Although the twin-engine Bristol Bombay was designed as a troop transport carrier in 1931, the economic conditions of the Great Depression delayed production until early 1939. While only 51 were produced, the Bristol Bombay, which was capable of carrying up to 24 troops or a payload of 7,200 lb, saw significant action for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the first half of the war, ferrying troops and supplies across the English Channel in 1940, evacuating British forces from Crete in 1941, and dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines in North Africa.
Members of L Detachment board a Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump as part of their parachute training at Kabrit. Those who successful completed their jumps were permitted to wear the SAS wings on the shoulder. (IWM E 6406)
The late 1930s marked the beginning of the end for the biplane in RAF service. Fighter and bomber designs migrated towards the latest monoplane configurations, and soon transport aircraft manufacturers began to follow suit.
Bristol’s Bombay was built to Air Ministry Specification C. 26/31, which called for a monoplane bomber-transport aircraft to replace Vickers Valentia biplanes primarily in service in the Middle East and India. The requirement demanded an aircraft that could carry 24 troops or an equivalent load of cargo, while carrying bombs and defensive guns for use as a bomber if required.
Whitworth’s A. W. 23 and the Handley Page HP. 52 (the latter eventually becoming the Harrow) were the Bombay’s rivals in the competition. The prototype Bristol Type 130 (K3583) performed its maiden flight on June 23, 1935 and appeared at the Hendon Air Pageant later that year. It would be named Bombay in April 1937.
It was not Bristol’s first attempt at a monoplane transport; the 1927 Bristol Bagshot had suffered from a lack of wing rigidity and the project was cancelled before it entered production. Therefore, the Bombay was subject to extensive research, and benefited from a strengthened multispar wing of steel strip construction.
Apart from the wing, the Bombay was of conventional format with a fixed tailwheel undercarriage. Its crew of three sat in an enclosed cockpit and the radio operator could double as nose gunner if needed. Eight 250lb (113kg) bombs could be carried on racks under the fuselage.
Although the prototype was powered by 750hp (560 kW) Bristol Pegasus III radial engines, driving two-bladed propellers, production variants had 1,010hp (753kW) Pegasus XXIIs with three-bladed Rotol variable-pitch propellers.
An order for 80 airframes was placed (although the final 30 were subsequently cancelled) but as Bristol’s Filton factory was busy building the more urgent Blenheim bomber, production aircraft were built by Short & Harland of Belfast.
FAR FLUNG SERVICE
The first production Bombay flew in March 1939, and the type entered service with 216 Squadron at Heliopolis in Egypt in November that year. Initially the aircraft served alongside Vickers Valentia biplanes and the unit did not become an exclusive Bombay operator until as late as September 1941.
The squadron retired its final example in May 1943 when Douglas Dakotas assumed their role in Egypt. Throughout that period some 30 Bombays flew with 216 Squadron and, in addition to flying cargo and passengers, the type served as a night bomber along the African coast. During some missions, the standard underslung bombload was supplemented by improvised bombs thrown out of the cargo door by hand.
Bombays also participated in the evacuation of Crete and later rescued more than 2,000 wounded during the Sicily campaign in 1943. The aircraft also made the first aerial paradrop in the Middle East (at Tmimi, Libya) in November 1941 – the `passengers’ that day were members of the fledgling Special Air Service on their first official operation in the Middle East.
Bombays were also involved in the support of allied aircraft behind enemy lines and dropped troops in both Syria and Egypt. Other aircraft were allocated to 117 Squadron at Khartoum between April and November 1941 whereas, nearer to home, Bombays flew much needed supplies across the Channel to France in support of the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940.
The following month, French pilot Jean-Francois Demozay liberated an abandoned Bombay to ferry himself and 15 troops from France to England. He would then join the RAF and achieve ace status.
Although the type was to all extents and purposes obsolete by the time it entered service, the final three examples (L5827, L5831 and L5842) operated in North Africa until August 1944.
