to have worked. The Breda attack proved costly for the Italians because the flares fortuitously for us revealed a big new compound of troops and transport we knew nothing about. The Bombays were each carrying 140 40lb bombs plus a carton or two of incendiaries. An early strike hit a pair of Breda pom-poms and the Bombays were able at leisure to reduce the whole compound to rubble. They took 90 hits from heavy machine guns, but amazingly no aircrew were injured.
Still no ops for us. Perhaps Group are giving us a chance to get over the loss of Barney. I mourn dear John and will write to Bethia enclosing a note for Bess. I think I'd prefer my thoughts to reach her that way - they are not close friends but his loss will no doubt bring them nearer to each other
A forward Italian army corps continues to move gradually toward the wire.
With what intention? Surely a clash will occur any minute now. We have troops only half-a-mile from the wire,
A bunch of Capronis bombed the road near us very thoroughly early this evening. It was a lovely pyrotechnic display aimed at parked transport but according to the Army they only damaged two ambulances. Both are repairable
The Swordfish boys were out last night to sink three ships in Bardia harbour but when they got there the harbour was empty except for a sailing schooner.
Around seven pm. a bunch of Wellingtons droned by just inshore - destination Benghazi? They were followed by six fighter Blenheims - Beaufighters.
Oh, things are happening all right - but, exasperatingly, not to us.
A really recent letter from B today with a parcel of white socks. How clever of her!
Dickie phoned through to say the crump we heard earlier was a 250lb explosive hang-up that fell off a returning recce plane. No one hurt.
One of the Wimpeys returning in the small hours had to belly-land at Fuka with shot-away hydraulics. Pity - we can ill afford to lose one of these precious objects.
While we were having an afternoon swim we heard heavy crumps and wondered if the Navy was giving Bardia a pasting. Jock told later that Mersa got it from 48 a/c - the biggest raid yet.
Glaister came back from the pm recce to say he'd encountered a heavy barrage from Menister. His photos revealed that Menister now has some 50 fighters on it. HQ moved quickly and A Flight accompanied by one each from 55 and 211 promptly plastered Menister with incendiaries before the Italians had time to get them all to dispersal points.
Bob led us in Bloomfield and Thornicroft as his wing men. Glaister was right - the barrage was pretty daunting. We arrived at 12000 ft. and Bob dived us to 7000 for the bombing run. (Incendiaries need a bit of height to get a good scatter.) We had flown out in the eye of the sun but we came back as clear targets. The harbour had a go at us and there must have been a warship there because there were lots of white bursts - fortunately well above us. Away to our right three fighters were prowling round now looking for us. Tommy kept a sharp watch on them but they missed us. To our left a trail of small but brilliant fires appeared. We added our quota and soon had a show to rival Blackpool. Suddenly three heavy explosions added to the show. Bob wandered round for 15 mins. Drawing small arms fire from all directions - the flaming onions were bright in the intense dark. The beacon at Ras el Kenayis led us ashore to dummy flare path 5 - 10 miles west of our satellite. Bob made beautiful touch down in the brief blaze of the Chance Light. It was nearly 10 o'clock. Dickie and Don came out with a pick-p and provided us with tea from a thermos. At base food had been kept hot for us. We tucked in, went to Ops for debriefing and so to bed. Our wing men had returned intact.
Bob, Jock, (Barney - John S/Ldr Keily - Bethia - wife), Bess, Dickie, Glaister, 55 Squadron, 211 Squadron, Bloomfield, Thornicroft, Tommy, Don
Jock was called to Cairo so I stood in today as Ops. Officer. Rumours from Group had it that we were to do an all squadron in the Giarabub but though we sweated all day on self-imposed standby no hard news came in. I spent most of the day updating the Squadron History and writing up this diary. A ferry pilot delivered a new a/c.
Definite now that everything we have will soon go on standby. A pair of Lysanders are stalking a big Italian armoured- column and as soon as it comes to rest we'll attack it,
A surprise stand-down. Frigged about in the tent most of the morning, wrote to B. A good swim in the afternoon.
Late evening and instructions from Group to bomb up with 240lb Explosives. This takes time. We get an extra bomb aboard by removing the bomb doors and fitting a modified rack. We don't like this mod. because we have had several hang-ups with it. The armourers worked all night.
