Australians in Bomber Command

The Bomber Command operating fields were divided into Groups. By March 1943 the groups from the north were: 6 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Group in the Tyne valley and north Yorkshire, 4 Group in north and east Yorkshire, 1 Group south of the Humber in north Lincolnshire, 5 Group from Scampton in central Lincolnshire to Woodall Spa in the south, 2 (later 100) Group in north Norfolk, 3 Group in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, and 8 (Path Finder Force) Group further west in Cambridgeshire centred on its headquarters in Huntingdon. Of the main Australian squadrons, 460 was in 1 Group (Lancasters), 462 was in 4 Group and then 100 Group (Halifaxes), and 466 was in 4 Group (Halifaxes), 463 and 467 in 5 Group (Lancasters). Other Australian squadrons that operated in Bomber Command were 455 (1941-42 then transferred to Coastal Command), 458 (1941 then transferred to the Middle East) and 464 (1942-43 then transferred to Second Tactical Air Force).

Airmen feared being a squadron spare, the bomb-aimer called up to fly with the crew whose bomb-aimer was injured, sick or for other reasons relieved of flying duties. That meant flying with strangers, no reassuring voices in the earphones, no confidence in mutual competence, a high chance of filling-in again and again with inexperienced crews, and no friends to share the easing of postflight tension and the generous breakfast prepared for returning crews. R. J. Cantillon, a wireless operator, was told at the last moment to replace a sick crewman in a Halifax. He found himself flying as mid-upper gunner with two Englishmen, a Scot, an Irishman, a Canadian and an American on their first operation deep into Germany. They were without teamwork and they survived long enough to bale out over Holland on the return flight.

Men who came as a replacement to an experienced crew could not hope to complete a tour in one crew. When the original crew finished its 30 operations the replacement had to shift to another crew and that might mean joining a sprog crew and again going through the hazards of those first four or five raids. Even where a crew began operations together, and all demonstrated the capacity to do their job when reality replaced practice, they were unlikely to do all their flying together. Men became ill, were wounded or involved in minor accidents. Cliff O’Riordan went to `Quite a bright party’ that started in the mess, tapered off in the early hours of the morning, then resumed at ten the next morning. It was some time later that O’Riordan tried to ride a horse, fell off and broke a bone in his arm. He missed operations.

Experienced men could be asked to fly with new crews, and some volunteered. Bob Murphy went with several crews on their first trip over enemy territory `to point out the difference between light flak and heavy flak and what the different searchlights were and so on’. And to boost their confidence. After his first tour Arthur Doubleday sometimes flew with a scratch crew. Given that it was both his duty and his inclination to ensure that the bombs fell in the right place, this would have been both exhilarating and terrifying. Doubleday also learnt the danger of flying with unknown men. Over the target he heard the unfamiliar voice of the bomb-aimer say in a matter-of-fact voice, `Flak on the port, skipper’. Normally, says Doubleday, a flat statement like that implied the flak was some distance away. But he had no idea that his scratch crew bomb-aimer was not given to excitement or exaggeration. This bomb-aimer meant exactly what he said. The flak was in fact on the port wing, and within a few feet of the bomb-aimer’s nose.

Bob Kellow, who flew as wireless operator in Les Knight’s dambuster crew, said that their crew was together through 27 successful raids: `We had the utmost confidence in each other and were like a little band of brothers’. That crew of two Australians (Knight and Kellow), three Englishmen and two Canadians was unusually stable. But even in that group which was bound together by extraordinary training, operations and publicity, the flight engineer Ray Grayson, an Englishman, had joined late and was going to have to complete his tour with another crew, having done seven less operations than the rest of the crew. In fact they did not return from their 28th operation. Knight was killed, Kellow evaded capture and Grayson was one of those taken prisoner. Most crews, having selected themselves, were welded together by experience and tried to stay together. Often four or five stuck together, but very few crews flew a tour unchanged.

