Beverley aircraft in RAF service

Despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps load a Land Rover of the 1st Guards Brigade into a Beverley heavy-load transport during Exercise Starlight, near RAF El Adem, Libya, March 1960. El Adem, situated near Tobruk, was a hub for Transport Command exercises. In March 1960, Exercise Starlight, tested the RAF’s ability to supply an advancing army solely by air. During the exercise twelve Beverleys of 47 and 53 Squadrons from RAF Abingdon undertook 194 sorties transporting 3,329 Guardsmen and 272 RAF personnel, 370 vehicles, 272 trailers, 40 guns and 1,546,5591b of freight from El Adem to an airhead at Tmimi. Pioneers and Whirlwinds then provided the troops with landed supplies, followed by the Beverleys undertaking air drops. RAF El Adem was also a major staging post for aircraft heading to the Middle East and Far East. It closed when the RAF left Libya in 1969 following a revolution in the country.

Beverley C.I XB284 of 47 Squadron based at RAF Abingdon, c. 1957. At the time of its introduction in March 1956, the Beverley was the largest aircraft ever operated by the RAF. It became the backbone of RAF tactical transport during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Forty-seven were delivered, serving with 30, 47 and 53 Squadrons based at RAF Abingdon, 34 Squadron at RAF Seletar in Singapore and 84 Squadron at RAF Khormaksar in Aden. For its size, it had a remarkable short takeoff and landing capability, which proved useful when operating during the campaigns in Borneo and Aden. Air drops could be made from the rear of the fuselage, for which the doors were removed pre-flight, while parachute troops could also be dropped from a hatch in the tail boom. XB284 was transferred to 84 Squadron in July 1967. In September 1967, all remaining Beverleys, including XB284, were retired and struck off charge.

In March 1956, the first Beverley C.1 was delivered to 47 Squadron at RAF Abingdon. Among the Beverley’s first tasks was the delivery of Sycamore and Whirlwind helicopters to Cyprus. Over short distances, the Beverley could carry up to ninety passengers, seventy paratroopers or a payload of 20 tons (44,000lb), which for the first time could be loaded and dropped from the rear fuselage.

Emergency aid for Hungary

In October 1956, following an unsuccessful uprising by the Hungarians against the occupying Soviet forces, Valetta C.1 aircraft of 30 Squadron, normally based at RAF Dishforth, flew emergency aid and medical supplies from RAF Wildenrath, Germany, into Vienna to provide assistance for around 100,000 Hungarian refugees who had escaped the Red Army by moving across the border into Austria. A total fleet of twenty-one aircraft (including Transport Command Hastings and Beverley C.1 aircraft) eventually flew a combined load of 112 tons of aid on behalf of the Red Cross.

King Hussein requests assistance

From 1955, the Soviet Union had provided military aid to both Egypt and Syria, including the supply of aircraft and the building of airfields in Syria. These airfields, located to the west of Syria, clearly threatened Lebanese and Jordanian integrity. In February 1958, the United Arab Republic (UAR) was formed between Egypt and Syria. Simultaneously, Iraq and Jordan agreed to an anti-communist, anti-Nasser Federation. The tension at the eastern end of the Mediterranean grew with a revolt in Lebanon and, following the assassination of the Iraqi president, King Hussein of Jordan appealed to Britain on 16 July for assistance in maintaining stability.

The request was immediately supported and on the following morning 200 troops were moved to Amman from Cyprus by Hastings aircraft of 70 Squadron. For a time they seemed to be isolated, since Israel temporarily refused permission for further overflights. After pressure from the US Government, Israel relented and successive flights of RAF transport aircraft were escorted by US Navy fighters from the Sixth Fleet.

By 18 July, 2,200 troops were in Amman with light artillery support. Reinforcements had been flown into Cyprus by Comet C.2s of Transport Command’s 216 Squadron, assisted by Shackleton aircraft drawn from 42 and 204 Squadron. Meanwhile Beverley C.1 aircraft (including a number from Transport Command squadrons) flew in heavy equipment from Cyprus. The troops were followed by a detachment of Hunter F.6 aircraft from 208 Squadron on 20 July from Akrotiri.

King Hussein established a pledge of loyalty from the powerful Bedouin tribes on 11 August and British troops began withdrawing after a UN resolution called for an end to Western intervention later in the month. The last British troops left on 2 November 1958.

38 Group and Starlight

In January 1960, 38 Group was set-up within Transport Command. Its first major strategic task was the detailed planning and execution of Exercise Starlight in March 1960. The exercise was held to test the deployment of the air-portable strategic reserve from the UK to an ‘undeveloped country’ and the maintenance of air support during the period of operations. The aggressor was a ‘middle-eastern country with modern weapons, including tanks’. The strategic airhead was at El Adem, and by the end of the exercise the brigade airhead had moved forward some 60 miles to Tmimi with the ground forces a further 50 miles beyond that (at the limit of air supply by Beverley aircraft). A total of 3,550 personnel, 670 vehicles and trailers, 40 guns and almost 900 tons of cargo were moved through Tmimi. The RAF forces involved were Britannia aircraft of 99 Squadron; twelve Beverley aircraft of numbers 47 and 53 Squadrons; and four Hastings aircraft, all providing strategic airlift; with eight Pioneers from 230 Squadron and twelve Whirlwind helicopters from 225 Squadron operating short-range air supply flights in-theatre.

Not all of the tasks could be planned to the same extent as Starlight was. Very often, Transport Command was called upon to assist with natural disasters, all over the globe. Early in 1961, the RAF brought relief to tribesmen in the northern provinces of Kenya where serious famine had resulted from failure of the rains the previous year. In Operation Maize Bag detachments of Beverley aircraft from numbers 47, 50 and 30 Squadrons flew thirty-one sorties dropping over 300,000 lb of maize, 20,000 lb of dried meat and 2,000 lb of dried milk. The supplies were dropped in 100-lb containers, in an area virtually inaccessible to overland transport.