Hung around a bit in the morning on standby but then orders came from Group. We did a squadron takeoff and joined up with 55 and 211 - 27 a/c in all. It was quite a maneuver because we all had to get a/c back from satellites but we made it at last over Bagush. Bob, with Tommy and me, led 113. (55 did some messy flying, wandered off on its own and made a silly landfall somewhere over Bomba! We had to hang about while they sorted themselves out, but we did at long last get into some sort of a formation over the sea about 5 miles of the target. Tobruk's barrage started up early. It is now very impressive. I watched it a curiously detached way today - it looked interesting, rather than lethal. We ignored it, just flew straight into it on our sighting runs. We picked our own targets. I dropped my first stick along a big cargo vessel. "Missed by a mile" reported Tommy as he sighted the bursts in the water. 55 were hitting something that made a lot of smoke. 211 squadron (it was said later) managed to obliterate the hospital. We made a second run, and this time I did hit a ship, and then we swept out to sea to make our way home in flights independently. The San Georgio went on banging away with its white bursts long after we were out of range.
I had just shut the floorboard over out belly-gun, given Bob a bar of chocolate and opened the thermos when Tommy shouted "Fighters." Bob put us into a dive and I hunkered down to my gun and scanned the mirror. "Where away, Tommy," I called, seeing nothing. "To port and below us," said Tommy, "Three CRs chasing C flight." Bob was already hot on their tail, but before he had a chance to give them a sqirt they scattered. We landed without incident and counted the others as they straggled in. Most of the a/c had some damage but remarkably no one was hurt. Jones machine was a real mess and how he got it down in one piece was a mystery. Poor Jones has only done two ops with us and each time he's been badly shot up. He had thought that after a tour in Britain flying against 109s the desert would be a piece of cake
Rome Radio reported this raid and mentioned the hit on the hospital but with no particular venom so let's hope the place was empty. They also admitted the barracks had been hit with 18 killed and 80 wounded. We certainly plastered the place - 108 250lb. GP bombs on a couple of acres is no mean package. Why did we do it? Cunningham was probably rather cross about the recent raids on Matruh. On two successive days they sent more than 50 S79s over. As the S79 carries twice the bomb load of a Blenheim this made our raids seem rather puny.
Now if we had the same number of a/c in Egypt as they have in Libya . . .
55 Squadron, 211 Squadron, Bob, Tommy, Jones, Cunningham
Quite a lot has happened lately. For instance we've moved! We are now on a bit of desert nine miles from MB that Group calls Waterloo, or is it Water-el-loo?
Anyway with tents up we are desperately trying to dig ourselves in what must be the rockiest place west of Alex. Half-tracks, borrowed from the Army are busy dragging railway lines up and down clearing a landing strip of camel thorn. This low-growing shrub is very tough, like spinifex and takes a lot of uprooting. This evening I was inspanned to do a stint on one of the half-tracks. Couldn't keep the bally thing straight dragging all those chains and lumps of iron.
We went to bed early on being told we'd called at five to bring a/c in from the satellites, but someone brought news at five that Group had cancelled the order so we rolled over and slept till 8.30! Waterloo promises to be a good deal better than Bagush. For one thing we are no longer next door to Group, and for another the sand is quite firm here and you no longer walk about in a cloud of dust. We all still wear flying boots, though. A draw back is that only two recce a/c are kept here. The rest are all dispersed to satellites. So when ever there's an op. it's a bumpy journey in a pickup to collect them. There should be one today - it's a Sunday!
Peter and I have decided to share a tent and we spent most of the morning putting it up. There's a lot more room in it than the one at Bagush - we've got the pegs in the right positions, thereby increasing the diameter.
The day we arrived the Army moved into the bit between us and Group and are already in the process of building a strong defensive position. Goodness knows what they have in the way of earth-moving machinery but the dust cloud above us is thick enough to blot out even the Egyptian sun.
Today we have bombed Maraua. Bob called it a `church at eventide job', and so far as the actual bombing was concerned that is what it was. Not so the home run. But I'm getting ahead of myself . . .