By the time most dominion men were being fed into Bomber Command, the slow, low-flying, under-powered and under-armed early bombers were being replaced by Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Stirlings and Wellingtons were then phased out of major operations in October and November 1943, and from 1944 the superior Mark III Halifax replaced less efficient models. From early 1942 the two most efficient and admired aircraft in Bomber Command, the Mosquito and Lancaster, were being delivered to operating squadrons. The sleek two-engine Mosquitoes, relying on their superior speed to keep out of trouble, marauded widely. Carrying a light bomb load, the Mosquitoes guided the main bomber stream by dropping marker flares at turning points and over the target; flew independent raids (sometimes on distant and specific targets); confused German defences about the direction of the main force raid; gathered weather information; checked the damage done to targets; and fought the German night fighters. The Mosquito was much less likely than any of the main aircraft in Bomber Command to be destroyed by the enemy, and equalled the Lancaster in its low accident rate. But the Lancaster transformed the destructive capacity of the bomber.

In some of the major final raids of the war, there might be about 500 Lancasters, 250 Halifaxes and six Mosquitoes, and sometimes the Lancaster was the only heavy bomber. But the Halifax had its supporters. David Leicester, who flew 30 missions in a Halifax and more in a Lancaster, thought the later Halifaxes were easy to fly and could be manoeuvred quickly at height and when fully loaded, and that was essential to keep out of trouble. Ivan Pellas said `We loved our Halibags’. The Halifax Mark III was, he claims, mild in manner, stable in flight, and while they could be flown with one finger, they could also be thrown around the sky. One Halifax of 158 Squadron, known as Friday the 13th, flew 128 missions. Grateful and astonished crews gave it an unofficial VC. It was also more difficult to bale out of a Lancaster. Aircrew in terminally damaged bombers had more chance of getting to and through the escape hatches on a Halifax than they did on a Lancaster. By the end of the war, however, the Lancaster was dominant. Although not used on a raid until 3 March 1942, Lancasters went to war nearly twice as often as any other heavy bomber: 156,192 times compared with the Halifaxes’ 82,773.

When the crews of 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds heard late in 1942 that they were changing from Halifaxes to Lancasters `Pandemonium broke out … The dark days were over’. In September 1942, 460 Squadron was running out of operational aircraft; its Wellingtons were not being replaced because the squadron was about to convert to Halifaxes. When it had just five aircraft left, the squadron was taken off operations to learn to fly the four-engine Halifaxes, but on 20 October the squadron was suddenly switched to Lancasters, a `very popular’ decision. Lancaster crews cheered when they learnt that other bombers, such as Stirlings, were on the same raid. The Stirlings, lower and slower, were likely to draw the German night fighters.

Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Harris had no doubt that the Lancaster was the `finest bomber of the war’:

Not only could it take heavier bomb loads, not only was it easier to handle, and not only were there fewer accidents with this than with other types; throughout the war the casualty rate of Lancasters was also consistently below that of other types. It is true that in 1944 the wastage of Lancasters from casualties became equal to, and at times even greater than, the wastage of Halifaxes, but this was the exception that proved the rule; at that time I invariably used Lancasters alone for those attacks which involved the deepest penetration into Germany and were consequently the most dangerous.

Harris so admired the Lancaster that he wanted to lose a year’s production of Halifaxes while the factories were converted to Lancaster production. His superiors thought the cost too high and did not agree. Because Harris pressed as many Lancasters as possible into front-line service, few were available for training, and the crews began their heavy bomber flying on Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Often these aircraft were worn, battered, early models, and some of the enthusiasm for crews for the Lancaster was simply a result of encountering for the first time an aircraft that was new, the most advanced available, and carefully maintained.

Harris was right in his claim about the performance and reliability of the Lancaster. The number of Lancasters on operations that crashed in England was significantly less than that of Halifaxes, half that of Stirlings and one-quarter that of Wellingtons. In its capacity to avoid flak and fighters, the Lancaster’s superiority was not so marked, but the Lancaster’s loss rate was still marginally less than that of the Halifax, clearly less than that of the Wellington and markedly better than that of the Stirling. The enthusiasm of squadrons when they learnt they were converting to Lancasters might have been tempered had they known that their commander was now going to ask more of them and their machines, but on the figures – then yet to be recorded – their celebration was justified.