Ironically, in the autumn of the same year, RAF transport aircraft from the UK and the Middle East Air Force were again called upon to help Kenyan Africans, now cut off by floods. Known as Operation Tana Flood and later extended into Somalia, almost 2,700 tons of food was dropped from the air. The RAF element also involved Twin Pioneer aircraft of the locally based 21 Squadron along with Valetta C.1 aircraft of 233 Squadron

From 1963, the RAF used the experience it had gained during the Malayan Emergency in an undeclared jungle war with Indonesia on the Island of Borneo. Ground forces operating from forward bases in remote parts of the island relied entirely on air power for reinforcement and resupply. Two Blackburn Beverleys from 34 Squadron and two Armstrong Whitworth Argosys from 215 Squadron from Singapore were detached to Labuan and Kuching to resupply troops via drop zones in the jungle. Pioneers and Twin Pioneers of 209 Squadron provided a light supply, troop lifts and casualty evacuation capability from forward airstrips, aided by Bristol Belvederes of 26 Squadron and by Whirlwinds of 103, 110, 225 and 230 Squadrons, which most notably inserted troops over the Indonesian border on secretive Claret operations. Between November 1964 and October 1965, the monthly average weight of stores delivered to front-line bases was nearly 3,000,000lb. In addition Javelins of 60 and 64 Squadrons and Hunters of 20 Squadron from Tengah, Labuan and Kuching undertook air defence patrols following an increasing number of incursions by the Indonesian Air Force.

 

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Big Wing

To Big Wing,or Not to Big Wing, Now an Answer

The weather throughout the remainder of 31 August 1940, which before the war would have been a Bank Holiday weekend with time to laze, remained mainly fair with haze in the Thames Estuary and the Straits of Dover, so there was still a chance of action. Finally, at around half past four, 242 Squadron were ordered off again. Wing Commander ‘Woody’ Woodhall, the Duxford Controller, ordered ‘242 Squadron scramble! Fly vector 190 degrees for North Weald. Angels 15’. North Weald is thirty miles south of Duxford and the usual way to have covered the airfield would be to patrol over the airfield and wait for the enemy to appear. The Hurricanes took off and took fifteen minutes to reach 15,000 feet but Bader ignored the request to ‘Vector one-nine-zero. Buster’. Instead he led the formation further west to get up-sun and climbed them to nearer 20,000 feet to gain full advantage of the attackers who he guessed correctly would approach from the west with the sun at their backs. The target for the Heinkel He 111H-2s of KG 53 escorted by Bf 110s of II./ZG 2, II./ZG 26 and II./ZG 76 was not North Weald as was thought, but the Vauxhall Motor Works at Luton. Just north of North Weald Bader received directions to vector 340 degrees. At about the same time he saw three unidentified aircraft below and to the right of the Squadron and ordered the three Hurricanes of Blue Section to investigate. At around 1700 hours Bader spotted a tight enemy formation stepped up from about 12,000 feet with their escort fighters at 15,000 to 20,000 feet, which he thought was fifty Dorniers escorted by a similar number of Bf 110s. Bader led his remaining Hurricanes down into the German formation west of the reservoirs at Enfield, heading for the Hatfield-North Weald area. He ordered Flying Officer George Patterson Christie, leading Green Section, to attack the top of the lower formation of Bf 110s. Christie, a twenty-three-year-old from Westmount, Quebec, who had joined the RAF in June 1937, was a former PRU pilot who had forced a Fiat BR 20 Cicogna (Stork) bomber down in the Mediterranean on 13 June despite his Spitfire being unarmed. He had joined 212 Squadron and was posted to 242 Squadron on 21 July. Christie made a head-on attack on a Bf 1103 of 5./ZG 2, which was being flown by Hauptmann Schuldt. The German pilot dived down off to starboard pursued by the Canadian from Calgary who kept on his tail and sprayed a burst from fifty yards astern. Oil began pouring from Schuldt’s starboard engine and the petrol tanks burst into flames. Doomed, the Bf 110 went into a vertical dive from 6,000 feet and hurtled straight down into Rochfords nursery garden at the rear of Nos 16 – 22 Durrants Road about 500 yards from the reservoir at Ponder’s End, killing the Hauptmann and his bordfunker, Unteroffizier Dyroff.

Red Section (Bader, McKnight and Crowley-Milling) and Yellow Section (Eric Ball, Dickie Cork and Sergeant Robert Henry Lonsdale) formed into line abreast to dive down through the middle of the bomber formation. Heavily outnumbered, Bader’s only aim was to try to break up the Heinkel formations and take the Bf 110s on individually in dogfights. It seemed to work because the tightly packed enemy formation immediately broke up fan-wise and they were badly mauled by the Hurricanes. 242 Squadron claimed eight Bf 110s destroyed, one probably destroyed and one damaged. The Squadron also claimed five Heinkels shot down.

As McKnight veered left Bader went right to attack two Bf 110s who made climbing turns to a nearly stalled position to try and get on the Hurricane leader’s tail. Bader reached the top of the zoom and pumped a short three-second burst at one of the Bf 110s at almost point blank range and the enemy fighter seemed to burst into flames. Bader then picked out another Bf 110 below and to his right just beginning its dive after a stalled turn. He turned in behind the Messerschmitt and fired a burst from about 150 yards’ range. The Bf 110 pilot tried to squirm out of it by pushing his stick violently backwards and forwards but the second time he tried it, Bader got in another burst, which knocked pieces off the starboard wing near the engine and then the whole of the starboard wing caught fire. The Bf 110 fell away to the right in a steep spiral dive. Bader was too busy looking around to notice if any of the crew got out and he noticed in his mirror another Bf 110 coming up from behind. He did a quick turn as six white streams of tracer poured from the fighter’s guns. Bader turned and the Bf 110 put its nose down. He tried to catch up but he could not so he did not fire any further bursts at it.

Pilot Officer Willie McKnight, the nose of whose Hurricane had a sharp-edged scythe dripping blood to symbolise death, the grim reaper, claimed three of the Messerschmitts. He recalled:

While patrolling with the squadron over North Weald, enemy were sighted on the left at about 1705 hours. The enemy aircraft were in a vic formation, stepped up from 12,000 to 18,000 feet. Attacked middle section of Me 110s and two enemy aircraft broke off to attack. Succeeded in getting behind one enemy and opened fire at approximately 100 yards. Enemy aircraft burst into flames and dived towards the ground. Next attacked He 111 formation and carried out a beam attack on nearest one, opening fire at approximately 150 to 20 yards. Port engine stopped and aircraft rolled over on back, finally starting to smoke, then burst into flames and crashed to earth. Lastly, was attacked by an Me 110 but succeeded in getting behind and followed him from 10,000 feet to 1,000 feet. Enemy aircraft used very steep turns for evasive action but finally straightened out. I opened fire from approximately thirty yards. Enemy’s starboard engine stopped and port engine burst into flame. Enemy crashed in flames alongside large reservoir. No return fire noticed from first two enemy but last machine used a large amount.