We should have done this job yesterday but Maraua is a two-and-a-half hour flight and Bob thought that night landings at Waterloo on our return would be too risky for some of our new crews. "A Flight" was duty flight and in the morning I was at the satellite swinging our compasses. I got back at lunchtime to hear the op. was off .
Our a/c had been brought to Bir Zimla where the strip is so wide we can do squadron takeoffs. (Compared with flight takeoffs the advantage is that you do not have to wait for the dust to settle between each, which makes getting into formation that much easier.) Nine a/c took to the air and set course first out to sea then westward. Tony, one of our newest, turned back with over-heavy fuel consumption. (That's a funny one!) He was followed not much later by Thornicroft with a dud engine. At ETA we turned in from the sea and were able to pick out the light-coloured sand of the Maraua airfield at even 30 miles distant. Bob took us down in a dive that gave us an airspeed of 300mph. and we arrived over the target at 5000 ft. We had a load of 250lb explosive, the others were armed with `candy'.
In that clear air, as I watched my bombs going down, I could see riggers and armourers scattering from the big S.79s that were lined-up for takeoff. My first bomb wrote-off an S79 and the rest of the stick hopefully did a bit of damage. Tommy said the others bombed well and certainly there were quite a lot of fires glowing as we pulled away. (Photographs taken by one of our a/c and seen later showed my third bomb lifting an S79 clear off the ground.) As we turned northward toward the sea Bob throttled back and called for scattered formation to join up. We kept sharp eye in the direction of Barce whence we expected a flock of fighters to appear. The squadron was hopelessly scattered. Bob asked for a direct course overland and we set out for home alone and unmolested.
We did not know until later in the Ops. Tent how badly the other flights had been mauled. Sgt. Cater and his crew had been shot down over the sea, while Sgt. Roberts simply disappeared. At debriefing no one could report what happened to him. Andy with Peter were roughed up but came home with lots of holes but an unhurt crew. Peter claimed a CR42 - a first blood to our blister guns. During debriefing the phone rang. Jock answered. Sgt. Roberts had belly-landed on the coast and been picked up by an army patrol. Note:Later he told how he had been forced down to nought feet over the sea by persistent CR42s. He'd actually hit the sea and lost a prop before just reaching the shore.
Bob, Tony, Thornicroft, Sgt Cater, Sgt Roberts, Andy, Peter, Jock
This poor diary has been much neglected of late. And now I doubt I can recollect all the petty little things that have occurred.
It's windy. Actually, it's howling gale. I thought to write sitting on my bunk but the tent was swaying out altogether too much so I'm now in the mess tent where things are a little better though even here the page keeps getting covered with sand and the big flies are altogether too intimate. The others have all gone down the escarpment to our beach which will be sheltered from this awful khamseen.
With the moon growing nightly the Italian bombers have been giving our area undue attention this past week so I have just spent two hours on our personal tentside shelter. I have acquired a sheet of corrugated iron (wind-born) for the roof and have put about a ton of sand on top of it.
Had last weekend in Cairo with Bob, Peter and Dickie. It was rather mediocre, hardly worth doing but a change just the same, and I was able to send B a cable. We booked into the Continental. Two good dinners, two flicks, two late cabarets. No shopping because we didn't get there till late Saturday. We ought to have gone on Friday. Bob and Dickie were hopelessly disorganized and we did a lot of hanging about. Next time Peter and I will peel off on our own.
Six of us bombed Benghazi harbour on Tuesday night . The moon was so bright everything was clear as day. Don't know if we hit anything. Group hasn't released any pictures. Defenses were taken by surprise. We streaked across the harbour at plus 9, nought feet. We must have hit something if only a bomb shelter.
The war in the desert gets more puzzling every day. Graziani is building himself a nice new road from Solum to Sidi Barrani. We don't seem to be doing anything about it except we did knock two large water tanks they had built alongside. Rather petty, really.
At latest count the Italians have 700 a/c between El Adem and Sidi Barrani.
Bob, Dickie, Peter, Graziani
NOTE: The road referred to is the Via della Vittoria Sollum, Graziani started building this along with a pipeline about the 17th September after capturing Sidi Barrani in his first push into Egypt. His idea was to build up a solid base of communication to support his advance. Wavell was at the time hoping to draw him to Mersa Matruh to stretch his supply line.