The force initially consisted of five officers and 60 other ranks. Following extensive training at Kabrit camp, by the River Nile, L Detachment, SAS Brigade undertook its first operation. Operation Squatter was a parachute drop behind the enemy lines in support of Operation Crusader, they would attack airfields at Gazala and Timimi on the night 16/17 November 1941. Unfortunately because of enemy resistance and adverse weather conditions the mission was a disaster, 22 men were killed or captured – one third of the men employed. Allowed another chance they recruited men from the Layforce Commando, which was in the process of disbanding.
Stirling’s plan was to drop his men between these two vast opposing armies and attack the Axis airfields at Gazala and Timimi in eastern Libya at midnight on 17 November. On the day of his birthday Stirling wrote to his mother, telling her that: ‘It is the best possible type of operation and will be far more exciting than dangerous.”‘
That same day, wrote DuVivier in his diary, Stirling revealed the nature of their operation for the first time. ‘The plans and maps were unsealed, explained and studied until each man knew his job by heart. There was a lot of work to be done such as preparing explosives, weapons and rations.’
Stirling hadn’t a full complement of men for the operation. Several soldiers, including Lieutenant Bill Fraser and Private Jock Byrne, were recovering from injuries sustained during parachute training. In total Stirling had at his disposal 54 men, whom he divided into four sections under his overall command. Lewes was to lead numbers one and two sections and Blair Mayne would be in charge sections three and four.
Mayne’s two sections comprised 21 men in total and his second-in-command was Lieutenant Charles Bonington. Their objective was the airfield at Timimi, a coastal strip west of Tobruk which was flat and rocky and pitted with shallow wadis. It was hot during the day and cool at night and apart from esparto grass and acacia scrub there was scant vegetation. The plan was simple: once the two sections had rendezvoused in the desert following the night-time parachute drop on 16 November, they would march to within five miles of the target before lying up during the daylight hours of 17 November. The attack would commence at one minute to midnight on the 17th with Bonington leading three section on to the airfield from the east. Mayne and four section would come in from the south and west, and for 15 minutes they were to plant their bombs on the aircraft without alerting the enemy to their presence. At quarter past midnight the raiders could use their weapons and instantaneous fuses at their discretion.
At dawn on 16 November Stirling and his 54 men left Kabrit for their forward landing ground of Bagoush, approximately 300 miles to the west. Once there they found the R A F had been thoughtful in their welcome. ’The officers’ mess was put at our disposal and we kicked off with a first-rate meal after which there were books, games, wireless and a bottle of beer each, all to keep our minds off the coming event,’ wrote DuVivier in his diary.
He was in Jock Lewes’s 11-man section, along with Jimmy Storie, Johnny Cooper and Pat Riley, and it wasn’t long before they sensed something wasn’t quite right. Stirling and the other officers were unusually tense and all was revealed a little while before the operation was due to commence when they were addressed by their commanding officer. Stirling informed his men that weather reports indicated a fierce storm was brewing over the target area, one that would include winds of 30 knots.
The Brigadier General Staff coordinator, Sandy Galloway, was of the opinion that the mission should be aborted. Dropping by parachute in those wind speeds, and on a moonless night, would be hazardous in the extreme. Stirling was loathe to scrub the mission; after all, when might they get another chance to prove their worth? He asked his men what they thought and unanimously they agreed to press ahead.
At 1830 hours a fleet of trucks arrived at the officers’ mess to transport the men to the five Bristol Bombay aircraft that would fly them to the target area. DuVivier ‘muttered a silent prayer and put myself in God’s hands’ as he climbed aboard.
Du Vivier’s was the third aircraft to take off, behind Stirling’s and Lieutenant Eoin McGonigal’s. Bonington and his nine men were on the fourth plane and Mayne’s section was on the fifth. Each aircraft carried five (or in some cases, six) canisters inside which were two packs containing weapons, spare ammunition, fuses, explosives, blankets and rations.
The men would jump wearing standard issue desert shirts and shorts with skeleton web equipment on their backs containing an entrenching tool. A small haversack was carried by each man inside which was grenades, food (consisting of dates, raisins, cheese, biscuits, sweets and chocolate), a revolver, maps and a compass. Mechanics’ overalls were worn over all of this to ensure none of the equipment was caught in the parachute rigging lines during the drop.
