Malta – The Modern Crusaders III

Blenheim Mk IV

On the 11th 107 Squadron found a convoy in the Gulf of Sirte escorted by one twin-engined monoplane. Flying Officer Ronald Arthur Greenhill hit a large motor vessel forward and his aircraft was then seen by Sergeant Harrison to be hit in the belly and crash in the sea as he climbed over the ship. Sergeant Ivor Broom attacked the same vessel and hit it aft and left the vessel in flames with grey smoke pouring from it. He was chased by the escort plane which did not get within firing range. Harrison saw Sergeant Routh attack a small cargo boat, set it on fire and then crash into the sea having been hit by guns from the large motor vessel. Sergeants Leven, Baker and Hopkinson did not make an attack and brought back their bombs. In the afternoon of 11 October a convoy consisting of the steamer Priaruggia, the tanker Fassio, escorted by the corvette Partenope, which left Tripoli at 1600 hours on 10 October, was attacked by three Blenheims in low-level flight. While turning and climbing the Blenheims dropped a series of small bombs and strafed the convoy with machine guns. Of the bombs, one hit Priaruggia at the base of the funnel. Almost at the same time, two Blenheims appeared to be hit by the precise fire of Partenope, one in a staggering turn trying to touch down on the water, hitting hard and then dived into the sea breaking up. The other, on fire, still managed a half turn and then dived into the sea nose first, vanishing completely. The third Blenheim carried out a wide turn and then continued to remain cruising for some minutes. One of the Blenheims, which prior to crashing, hit the foremast of the Priaruggia, bursting into flames and breaking off the mast. The Priaruggia must have appeared very badly hit, but the Fassio was neither hit nor attacked. The episode shows very clearly the dangers the pilots on Malta exposed themselves to and the brutal and very quick end that awaited most of them. Fassio arrived in Benghasi on 13 October. The lost Blenheims were Z7618 and Z9663. While Sergeant Whidden survived the crash, he died of his wounds in hospital shortly after. Their loss was not completely in vain however. Priaruggia was badly enough damaged that she had to return in tow to Tripoli after an initial stay at Misurata. When she arrived (still with the same cargo, including ammunition) in Benghazi six weeks later, after the conclusion of repairs, she was bombed on the night of her arrival and all her cargo was lost when she blew up.

‘Mid-October saw the arrival of a detachment on 18 Squadron, who were to remain on Malta until the end of the campaign, replacing the surviving personnel on 105 Squadron, who arrived back in the UK on 11 October. The casualty rate was rising at an alarming rate, for instance, the new commander of 107 Squadron was lost on 9 October, followed a few days later by his deputy, Squadron Leader Barnes. By the end of the month the squadron had no commissioned officer pilots left, command falling on the shoulders of Sergeant Ivor Broom, who was awarded an immediate commission. Ivor and his crew of Sergeant ‘Bill’ North, observer and Sergeant Les Harrison, WOp/AG had been on their way to North Africa when they had been hi-jacked by Hugh Pughe-Lloyd. During the remainder of October, raids were concentrated on Axis targets in North Africa, although Sicily was not forgotten. On the 17th six Blenheims of 18 Squadron with an escort of Hurricanes carried out a successful ‘Circus’ attack on the enemy’s seaplane base at Syracuse, with other low-level operations being directed against factories at Licata and Catania.

The first major success in November occurred on the 5th, when six crews of 18 Squadron found and attacked two 3,000 ton tankers escorted by a destroyer. They had to pay a high price for their success, as two of the Blenheims were shot down. On the 8th six crews from 107 Squadron found a merchantman escorted by a destroyer, a desperate battle ensued with one Blenheim, on being hit by flak crashed into the ship’s mast and exploded. Another was hit in the turret, yet despite this, the survivors made a further four attacks without gaining any hits on their target. A follow-up attack was carried out by six crews of ..8 Squadron, who lost two of their number without being able to sink the merchantman. Successful attacks during the same period were carried out in low-level raids on Mellaha airfield, a 4,000 tonner off Cape Kiri and on another convoy of three merchantmen.

About this time a crew arrived in Malta, en-route to Egypt and were ‘press-ganged’ into service on 107 Squadron. They ‘were three inexperienced Sergeants’, Ray Noseda RAAF, pilot, Freddie Deeks, observer and Webber, WOp/Air Gunner, who had the good fortune to survive a full tour of operations from Malta before the end of January 1942. I got to know Freddie Deeks when we flew our second tour together on Douglas Bostons on 88 Squadron during 1942-43. Their arrival coincided with a decision by the German High Command to neutralise Malta as a base for Allied shipping and to stop the attacks on their convoys by the bombers of the RAF. The task was given to Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who transferred aircraft from the Russian Front to supplement those already in Sicily, Pantellaria and North Africa. So, with a force of 600 bombers and a large number of fighters, the Luftwaffe set about the task of bombing Malta into submission and with only three Hurricane squadrons to oppose them, success seemed highly probable. The courageous resistance of the islanders is now a matter of history, as indicated by the award of the George Cross. The citation reads: ‘To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history’.