Have been standing by for three days to raid `a distant target' (as Jock says). Fat lot of use that is. Yesterday Bob took Jock and me to Siwa to survey a site for a takeoff, so it sounds as if this special op has a target somewhere south of Benghazi.
The Siwa oasis is truly a paradise set in the empty desert about 170 miles south-west of Bagush. We landed on good ground about half-a-mile from the market and walked in, causing something of a sensation. We bought a great bunch of the luscious dates. They were as big as your thumb. Bob agreed this was a great spot for a squadron takeoff. No camel thorn.
I went to Group later and collected maps of southern Libya.
Just heard we're to hit Benghazi at dusk - a recce has revealed a large ship with a deck cargo of tanks has just berthed. Bob, Dickie and Don the pilots. Peter and self with a sergeant on the bob tits.
There were three letters, a cable, and a cake from B waiting for me when I got back from Group.
A lot of chaps seem to be becoming a bit stupid out here - little things but you notice them. I'm doing it, too. Desert blues? (Shades of the Gulf)
Still no mineral water with the rations. No whisky either. The whisky in Cairo over that weekend was sheer nectar.
From Group we hear that a Benghazi agent has reported on our last raid. It was mayhem. `One loaded merchant ship sunk, one oil tanker set on fire, two warehouses destroyed, one barge sunk, fort-one killed, many casualties.'
Peter and I are still working on our dug-out shelter. Awful lot of scorpions under the bomb-box flooring. Scary things.
Bob, Jock, Dickie, Don, Peter
Well, we duly cracked Benghazi last night, and it was not according to plan, because it turned into a full-blooded night attack when it was supposed to be at dusk. Bob led of course with Andy and Dickie as 2 and 3. Peter was with Andy, Durrant with Dickie. I had 250s GP and the others 4 and 25lb incendiaries. We started out at 4.15pm and going the sea route had to face the sun all the way to Bomba. There it went down and we were bathed in an orange mist for a few minutes - an incredible sight. Soon after that we were in total darkness except for the little blue exhaust flames of the engines, and Doc Turner, who elected to come as a passenger had to abandon his Readers' Digest.
By good fortune (or exact dead-reckoning) we made a perfect landfall, the salt lake at Benghazi, gleaming even in the darkness, confirming it. Just outside the harbour were a couple of warships that gave us a surprise welcome by blasting off in all directions, principally ours. We had to fly over the damn things to get to our target. The harbour put up a terrific barrage that was really frightening to fly through but Bob calmly altered our course to my calls from the bombsight as if it didn't exist. Does nothing scare this extraordinary fellow? Nothing big hit us. There were a few whangs of shrapnel.
As we raced inland Tommy yelled excitedly: "Lovely fires, big, big fires," so we seem to have hit something, But you can never tell with incendiaries - it's usually just the magnesium that makes the show. As Bob circled for a look-see. Red, blue and yellow flames had now appeared all along the waterfront and we wondered whether this was the work of the Wimpeys who were to take off just behind us. Note: Later we heard that the Wimpeys were cancelled so we credited ourselves with the firework display. Bob chose to go home overland. The long tedious journey was enlivened toward the end by flak from Tobruk, El Adem, Bardia, Solum and Sidi Barrani. Bob likes to tease them into activity "Keep the dozy beggars hopping," he says. By then we were replete on stewed steak from the wide-necked thermos so we sat back and enjoyed the show. I wonder what Doc Turner thought of it all?
Just as I finished that account - scribbling in the Ops tent with Jock on the line to Group - Bob wandered in, clapped me on the shoulder and asked cheerfully; "How about having crack at Benghazi tonight?" Tonight? We were there last night! You don't say you'd rather not to your CO. I muttered: "Sure." What else? "We're going over every night till the 20th. - ten raids, six aircraft on each. We have to obliterate the mole to interfere with the landing of tanks. New moon. I've had a word with `Flight'. Work a take off time with Jock and tell me. I'll be in my tent. He knows the crews."
I thought: I bet he's planning to lead every raid. I've come to the conclusion that Bob doesn't altogether trust the ability of anyone but himself.