Mayne’s aircraft took-off 40 minutes behind schedule, at 2020 hours instead of 1940 hours, though unlike the other planes they reached the drop zone (DZ) without attracting the unwanted attention of enemy anti-aircraft (AA) batteries. At 2230 hours they jumped with Mayne describing subsequent events in his operational report:
As the section was descending there were flashes on the ground and reports which I then thought was small-arms fire. But on reaching the ground no enemy was found so I concluded that the report had been caused by detonators exploding in packs whose parachutes had failed to open.
The landing was unpleasant. I estimated the wind speed at 20—25 miles per hour, and the ground was studded with thorny bushes.
Two men were injured here. Pet [parachutist] Arnold sprained both ankles and Pet Kendall bruised or damaged his leg.
An extensive search was made for the containers, lasting until 0130 hours 17/11/41, but only four packs and two TSMGs [Thompson sub-machine guns] were located.
I left the two injured men there, instructed them to remain there that night, and in the morning find and bury any containers in the area, and then to make to the RV [rendezvous point] which I estimated at 15 miles away.
It was too late to carry out my original plan of lying west of Timimi as I had only five hours of darkness left, so I decided to lie up on the southern side. I then had eight men, 16 bombs, 14 water bottles and food as originally laid for four men, and four blankets.
Mayne and his men marched for three-and-a-half miles before laying up in a wadi. He estimated they’d covered six miles and were approximately five miles from the target. When daylight broke on the 17th, a dawn reconnaissance revealed they were six miles from the airfield, on which were 17 aircraft.
Back in the wadi, Mayne informed his men of the plan: they would move forward to attack the target at 2050 hours with each man carrying two bombs. He and Sergeant Edward McDonald would carry the Thompson sub-machine guns. Until then they would lie up in the wadi. But as Mayne noted later in his report the weather intervened:
At 1730 hours it commenced to rain heavily. After about half an hour the wadi became a river, and as the men were lying concealed in the middle of bushes it took them some time getting to higher ground. It kept on raining and we were unable to find shelter. An hour later I tried two of the time pencils and they did not work. Even if we had been able to keep them dry, it would not, in my opinion, have been practicable to have used them, as during the half-hour delay on the plane the rain would have rendered them useless. I tried the instantaneous fuses and they did not work either.
Mayne postponed the attack and he and his men endured a miserable night in the wadi. The rain eased the next morning, 18 November, but the sky was grey and the temperature cool; realising that the fuses wouldn’t dry, Mayne aborted the mission and headed south. Though bitterly disappointed that he hadn’t been able to attack the enemy, the Irishman was nonetheless pleased with the way his men had conducted themselves in arduous circumstances: ‘The whole section,’ he wrote, ‘behaved extremely well and although lacerated and bruised in varying degrees by their landing, and wet and numb with cold, remained cheerful.’
Mayne led his men to the RV, a point near the Rotondo Segnali on a desert track called theTrig-al-Abd 34 miles inland from both Gazala and Timimi airfields, at dawn on 20 November. Waiting for them were members of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), who a few hours earlier had taken custody of Jock Lewes’s stick. They welcomed members of Mayne’s section with bully beef and mugs of tea and the men swapped horror stories.’It was extraordinary really that our entire stick landed without injury because the wind when you jumped was ferocious and of course you couldn’t see the ground coming up,’ recalled Johnny Cooper.’I hit the desert with quite a bump and was then dragged along by the wind at quite a speed. When I came to rest I staggered rather groggily to my feet, feeling sure I would find a few broken bones but to my astonishment I seemed to [have] nothing worse than the wind momentarily knocked out of me. There was a sudden rush of relief but then of course, I looked around me and realised I was all alone and, well, God knows where.’