Crowley-Milling scored his first victory when he shot the belly out of a He 111H-2. He attacked the bomber alone and from astern, giving it a five-second burst. The rear gunner returned fire but he soon stopped as the doomed bomber went down. Crowley-Milling began following it but he had to break off to port when tracer bullets from a Bf 110 passed his starboard wing. Norrie Hart saw ‘Crow’s’ Heinkel go down. Hart attacked another Heinkel of 5./KG 1 piloted by Unteroffizier Burger and shot it down north of London. Burger and his four crew were all killed.

Yellow Section, led by Flight Lieutenant Eric Ball, also drew blood west of Enfield. Ball spotted a solitary Heinkel circling, diving and turning and he approached from behind out of the sun, closing to 100 yards and firing one-third of his ammunition. Both the Heinkel’s engines caught fire and the pilot crash-landed the bomber on an aerodrome full of cars near North Weald. With the sun still at his back Ball chased a straggling Bf 110 and knocked out one of the engines. The enemy fighter lost height rapidly and went down for his second victory. His No. 2, Dickie Cork, carried out a beam attack on a Bf 110 and set the port engine on fire. The enemy pilot frantically put the fighter into a stall turn but seconds later the Messerschmitt exploded on the ground. Sergeant Robert Lonsdale (‘Yellow 3’) got a lone Heinkel 111 with a ten-second burst from 300 to 50 yards range and it crashed in about the same area as Cork’s victim.

Green Section had gone for the Heinkels after the Bf 110s had quickly dispersed. Norrie Hart came across three He 111s in line about 1,000 feet below him and as he began his dive, he saw Eric Ball attacking the last one in the formation. Hart picked out the second Heinkel and a burst of fire from his guns sent it into a dive. Hart was about to follow the enemy down when he noticed that the first Heinkel was making a steep right-hand turn. He turned inside it and used all his remaining ammunition on the He 111 and it went down, crashing in a field with all the crew still aboard. Hart did not hang around because three Bf 110s began chasing him.

Noel Stansfield (‘Black 1’) saw a straggling He 111 and in the first of three attacks he silenced the rear gunner who had returned fire with cannon. The Heinkel’s port engine began smoking and the starboard motor stopped altogether. The Heinkel crashed on the same aerodrome near North Weald where Ball’s victim had come down. Three of the crew staggered out of the wrecked bomber. Meanwhile Sergeant George William Brimble (‘Black 2’), who was from Ward End, Birmingham, had followed Stansfield during the attack on the Heinkel and had fired at it from 250 yards. After watching Stansfield follow the Heinkel almost into the ground Brimble broke away and saw a Bf 110 making a gentle turn to port. He carried out a quarter-attack and it went down and soon crashed. As Brimble flew across to rejoin Stansfield a Bf 110 got him in his sights and opened fire. Brimble returned fire at 350 yards’ range and the enemy machine dived violently down but he lost sight of it when another Bf 110 got on his tail.

On the way home to Duxford Bader picked up Green Leader (George Christie) and Blue Section, who were highly disgruntled having missed the battle and not even firing a single round in anger. Six Heinkels were actually lost and two returned to base badly damaged while four Bf 110s were actually lost and three returned to base damaged. The Heinkels that did get through to their target badly hit the Vauxhall Works and fifty-three civilians were killed and sixty were injured. Bader felt that 242 Squadron had had a ‘successful’ first engagement with the Luftwaffe ‘under favourable circumstances’. ‘Although, as was usual in 1940, heavily outnumbered, we had the height, the sun, and controlled the fight. We felt that with more aeroplanes we would have been even more successful.’ Altogether, the day’s fighting cost the RAF twenty-six fighters shot down with fifteen pilots saved and the Luftwaffe had lost thirty-six.

Back at Coltishall the AOC 12 Group, AVM Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, telephoned his congratulations to Bader who replied that if he had had thirty-six fighters they could have shot down three times the number of German aircraft. In theory, a large fighter formation could be brought to bear on the enemy ‘Balbo’ thereby increasing the chances of ‘knocking down’ more aircraft than smaller formations were capable of doing. (On 21 June 85 Squadron had flown a wing practice with 66 Squadron, Duxford.) Trafford Leigh-Mallory had long held the belief that a ‘Wing’ could achieve greater killing potential than the squadron formations favoured by ACM Sir Hugh Dowding at Fighter Command and by AVM Keith Park at 11 Group, who had much less time to form up squadrons into Wings.

Col. Pete Warden and the B-52

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber first flew in 1954 and remains in active service. It is considered one of the greatest aircraft ever built.

Col Henry Edward “Pete” Warden

Henry Edward “Pete” Warden, had not planned on a military career, but when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 he abandoned his postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and joined the Army Air Corps. He subsequently earned his wings in June 1940 and shortly thereafter deployed with the Twentieth Pursuit Squadron to Nichols Field in central Luzon in the Philippines. He was primarily a P-40 pilot, but after a few months he also became the depot inspector. When the Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941, leaving Nichols Field untenable, he was forced to move with parts of the depot team to the outskirts of Manila in an attempt to prolong resistance. After the main Japanese landings in Lingayen Gulf two weeks later, Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, the commander in the Philippines, ordered national and local forces to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula, declaring Manila an open city. However, Warden chose to stay behind enemy lines in order to salvage aircraft that would otherwise be lost during the immediate retreat. His team managed to save eight; Warden himself flew the last aircraft out of Manila only hours after the Japanese entered the capital.

Brig. Gen. Harold H. George, the air commander responsible for the region, then instructed Warden to take a few enlisted men to the island of Mindanao to find, assemble, and save more aircraft. Warden soon discovered three aircraft in packing crates, and while test-flying one he shot down what appears to have been a Japanese “Betty” bomber. With the end of the resistance in the Philippines in May 1942, Warden left for Australia, where he assembled, modified, and overhauled aircraft at the Fifth Air Service Command. He soon proved himself an innovative officer who achieved results, although not necessarily by following the technical manuals and procedures.