Crews: (Bob -pilot, Tommy- Wop/Ag, M Shekleton -Obs.) passenger Doc Turner (Andy -pilot, Peter -Obs, ?? -Wop/Ag) (Dickie -pilot, Durrant -Obs, ??? -Wop/Ag)
So here I am in the Mess having done yet another night raid on Benghazi. I'm having a `loungy' morning. Feel I've earned it. I was pretty low even before we started out: tummy out of order, haven't eaten a square meal for three days.
Blair and Tony Irvine were to fly as our 2 and 3. We assembled at the satellite at 2.30 pm when we discovered that Stewart, our new gunner, was not with us. Dickie, who had driven us over, volunteered to take his place and to my surprise Bob said okay. Dickie has never operated a gun turret, still less the radio! At that point I discovered I had come without the thick roll-neck sweater and corduroy trousers I usually wear under my Sidcot. Must be going crackers!
It had been decided we should go down to Siwa, refuel there, and reach our target from landward. We made Siwa on ETA but had a little trouble locating the landing strip. Bad nav. by me - I was to do worse. The wind in Libya is always westerly and usually quite strong. It disappears at 9000ft. Hence we always fly there above 9000ft. and home below. Our track from Siwa was a single bearing, but on this trip there had been a bit of wind and we arrived north of Benghazi instead of south as we'd intended. This wrecked the attack plan. Bob took us out to sea then turned back to attack on our usual track. We had lost the advantage of surprise. We'd been due at 6.45 and it was now 7 o'clock. But the Wimpeys, who were due to bomb ahead of us clearly had not arrived. The flak only started as we bombed. There was now a balloon barrage and low level bombing was out. Diving down to 5000ft. we laid our stick along the center mole which was lined with merchant ships and sped away inland.
The bombing had been pretty good. We left three ships on fire. The trip back was foul. I have never felt so cold and miserable. Even the hot stew failed to cheer me up. Bob flew us above cloud. There was a sliver of moon but it soon disappeared. Miraculously the others had joined up with us and the dummy flare path came up on ETA. We were all home intact.
While we were away there had been several small excitements. An Iti recce plane came over doing photo runs. His arrival coincided with the takeoff of the weekenders and he departed hurriedly. Collie, expecting Waterloo to be raided this evening had ordered our remaining a/c to the satellites but it was Fuka that got the pasting.
I signaled our arrival with the letter-of-the-day and Dickie, awake thank goodness, picked up a weak ground reply. Bob tuned back and the flight landed neatly in the glare of the Chance Light. Jock met us with a pickup. He said men's side of the camp had been plastered with `thermos' bombs - so called because they resemble the ordinary flasks. They are powerful enough to knock out a three-tonner. To clear them we have to borrow a special half-track from the Army. It had a long arm with flailing chains. It will be bang, bang, bang all day tomorrow.
Peter and I are fed-up. We are tired and need a holiday. We have born the brunt of the night raiding because of our supposed skill as navigators. The truth of the matter is, I suspect, that our veteran flight commanders would manage very well without us.
Blair -pilot, Irvine -pilot, Stewart -Wop/Ag, Bob, Dickie, Jock, Peter
The mess hut is to have a concrete floor poured today. Perhaps we'll have less sand in our drinks. The chameleons are getting so fat on the flies they look as if they might burst.
The Italian radio reporting in English said tonight that `large enemy troop concentrations at Mersa Matruh and Maaten Bagush were heavily bombed. All our aircraft returned safely.' They hit Fuka, too, and killed an airman.
Bob, with me and Jock as passenger, plus Dickie/Durrant plus Mann/Bourne had a bash at Benghazi again tonight. The moon was helpful and I did everything `proper', thank goodness. Benghazi has been hit by about 20 a/c every night for the past week. They must be getting very cross with us. One Wellington is worth three Blenheims, and they are there every night, it seems. Benghazi has this trick of putting up blinding white parachute flares, presumably to aid their gunners. As they descend they illuminate the ground and on occasion are quite helpful to the bomb-aimer if he's in the right place at the right time. Incidentally they show up the balloons, too, which are at about 2000ft.