Lewes and his men had jumped in a well-organised stick, the Welshman dropping first with each successive man instructed to bury his parachute upon landing and wait where he was. Lewes intended to move back along the compass bearing of the aircraft, collecting No. 2 jumper, then No. 3 and so on, what he called ‘rolling up the stick’. But the wind had dragged Jeff DuVivier for 150 yards until finally he snagged on a thorn bush, allowing him a chance to take stock of the situation.’When I finally freed myself, I was bruised and bleeding and there was a sharp pain in my right leg,’ he wrote in his diary.’When I saw the rocky ground I’d travelled over, I thanked my lucky stars that I was alive.’
Eventually DuVivier found the rest of the stick and joined his comrades in searching for the containers. ‘We couldn’t find most of the containers with our equipment so Jock Lewes gathered us round and said that we’d still try and carry out the attack if we can find the target,’ said Cooper.
They marched through the night and laid up at 0930 hours the next morning. Sergeant Pat Riley was sent forward to reconnoitre the area and returned to tell Lewes that there was no sign of the Gazala airfield and in his opinion they had been dropped much further south than planned. Nonetheless Lewes decided to continue and at 1400 hours they departed the wadi and headed north for eight miles. But in the late afternoon the weather turned against them once more and the heavens opened, soaking the men and their explosives. ’The lightning was terrific,’recalled DuVivier.’And how it rained! The compass was going round in circles. We were getting nowhere. And we were wallowing up to our knees in water. I remember seeing tortoises swimming about.’
Lewes, with the same grim reluctance as Mayne, informed the men that the operation was aborted and they would head south towards the RV. The hours that followed tested the resolve of all the men, even Lewes who, cold, hungry and exhausted like the rest of his section, temporarily handed command to Riley, the one man who seemed oblivious to the tempest. DuVivier acknowledged Riley’s strength in his diary: ‘I must mention here Pat Riley, an ex-Guardsman and policeman… I shall always be indebted to him for what he did. I’m sure he was for the most part responsible for our return.’
The rain eased and the wind dropped the next morning (18 November) but it was another 36 hours before Lewes and his section made contact with the LRDG . The return of Mayne’s stick took the number of survivors to 19. A few hours later the figure increased by two when David Stirling and Sergeant Bob Tait were brought in by a LRDG patrol. In Tait’s operational report he described how their aircraft was delayed in its approach to Gazala by strong winds and heavy AA fire. When they did eventually jump they ‘all made very bad landings which resulted in various minor injuries. They had considerable difficulty in assembling, and Sergt Cheyne was not seen again.
Sir William Henry Ewart ‘Strafer’ Gott
The haphazard and discursive attempts to find a general qualified to lead the Eighth Army into battle came to an abrupt end that afternoon when news arrived that Gott, who had been appointed to command the Eighth Army, had died in a plane crash. He had hitched a lift from the RAF’s headquarters at Borg el Arab for a few days’ leave in Cairo in a transport plane carrying fourteen wounded soldiers. Fifteen minutes after take-off, on what was a routine flight along a ‘safe’ corridor, the Bristol Bombay, lumbering along at less than 200 mph, was attacked by a small posse of Messerschmitt fighters. Within moments the Bombay was in flames. The pilot managed to make a safe landing (and survived), but most of the wounded were trapped inside, and Gott, who was sitting in a jump seat at the rear of the plane, was incinerated in the burning fuselage. The news of his death shocked and grieved Churchill who, only the day before, in the course of a long drive with the XIII Corps commander, convinced himself, as he wrote to Clemmie, that he was blessed with ‘high ability, charming simple personality, and that he was in no way tired as was alleged’.
Bombays in RAF service
Bombays were produced between March 1939 and June 1940. None had entered service until the war had actually begun – despite its rather antiquated appearance!
Three RAF squadrons operated the type, but only two during 1940:
216 squadron (at Heliopolis, El Khanka and Cairo West in Egypt) from November 1939 to May 1943.
117 squadron (at Khartoum, Sudan) from April to November 1941.
271 squadron was the only home-based Bombay unit, operating eleven examples between May 1940 to February 1944 from Doncaster, Hendon and Errol.
No.15 Sqn of SAAF used Bombays in summer 1942 in Africa.
Some of these aircraft were based at Kufra oasis.