When he returned to the United States after almost four years in the Pacific, he was assigned to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio-“the engineering center of the Air Force.” At that time the air force was engaged in fierce debates over whether it should focus on a bomber with straight wings and propeller-driven engines or one with swept wings and turbojet engines. The latter would be able to fly at higher altitudes and at high speed, which would make it more effective within the zone of engagement. However, aircraft with turbojets consumed far more fuel, and their shorter range would require a large tanker fleet for air-to-air refueling. The preliminary design program for the XB-52 indicated that costs would be high. Air force leaders also disagreed about the size of the aircraft and confronted considerable uncertainty about the quality of jet engines. Moreover, while the B-36 propeller plane could be delivered immediately, the B-52 would take years to develop.

In May 1945 Col. Donald L. Putt, chief of the Bombardment Branch, appointed Warden as the chief of the branch’s engineering division, with responsibility for running the Northrop XB-35 and the Convair XB-36 programs. Warden strongly identified with the three-bomber concept, which involved light, medium, and heavy bombers, stating, “the most important of the three airplanes is the heavy [bomber], whose mission will be the delivery of the special bomb load to the strategic target system.”

When Boeing was awarded a contract to build an experimental long-range heavy bomber Warden became the designated project officer and the leading spokesman for a new generation of bombers based on turbojet propulsion. His unrelenting support for both the B-47 and the B-52 gained him friends and enemies alike, and earned him the reputation as “one of the founding fathers of the B-52.” According to Walter J. Boyne, the author of Beyond the Wild Blue, Warden exercised far more authority than he actually had when he told Boeing, on October 21, 1948, to design the B-52 with jet engines:

Pete Warden undoubtedly knew that he had more information on aircraft and engine projects than any other individual, and that to advance the USAF’s need for a long-range bomber, he was responsible for making value judgments, causing programs to happen, and then seeing to their approval. In the case of the long-range bomber, Boeing had not been able to get the required range from the B-47-size jet bomber projects they were investigating. Intuitively, they felt that a larger, turbo prop bomber would have the required range. Unfortunately, the Wright T-35 turboprop engines, although they had been increased in power, still did not provide the necessary range, and worse, would not be ready for production until four years later in 1952. Warden apparently considered all this, urged Pratt & Whitney to pursue what became the J57 engine, and once he had their commitment, instructed Boeing to design a very large aircraft based on the J57. The B-52 was the result.

Lori S. Tagg, author of Development of the B-52, dedicated her book to Pete Warden, and insisted that the United States owes a considerable gratitude to this “progressive and persuasive jet-nut.” Boeing may have completed the design drawings and engineering, but Warden and his small staff played an important role in keeping the B-52 project alive at crucial times despite heavy criticism.

As the new bombers went into production and test flights, Gen. George C. Kenney, the commandant of Air University, requested that Warden join a research program at the Air War College. In late 1953, after Warden had been promoted to the rank of colonel at the age of thirty-eight, his technological insight and operational grasp caught the attention of Brig. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, who personally ensured that he was put in charge of long-range planning at the Air Warfare Systems Division in the Pentagon. Maj. Gen. Donald N. Yates, commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center at Patrick AFB, also seems to have been impressed with Warden, arranging for him to become the deputy commander for tests in 1957. Three years later, Schriever, as the three-star commander of the Air Force Research and Development Command at Andrews AFB, made certain that Warden was given a central role in reorganizing what would become the Air Force Systems Command.

In this position, Warden became eligible for promotion to general rank. However, Warden was not one to play the political games required: he operated on the philosophy that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, and when the Air Staff wanted him to do something he considered a waste of effort he silently ignored it. His involvement with the B-52 also defined him as a controversial figure, one who could not be fully controlled. Given Warden’s maverick tendencies, the Promotion Board voted against him, and Warden retired from the air force in 1964, at the age of forty-nine. Shortly thereafter he became the corporate director of plans for North American Aviation; he stayed with the company for six years before he and his wife, Joanna, decided to devote their full time to managing their 550 acres of farmland near Columbus, Mississippi.

B-52s – The Last Argument of Presidents

Malta – The Modern Crusaders I

Blenheim Mk.IV Unit: ex 431 Sqn, RAF Serial: N3688
This aircraft from OADU (Overseas Aircraft Delivery Unit) was located in Malta – on September 1940 due to navigator’s mistake has landed on Italian island Pantelleria where was captured.

AAR from the demo for Battle for Malta.

Flight Lieutenant James W. Moore DFC

I had no peace of mind when they were out. I could not stay in my office and when they returned I was afraid to ask ‘How did it go’. Those aircrew were the flower of our race; all of them had been given a good education in their youth and they were far above average in intelligence, men who knew what they were doing and why it had to be done and men who volunteered to be aircrew in preference to many other less hazardous tasks. Theirs was a calm and conscious courage. To every one of these volunteers the sinking of ships was their crusade and without doubt they were Knights of St. John – the modern Crusaders’.

Air Commodore Hugh Pughe-Lloyd

In April 1941, despite the enormous demands being made of the Blenheims and their crews in the United Kingdom, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, decided that the feasibility of crews, drawn from 2 Group, operating from the island of Malta against enemy shipping in the Mediterranean should be explored. Should the scheme prove to be feasible, squadrons should be detached from the UK on a rota basis, to operate from the island for five or six weeks before returning to England. Malta is 17 miles long and five miles wide, located only sixty miles from Sicily and 180 miles from the North African Coast. By contrast to its size, it is of immense strategic importance, having a large natural harbour at Valletta, on the route from Gibraltar (1,100 miles to the west) to Alexandria (1,000 miles to the east).The island had been subjected to eight raids by bombers of the Italian Air Force on 10 June 1940, when Mussolini declared war on the allies, raids which became part of a way of life to civilians and servicemen alike. At first there was no fighter cover at all, then four crated Sea Gladiator biplane fighters, awaiting shipment to Alexandria, were found at the docks. These were quickly assembled and brought into service to give combat, one soon being lost. The three remaining Gladiators, who for propaganda reasons became known as Faith, Hope and Charity, [pilots who flew the Gladiators, however, preferred to call them ‘Freeman, Hardy and Willis’] flew in defence of the island for three months until only Faith remained. She carried on alone until joined by Hurricanes from Egypt.