In his story of air power, Philip Guedalla relates in his book Middle East 1940-42: ‘Hitherto no more than seventy aircraft had been operating weekly against Malta and they rarely came more than twenty at a time. But in December the weekly number rose to two hundred and the weight of bombs dropped on the island was multiplied by ten. This was doubled in the first eight weeks of1942 and quadrupled in March. By April, as the Axis shipping lanes were crowded with supplies for Rommel’s next advance in Libya, the air attacks on Malta mounted to a crescendo and the island’s ability to influence events in Africa, which had still been exercised against shipping at Palermo early in March, was practically paralysed. For April saw Malta fighting for its life’.

At the end of November the crew of a Martin Maryland recce’ aircraft located a fast new 10,000 ton tanker leaving Naples en-route to Africa escorted by a destroyer. Crews on 18 and 107 Squadrons found and attacked this highly desirable target off Tripoli, following the Blenheims’ first attack the tanker’s seamen abandoned ship. On the same day four other Blenheims bombed train ferries at San Giorvani, which is the Italian terminus for the ferry from the mainland to Sicily.

The Blenheim losses continued. In bad weather on 8 December 1941 during an attack on shipping off Catania two Blenheims collided and were lost. These were followed three days later during an attack on the harbour at Argostoli when another was shot down. Then on the 12th, two out of six 18 Squadron Blenheims were shot down during an attack on a heavily defended convoy. On the 13th Ivor Broom – now a Pilot Officer – led six Blenheims on 107 Squadron in a further attack on the harbour at Argostoli. The second vic was led by Sergeant E. Crossley on his second detachment to Malta, who is described by Freddie Deeks as one of the many unsung heroes. Sadly, this courageous young pilot and his crew were shot down and killed on 24 December in an attack on shipping in Zuara harbour.

One notable and highly successful raid that took place during the afternoon of 4 January 1942, in which the only serviceable Blenheims totalled ten, from 18 and 107 Squadrons, took part. Due to the winter weather there were only four serviceable Italian airfields in Sicily and the best of these was at Castel Vetrano. The ten bombers crossed the Sicilian coast at low-level, flying up a deep valley on their way to the target. As they drew closer they could see the grounded enemy aircraft silhouetted against the skyline, presenting a perfect target. They flew across the airfield line abreast, bombing and machine-gunning the aircraft, which were lined up wing-tip to wing-tip. At least thirty of these aircraft were destroyed, many others seriously damaged and a great many service personnel killed or injured. The enemy had been taken completely by surprise and the raid provoked no opposition.

That night Wellingtons followed the above attack with another raid, destroying a further fourteen enemy aircraft. Then on 14 January in a shipping strike along the North African coast four Blenheims found and attacked a 4,000 ton motor vessel escorted by a destroyer. The merchantman was damaged, but only one of the bombers returned to Malta.

About this time a detachment on 21 Squadron arrived at Luqa, the same squadron who had supplied the six crews who had made the exploratory flight to Malta in May 1941. Had any of the original six crews arrived they would have found it to be a very different place, with the increased activity of the Axis Air Forces, the airfield being bombed regularly and Blenheims being destroyed on the ground.

On 4 February the new boys’ despatched six of their crews to bomb shipping in Palermo harbour, an operation which, without any interference from the enemy, went disastrously wrong. First of all they made the wrong landfall and as they turned to correct this fault, the wingtip of one of the Blenheims touched the sea and it piled straight in. Having missed the original target the remaining five crews dropped their bombs on a goods train and a railway bridge, when they found themselves heading straight for the hills, which were shrouded in cloud. Unable to gain sufficient height to clear the hills they sought in vain for a valley. Tragically, three of the Blenheims crashed into the hillsides, leaving two shattered crews to fly back to Luqa.

Returning to base became increasingly dangerous as German fighters were likely to be waiting for them, as happened on 6 February, when three Blenheims returning to Malta from a shipping sweep, were shot down by Me 109s. There were no survivors. Five days later, three more Blenheims came in for the same treatment although, on this occasion, only one of them was shot down.

During the second half of February the few serviceable Blenheims were engaged on flying shipping sweeps off the Balkan coast, almost at the limit of their fuel endurance, although the bad weather cut down the number of successes. The Blenheim campaign from Malta was brought to an end when, due to the sustained attack on the island, it was no longer feasible to maintain the offensive. All the fuel and supplies which managed to reach the island in the convoys, which were under attack from enemy submarines, surface vessels and bombers, were needed for the defence of Malta and it’s naval base of Valletta.

During March the three remaining units, 18, 21 and 107 Squadrons, or what was left of them, departed to be reformed in England with new personnel, the personnel who had served them being absorbed into Middle East units.

What had the Blenheims achieved in waging this very costly campaign? By January 1942 Rommel had only three days of supplies left for his armies and nearly all his oil tankers had been sunk, also the passage of enemy shipping from Italy via the west coast of Sicily had been brought to a halt. As a bonus, the Blenheim and its crews had been largely responsible for persuading the Germans to withdraw Luftwaffe units from the Russian Front for the onslaught on Malta.

 

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