We arrived tonight from inland, crossed the coast just south of the harbour, which started up a bit of optimistic flak. After going about 30 miles out to sea Bob turned in and we could see the white of the surf. He throttled right back and began losing height. My ears popped and it seemed we were on tiptoe. The little blue exhaust flames seemed very bright. At last in line astern and at +9 we went in like dingbats We had a hang-up of a 250 but it came unstuck as we circled and started a small fire, "Nice bombing," muttered Bob, sarcastically. (Say what you like I greatly admire my bomb aiming, being quite sure that on several occasions the damn things have hit what I was aiming at.)
On the way home Bob had one of aggressive spells, saw a light on the ground, dived at it and squirted it with every round of his front gun. It could have been some poor wretched Bedouin with his camel. But no, it was a bit of Italian army because we were at once rewarded with some pretty tracer trails. He obviously wanted Jock to have a good outing and put up the barrages successively at Benina, Gazala, Tobruk, Gubbi and Bardia. He liked, as he said, to keep `em on their toes. I thought the waste of ammo quite good, too. Jock grinned - whether with pleasure or nerves I wasn't sure.
The wonderful chap at Ras el Kenayis point with the Aldiss was not on his lonely vigil tonight. Bob circled and I pooped off a Very of the right colour but no response. We were a bit eastward because Mersa put up a bit of flak, helpfully giving us position. We found a dummy flare path. Answering our Aldiss they gave us a triple-red, indicating `enemy aircraft about' and almost at once the strip received a stick of heavy stuff. Wonderful chaps down there. What an awful job! I hope they have a deep bunker. Zimla was a bit dumb at first but finally responded to our belly-light signals with three Zs meaning okay to land but no Chance Light. Rather than going on to Fuka, Bob chose to land regardless put us down perfectly abreast the first glim. Dickie, close behind us followed suit, but there was no sign of Mann.
We standing around chatting, speculating about what could have happened to him, when abruptly a twin-engined a/c roared down the strip. Some silly ass gave him an Aldiss and he turned to come back. "Caproni," called Bob and we all dove for the slit trench. A stick of small bombs came down 80yds to our left just missing the nearest tents. At that point `Tiny' Mann appeared cheerfully flashing the letter-of-the-day. The path crew stood him off for a while but we were all back in the Ops tent 30 mins later.
I saw Doc this am. I'm pretty run down and have a mouth full of ulcers. Doc gave me a bottle and said I `wasn't the only one'. In fact he had already seen the Winco medico at Group about the poor condition of 113's aircrew. "If that stuff doesn't fix you I'll send you to the Delta for an examination."
The important `do' to the south still hasn't come up We hang about waiting for orders each morning and get stood down about midday. We have been needlessly using up our nervous energy like this for months. Group really should put a stop to these leaks about pending operations and stop the `stand-by' nonsense.
CREWS: (Bob -pilot, M Shekleton -Obs, Tommy -Wop/Ag, Jock passenger) (Dickie -pilot, Durrant -Obs,) ('Tiny' Mann -pilot, Bourne -Obs.)
Benghazi was given a rest tonight and we did Derna instead, There was a lot of cloud about and early evening we had a light shower of rain. Yes, rain.
Blom, Grimbley and Andy did the dicing, trying to hit dispersed a/c but conditions were bad and they came home disappointed with their efforts. Andy, with Peter, had Ketton-Cremer, the IO as a passenger. A bunch of fighters appeared as they turned for home but they flew into a convenient cloud. Blom had his entire bomb-load hung. There will be some words with the armourers about that. Peter hasn't had much to say so I conclude it was all a bit of a shambles.
The Fuka bombing last night: six killed, thirteen wounded. Fuka seems to have become a favourite target. They get far more than we do. We hear the Wellingtons and the Bombays taking off most nights now. With their bomb-loads they must be doing a lot of damage.
We fly every day now but mostly it is dispersing the a/c in the evening to the satellites and bringing them back to Bir Zimla in the morning.
Found a little parcel from B on my bed tonight. Barley sugar and a sponge-bag and sponge, soap and toothpaste. My clever wife!!
The Italians have countered our Siwa by stationing a fighter squadron nearby.
Blomfield, Grimbley, Andy, Peter, Ketton-Cremer