‘The flight from Britain was, in itself, difficult for the crews, many of whom were inexperienced. It was a route followed by many crews, posted with their aircraft, for service in the Middle East. The crews would take-off from RAF Portreath near Redruth in Cornwall, in tropicalised long-range Blenheim Mk IVs with long-range petrol tanks fitted in the bomb-bay. en-route, as the main tanks were being emptied, the overload fuel would be pumped by hand into the main tanks, care having to be taken not to pump air into the main tanks system, which would of course have disastrous results. Their route took them over the Scilly isles before turning south across the Bay of Biscay, where they were liable to meet enemy aircraft, to Cap Finisterre off the north-west coast of Spain. They then flew south, parallel to the coast of Portugal, to Cape Vincent where they turned east for the difficult approach to Gibraltar. overall, a flight of 1,500 miles which, without the aid of an automatic pilot, or other ‘mod cons’ took 8½ hours. Their troubles were not yet over for the runway at Gibraltar – formerly the racecourse – was short and because of the turbulence from the rock, was dangerous. There were a number of wrecked aircraft to testify to the problems encountered by other pilots.

They stayed in Gibraltar, where refuelling was done from four-gallon petrol cans, for suitable weather for the next leg of their flight to Malta. the first leg of their flight, the 1,100 miles to the island, was generally flown at heights of 10,000 feet or more, before returning to sea-level as they approached the Sicilian channel, the stretch of sea between Sicily and Tunisia. At the centre of the channel was the Italian island of Pantellaria, enemy fighters and radar being based both there and in Sicily, as many crews found to their cost. Having survived all these hazards the crews landed their Blenheims at Luqa airfield where they would be based.

On arrival they found themselves subjected to regular bombing raids, food in short supply, poor living conditions and as time went by, the prospect of a very short life. In the case of crews on their way to the Middle East, whose journey was not interrupted, they still had a further 1,000 miles to fly before they reached their destination in Egypt. I hardly need to add that many crews were lost due to enemy action, lack of fuel, mechanical failure or human error on this long and perilous journey.

The officer selected to explore the possibility of Blenheims operating from Malta against Axis shipping was Squadron Leader ‘Attie’ Atkinson DSO DFC of 2 Group, a highly regarded leader who became a legend to those who flew in these medium bombers. On 31 March 1941 Squadron Leader ‘Atty’ Atkinson led eight of his crews on 21 Squadron, having been briefed to attack ships off the Dutch Frisian Islands and to open the campaign against ‘fringe targets’. ‘Attie’ found two destroyers. One was bombed from fifty feet, with hits scored on the ship’s stern. She slewed round, listing heavily to port as a column of black smoke belched into the sky. Not content with this success, he then led the formation across the islands of the north Dutch coast, saw a German parade, dropped his bombs plumb between the ranks and then chased the regimental cook up a lane. Asked by the Intelligence Officer how he could tell it was a cook, ‘Attie’ replied soberly that it might have been disguise, but he was wearing a chef’s cap and apron. And then his observer commented, ‘Dammit, at the height we were flying we could not only tell that it was a cook, we could even tell what the cook was thinking.’

‘Attie’s report to Intelligence afterwards was typical. ‘At Ameland, at about 1400 hours,’ he said, ‘we sighted what I suppose must have been an after-lunch parade. I alerted my gunner and we sprayed the lot of them. After this, we found a fellow on a gun emplacement, said ‘good afternoon’ and went on our way.’ Their visit had not gone unnoticed, for their presence had attracted a great deal of flak, which, not too surprisingly, accounted for two of the Blenheims. Another successful attack saw ‘Attie’ being awarded a Bar to the DFC. But he missed the party to celebrate it. On 26 April ‘Attie’ took-off leading six crews of 21 Squadron on their flight out to Malta, which all of them completed successfully. On their arrival they flew a number of shipping sorties, having their aircraft serviced by naval personnel, losing one aircraft in an air-raid. ‘Attie’ led the first attack on a convoy to Tripoli and personally sank a 4,000-tonner, while others in the flight sank a destroyer. There were four more attacks on convoys and then the Blenheims came home, flying all the way from the Bay of Biscay to England on one engine. Sea spray had got in the other. Atkinson ran out of fuel and had to make an undignified, but safe, belly landing in a friendly Cornish field. ‘Attie’ was then posted back to his own original 82 Squadron. The man from Church House who had joined them as Acting Pilot Officer was, at twenty-six, in command of the Squadron. Some of the men who were now with him had escaped from Gembloux, but most of the faces were new. Wing Commander Atkinson flew again to his familiar base at Luqa, taking his Squadron with him.

As Squadron Commander ‘Attie’ often went out himself after the ships. Ship-sinking was a matter of gambits. Most frequently the big cargo-boats and even the smaller fry for Rommel would be accompanied by a single Italian destroyer. The Blenheims would fly around, looking for an opening, while the destroyer would frantically circle her charge, sending up showers of spray in an effort to get between the attacking Blenheims and the cargo-boat. The game was hard on both sides, ending sometimes in the loss of both Italian ships, guardian and ward and sometimes with the loss of the Blenheims.

On his return, Atkinson reported that the situation in Malta was far from satisfactory, things having been neglected for years. However, he considered the plan feasible to operate there on a squadron, or ‘squadron plus’ basis. On receipt of Atkinson’s report Sir Charles Portal sent for the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) of 2 Group, Group Captain Hugh Pughe-Lloyd, to tell him he had been selected to command the detachments of 2 Group in Malta. His brief was ‘to sink Axis shipping between Europe and Africa’. It was, in effect, the same task in which the aircrew of 2 Group in the UK were already involved in over the seas off occupied Western Europe.

On his arrival in Malta, Pughe-Lloyd [who enlisted as a private in World War One and stayed on with the British Army to receive a knighthood for his defence of Malta] was horrified to find defences and facilities in a deplorable state, airfields ill-prepared as operational bases. Little thought had obviously been given to the use of the island as a base from which fighter or bomber aircraft could operate. It is to his considerable credit that the aerodrome at Luqa was soon made ready for the arrival of the first detachment of Blenheims.

The first squadron to be detached to the island was 82, commanded by Atkinson, now a Wing Commander, whose presence had been specifically requested by Pughe-Lloyd, now an Air Commodore. The first aircraft to leave England, led by Atkinson, took-off on 4 June, followed a week later by a further nine Blenheims. All of the aircraft carried in addition to their aircrew, two unfortunate ground-crew sitting as comfortable as possible in the well of the aircraft. They all arrived safely, although the last of the crews had to land after dark, using a flarepath which some character, fearful of enemy bombing raids, did his best to extinguish.

Apart from the Hurricanes on Malta there were seven twin-engined Martin Maryland reconnaissance aircraft, a squadron of Wellingtons and a number of Swordfish biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm. The role of the Marylands was to reconnoitre for enemy shipping, keeping a special eye on Naples for signs of sailings or the assembling of convoys for the journey to Africa. On receipt of reports of the movement of enemy shipping, attacks would be launched during the day by Blenheims and Swordfish, with the Wellingtons operating at night.

The enemy convoys from Naples carrying supplies to the Axis Armies in North Africa followed routes which brought them no closer than 140 miles from Malta. Either sailing to the west of Sicily, then directly across to Africa, staying close to the shore until they reached Tripoli, or through the Straits of Messina, then east to Greece before turning south to Benghazi.

South of Pantelleria on 22 June, a biggish convoy escorted by destroyers and enemy fighters was found by six crews of 82 Squadron. The aircrews went into the attack in the manner they had perfected over the North Sea, despite intense anti-aircraft fire and the presence of the fighters. The crew of one Blenheim, Flight Lieutenant T. J. Watkins pilot, Sergeant observer J. S. Sargent and Sergeant WOp/air gunner Eric F. Chandler, dropped their bombs gaining hits on a merchantman. Their aircraft was badly damaged by flak, the explosion of one almost severing Watkins leg. Despite severe pain and shock he managed to right the aircraft, giving Sargent time to come to his aid. Meanwhile Chandler was doing battle with an Italian Fiat CR42 Falco biplane fighter, which he succeeded in shooting down, which earned him a DFM. Showing immense courage Watkins managed to stay conscious during the long flight back to Luqa to give Sargent flying instructions, where miraculously Watkins brought the aircraft safely into land at Luqa and then collapsed. Watkins was awarded an immediate DSO, Sargent and Chandler, who was credited with having shot down an enemy fighter, each received the DFM. The damage to their aircraft was so severe it had to be written off. By a strange twist of fate, three months later, on their return to England, Sargent and Chandler were flying a shipping sweep off the Frisian Islands when their pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bartlett was injured. Sargent flew their aircraft back to base, landing it successfully despite a live bomb on board. As soon as their aircraft came to a stop, Sargent and Chandler leapt out dragging their wounded pilot between them before the bomb exploded.

Malta – The Modern Crusaders II

Bristol Blenheim Malta

On 24 June, led by Wing Commander Atkinson, crews on 82 Squadron delivered the first low-level attack on Tripoli harbour, where they bombed the remainder of the convoy that they had attacked two days earlier. That day, it was said, the Squadron really went to town -Tripoli town – at anything from twenty to nought feet. The Wing Commander and two others bombed a 20,000-ton liner and his gunner saw the whole of the top deck blow off.

The squadron continued to operate daily from Luqa, suffering heavy casualties until they could operate no longer. One of their operations worth recalling, was another low-level raid, led once again by Atkinson, on the harbour at Palermo on the north coast of Sicily, which they approached by flying through the Sicilian Channel and coming in from the north. Having dropped their bombs they headed due south across this mountainous island and back to Luqa. The enemy was so surprised that not one shot was fired at the Blenheims, yet the raid was an enormous success. Two ships, one a 10,000 tonner, the other of 5,000 tons had been destroyed; another 10,000 tonner had a broken back, whilst three others had been badly damaged.

Their contribution to the Maltese Campaign completed, the surviving aircrew, despite instructions to the contrary, found their way back to the UK to join their beloved 2 Group by hitching a lift to Gibraltar in a Catalina flying boat and then on by ship.

On 1 July 1941 the second detachment, 17 Blenheims and their crews on 110 Squadron, commanded by Wing Commander Theo ‘Joe’ Hunt DFC, flew out to Malta, where they wasted no time in getting into action. Their first operation was a low-level attack on three merchantmen in Tripoli harbour, followed on the 13th with the destruction of three more vessels. The next day they switched their attention to Libya, where they bombed a Luftwaffe airfield with some success, followed four days later by a raid on a power station at Tripoli, where Wing Commander ‘Joe’ Hunt and his crew were shot down into the sea by a CR 42 fighter. Shipping was not neglected, an 8,000 ton merchantman being damaged on the 15th, two ships being destroyed on the 22nd and then four crews bombed and destroyed two more in another visit to Tripoli harbour. In the latter operation the formation leader, Sergeant N. A. C. Cathles, twice hit the sea en-route to the target, which he bombed before he was forced to make a belly-landing in enemy territory. Yet another demonstration of the courage and determination of these young aircrew.

On 28 July, after a short but highly successful attachment, the surviving crews found their way back to the UK, to be replaced by twelve crews on 105 Squadron led by Wing Commander Hughie Edwards VC DFC a matter of a mere 24 days after he had led the epic low-level raid on Bremen. In their first operation six of the crews found a convoy of four merchantmen escorted by a destroyer and Fiat CR 42 fighters, who put up such an effective defence the raid had to be abandoned. The next day three crews found a destroyer escorted convoy close to the island of Lampedusa, which they attacked and lost one of their number to anti-aircraft fire. Apart from flying shipping sweeps the crews were not neglecting land targets such as a barracks at Misura in Libya. In their attacks on shipping they continued to have their successes, as on 7 August, when only two out of a convoy of six ships reached their destination in Africa. One of these, a tanker beached on Lampedusa, where after a second raid, it burnt for days. On the 15th, five crews of 105 Squadron found two escorted tankers, carrying fuel for the Afrika Corps, between Tripoli and Benghazi, which they bombed. One of the tankers exploded whilst the other was very badly damaged, although the Blenheim crews had to pay a high price. The Blenheim piloted by Pilot Officer P. H. Standfast being hit by flak exploded, a second was shot down by machine-gun fire and a third was lost when it collided with the mast of one of the ships and cart wheeled into the sea.105 Squadron were certainly making its presence felt, scoring three hits on two merchantmen on the 28th off the coast of Greece, a shipping sweep so far from Malta it was almost at the limit of their fuel capacity. Then closer to home, they bombed an ammunition factory and a power station at Licata on the south coast of Sicily. On 31 July the command of the squadron had been handed over from Wing Commander Edwards to Wing Commander P. H. A. Simmons, the former returning to the UK for a well deserved ‘rest’.

By the end of August it was estimated that 58% of all enemy supplies heading for North Africa had been lost at sea. Those who successfully completed the journey were still not safe in Tripoli harbour, where they were liable to be bombed by day by the Blenheims and at night by the Wellington crews. Understandably, the enemy did not stand idle in the face of this threat to their lifeline to their armed forces in Africa, increasing the anti-aircraft defences on their merchantmen and escorts. The casualty rate for the Blenheim crews was around 12%, an average of one crew per day or one squadron per week. Replacement crews were found by ‘press-ganging’ unsuspecting crews and their aircraft on their way out to Egypt into service with the squadrons on Malta.

The need to maintain the momentum of attacks on enemy shipping meant that 105 Squadron had to remain in Malta longer than the intended 5-6 weeks. At the end of August 26 Blenheims and their crews of 107 Squadron arrived in Malta to play their part in the campaign. On 17 September three crews flew a low level raid on factories at Licata, whilst at dawn the same day another three crews bombed a large liner in Tripoli harbour and so it continued. On the 22nd in a raid by crews from both squadrons on barracks, ammunition dumps and lorries on the Tripoli-Benghazi road two of the Blenheims collided. The tail was knocked off the aircraft piloted by Wing Commander Don Scivier AFC, which crashed, whereas the other one, piloted by Sergeant Tommy Williams managed to limp back to Luqa. Many convoys were escorted by fighters which, bearing in mind the improved anti-aircraft defences, added to the danger as for example, a formation of six Blenheims found five merchantmen escorted, not only by five destroyers but four Junkers 88 twin-engined fighter-bombers as well. Undaunted the first vie flew into the attack dropping their bombs, followed closely by the second vic led by Wing Commander N. E. W. Pepper DFC. As the latter flew over the convoy the eleven second delay bombs of the first wave exploded, blowing-up Pepper’s aircraft. Another, severely damaged did however manage to limp back to Luqa. An indication of the success of the campaign was that the enemy now stopped routing their convoys to the west of Sicily, sending them on the longer journey via the coast of Greece.

On Thursday 4 October 1941 eight crews on 107 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Barnes, set out to bomb the harbour at Zuara on the African coast. The flak from three destroyers in the harbour was so fierce the first vie was beaten off and they came under attack from Fiat CR.42 fighters. The other five Blenheims sought other targets inland, when they too were attacked by fighters, who shot down the Blenheim piloted by Sergeant D. E. Hamlyn. All three crew spent six days in their dinghy before being rescued off the coast of Djerba by an Arab ship, which took them to Tunis and internment. The engagement with the fighters lasted until the Blenheims were fifty miles out to sea on their way back to base. During the night of 7/8 October, a low-level attack in bright moonlight was carried out on a 2,000 ton merchantman off Tripoli, on which two hits were scored causing an explosion.’

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.3 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

On Thursday 4 October 1941 eight crews on 107 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Barnes, set out to bomb the harbour at Zuara on the African coast. The flak from three destroyers in the harbour was so fierce the first vie was beaten off and they came under attack from Fiat CR.42 fighters. The other five Blenheims sought other targets inland, when they too were attacked by fighters, who shot down the Blenheim piloted by Sergeant D. E. Hamlyn. All three crew spent six days in their dinghy before being rescued off the coast of Djerba by an Arab ship, which took them to Tunis and internment. The engagement with the fighters lasted until the Blenheims were fifty miles out to sea on their way back to base. During the night of 7/8 October, a low-level attack in bright moonlight was carried out on a 2,000 ton merchantman off Tripoli, on which two hits were scored causing an explosion.’

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.

 

A Change in Doctrine after Schweinfurt

P-51D 44-14733 “Daddy’s Girl” as flown by Maj. Ray S. Wetmore of the 370th FS, 359th FG, from East Wretham in late 1944/early 1945.

Ronnie Olsthoorn Aviation Art

It was apparent to the USAAF leadership that long range fighter escort was needed and this would be answered in the upcoming months. In the summer of 1943, America’s aircraft production was focused on bombers first, reconnaissance aircraft second, and “other air force activities” third. The second Schweinfurt raid, October 14th 1943, changed aircraft production priority to fighter production with a focus on the P-38 and the P-47 at the time. Arnold ordered all P-38 and P-47 fighter groups deploying overseas to be sent to Britain but it took time to receive aircraft, train aircrews and emplace the necessary technical support. In the meantime, Major General Ira Eaker sent Eighth Bomber Command out on relatively short missions, within fighter escort range, encountering bad winter weather much of the time instead of the Luftwaffe. But when the Luftwaffe was encountered, the P-38 Lightning had trouble handling the highly maneuverable German fighters due to the Lightning’s turbochargers performing badly at higher altitudes in the high humidity and colder temperatures. The P-38 performed well at lower altitudes in the Mediterranean and Pacific Theaters, but was not suited for colder temperatures found at higher altitudes in north and central Europe. The USAAF leadership pinned hope that the P-38 would be the solution to the long range escort problem but mechanical difficulties blocked that option.

A more successful solution to answer the call for increased fighter escort range came in the form of external auxiliary fuel tanks for fighters. As early as 1942, the Eighth AAF inquired whether jettisonable fuel tanks could be made available for the P-47 but the solution was foolishly delayed by the industrial bureaucracy and the lack of emphasis by the USAAF leadership. Meanwhile, local sources in England were tapped to produce a limited quantity of 75 gallon tanks for both the Spitfire and the P-47. Due to the shortage of wartime material in Britain, these 75 gallon tanks were often made of inferior material and had mechanical issues at higher altitudes. By August of 1943, Army Material Command (AMC) was still experimenting at a slow pace with external tanks but had yet to produce its own model. It took a desperate plea by the Eighth’s technical service section chief, Colonel Cass Hough, to get the external fuel tank program kick started. Due to further political pressure applied by the Combined Chiefs, a suitable 150 gallon drop wing tank was quickly developed. In September of 1943, the monthly production of 150 gallon wing tanks for the P-47 was only 300; by December it was 22,000. If the tasking was taken seriously a year earlier, this one innovation could have decreased bomber losses during the fall of 1943 but emphasis arrived too late. As Brigadier General Hume Peabody would put it, the auxiliary tank problem indicated “a lack of forward thinking.” By early 1944, the 150 gallon wing tanks had a significant impact on the fighter escort solution.

Also by late fall of 1943, the P-47 received technical upgrades, which included an improved paddle bladed prop and a water injection boost kit, which greatly improved horse power and overall performance. The P-47 could now out-climb its main adversary, the FW-190, and with a new gyro-stabilized gun sight would have a better chance of obtaining hits. The P-47, a seven ton plane equipped with eight fifty caliber machine guns, had its combat range greatly increased by the new 150 gallon droppable wing tanks and performed a majority of the escort missions in early 1944 that swept the Luftwaffe from the skies. Even though the USAAF leadership placed a lot of faith in the P-38 Lightning, it was an entirely new plane that would take center stage for fighter escort duty. The origins of the P-51 are curious enough; in April 1940, the British Air Commission approached North American Aviation for a contract to build Curtis fighters for the RAF. The company suggested an entirely new plane be built and presented the NA-73 Mustang powered by an Allison engine – a prototype completed in only 127 days. The British Air Commission was delighted with the quick turn around and awarded North American with a contract. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 620 Mustangs were shipped to the RAF and made their debut during the Dieppe Raid in the summer of 1942. However, due to the underpowered Allison engine, their performance was not particularly impressive. For this reason, the P-51As were confined to low level tactical missions.

In May of 1942, trials were made with five P-51 aircraft outfitted with Rolls Royce Merlin 61 engines in an attempt to improve performance. The results with using these existing components were phenomenal, the P51B (production model) had improved performance at all altitudes especially above 33,000 feet obtaining speeds of 440 m. p. h.. Further adjustments in the controls resulted in improved maneuverability which led to an aircraft equal to or superior, in many aspects, to what the Luftwaffe could offer at the time. North American Aviation received a contract to build the more effective Merlin-61 engine and mate this to its successful airframe in North American’s aircraft manufacturing facilities.

By June 1943, 145 P51Bs were shipped to England but served in a reconnaissance role. Sixteen days after the October Schweinfurt raid, Arnold ordered all P-51Bs in England to be withheld from the reconnaissance role, transfer to the fighter escort role, and top priority was given to North American Aviation to produce more Mustangs. The British also agreed that all RAF squadrons, scheduled to convert to P-51 Mustangs, would support Eighth Bomber Command. It was not until the summer of 1944 that P-51s squadrons were ready for combat in numbers so the weight of the spring 1944 air battles fell upon the P-47.

When Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle took command of the Eighth AAF in December 1943, he made two important changes which at first were unpopular with the heavy bomber crews. First, he increased tours from 25 to 30 missions which upgraded aircrew experience and provided additional cadre for the build-up in new aircrews. Second, despite violent protests from Bomber Command, Doolittle released additional fighters from escort duty to seek out the Luftwaffe whether located in the air or on the ground. Under the old fighter escort system, the fighters would rendezvous with their respective bomber formation to give coverage but the fighters would have to constantly weave, to match the bomber’s speed, and this burned precious fuel. Doolittle’s new system called for relays of fighters to take turns covering the bombers while at the same time taking advantage of each type of fighter’s strength. The Spitfires would escort the bombers from the channel out to 100 miles then the P-47s would take over for the next 150 to 200 miles. Finally, the P-38s would escort the bombers for another 150 to 200 miles. Together, this phased escort system would provide coverage out to 450 miles. As a rule, only one-third of fighters needed to stay near the heavy bombers and escort fighters were rotated in by relays so precious fuel would not be burned by weaving to match the heavy bomber’s speed. The arrival of the P-51B Mustangs in numbers, along with 150 gallon wing tanks, would stretch fighter escort coverage out to 600 miles which was more than enough to reach Berlin. Doolittle’s new escort system was devised to give the bombers maximum coverage while at the same time striking the Luftwaffe where it hurt.

Once a fighter group finished its escort task, it could drop down to lower altitudes to strafe enemy airfields. This change in tactics, combined with the increase in Allied fighter escort range, would have a huge impact on the Luftwaffe and disrupt the German practice of rearming and refueling for additional sorties against heavy bombers and eventually account for an irreversible attrition on Luftwaffe pilots. For the first time, Eighth Fighter Command was released to perform their true offensive role.

Once the Eighth AAF restarted its daylight strategic bombing campaign in February 1944, Schweinfurt was revisited utilizing a combined bombing strategy. On the night of February 24th, 1944, RAF Bomber Command targeted Schweinfurt. The next morning Eighth Bomber Command, this time escorted by long range fighters, followed up with a daylight raid. Again that night, RAF Bomber Command committed a consecutive night raid that added to a total of 3,000 tons of high explosives onto the Schweinfurt ballbearing facilities. The Combined Bomber Oensive was now better coordinated and could have achieved devastating results. Unfortunately, Sir Arthur Harris, was correct in assuming the Germans dispersed their anti-friction industry by this time as the VFK Works transferred 549 vital machines (from all five factories) to new locations. Thus, the damage from these consecutive raids was not what the Allies hoped.

By April 1944, Eighth Fighter Command was ordering new low level fighter sweeps, some in conjunction with bomber missions, deep into Germany. By design, low level fighter sweeps were to catch German aircraft landing, taking off, or on the ground. When heavy or medium bombers were available, the bombers would release ordnance over the German airfields to help neutralize anti-aircraft fire before the fighters strafed. As the spring months wore on, the effects on the Luftwaffe became noticeable as the Luftwaffe was knocked off balance and air superiority turned over to the Allies. At the same time, the German general staff made a serious mistake which threw away any chance of the Luftwaffe regaining air superiority. In face of mounting pressure from the new fighter sweeps, the Germans withdrew their fighters back into Germany in an effort to find a haven and concentrate on Allied bomber formations. By doing so, the Luftwaffe lost its chance to strike Allied escort fighters near the channel and force them to drop their auxiliary tanks early. As it stood the P-47s, and later the P-51s, increased their combat radius further into Germany and soon there was nowhere for the Luftwaffe to hide.

The Germans recognized their fall 1943 victory over the Eighth AAF and many on the German general staff believed they stopped the Americans from attacking inside the borders of Germany. Although some Luftwaffe commanders, including General Hubert Weise (who commanded the air defenses of central Germany) were clearly worried, Goring and his staff believed it was impossible for Allied fighters to escort bombers east of Brunswick so they focused their operations on attacking unescorted heavy bombers. Because of this faulty escort range assumption, the Luftwaffe would later be unable to quickly change tactics or equipment (by this time German twin engine fighters were more vulnerable