The Lancaster gave pilots hope, and they returned admiration, even affection. George Hawes encountered the Lancaster soon after it was used in operations. He told his family in April 1942, `They certainly are wizard kites’. After his first solo flight in a Lancaster Geoff Maddern wrote in his diary: `They are the most beautiful kites imaginable to fly – they climb like a bat out of hell, very light and responsive to the controls. The main trouble is trying to keep the speed down … Quite easy to land – you feel them down like a Tiger Moth’. A few days later he tested it further by `shooting up’ Scunthorpe and then: `Coming back feathered an engine and flew hands and feet off on three. Cut another engine and flew on two. It maintains height easily … They’re wizard’. At the other end of the aircraft Tom Simpson, a rear gunner, liked the stability of the Lancaster: `To me every time that you climbed into the Lanc it seemed to say “Pleased to have you aboard. I’ll try to make the flight comfortable” ‘. The Lancaster could climb on three engines; bent and battered it would get the crew home. Fifty years after he flew K for Kitty, Dan Conway wrote: `Just to sit in the cockpit and admire its layout was a great pleasure’.



Western Egypt: Operations against the Senussi

Operations against the Senussi. One of Major the Duke of Westminster’s Armoured Cars at Es Sollum, April 1916.

A bogged armoured car of the 1st Armoured Car Battery (Australia), which was operating on the western frontier of Egypt, against the Senussi, being pulled out of the sand over de-ditching boards.

Area of operations, Senussi Campaign, 1915-1918

Very few regiments of the British Army saw service in as many theatres of war from 1914 to 1919 as did the Middlesex. In 1914 and 1915 in Flanders and France and Gallipoli, battalions of the regiment had already crossed bayonets with the enemy, and the story now turns to Western Egypt, where, at the close of 1915, the 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions first became involved in operations against the Senussi. The beginning of the rupture between Great Britain and the Senussi — a powerful desert tribe — is thus described in the official despatches: “As early as May, 1915, signs were apparent that the steadily increasing pressure brought to bear upon the Senussi by the Turkish party in Tripoli, under the leadership of Nuri Bey, a half-brother of Enver Pasha, was beginning to take effect. For some time, even after the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Turkey in 1914, the anti-British influence of this party was not strongly felt and the attitude of the Senussi towards Egypt remained friendly. It was not until the advent of Gaafer, a Germanised Turk of considerable ability, who arrived in Tripoli in April, 1915, with a considerable supply of arms and money, that this attitude underwent a change.”

For several months it was evident that the Turkish influence was gaining ground, and on the 16th August, 1915, the first hostile incident of any importance occurred. Two British submarines, sheltering from the weather near Ras Lick on the coast of Cyrenaica, were treacherously fired on by Arabs, commanded by a white officer, and casualties were suffered on both sides. For this incident, however, the Senussi apologised profusely, but in November, other incidents occurred which placed beyond doubt the hostile intentions of this Arab tribe. The crews of two British boats, H.M.S. Tara and H.M.T. Moorina — torpedoed by enemy submarines on the 5th and 6th of the month — landed in Cyrenaica and were captured and held prisoners by the Senussi, who, in reply to strong representations for their immediate release, feigned ignorance. On the night of the 14th-15th, Muhafizia (Senussi regulars) rushed two Egyptian sentries at Sollum and carried off their rifles and bayonets: the following night the company at Sollum was sniped. Again on the 17th, at Sidi Barrani (fifty miles east of Sollum), the Zawia was occupied by some three hundred Muhafizia, and on the 18th, during the night, the Coastguard Barracks at that place were twice attacked, one coastguard being killed. On the 20th a similar attack was made on a coastguard outpost at Sabil, a small post about thirty miles S.E. of Sollum, though, as at Barrani, the attack failed.

There was now no alternative but to recognise a state of war and to take action accordingly. The Western Frontier posts were ordered to withdraw to Mersa Matruh, and it was decided to concentrate in the latter place a force sufficient to deal swiftly with the situation. The Alexandria-Dabaa Railway was to be secured as a secondary line of communication by land with the railhead at Dabaa: the Wadi Natrun and the Fayum were to be occupied as measures of precaution, while the Oasis of Moghara was to be kept under constant observation and reconnaissance.

Orders for the assembly of two composite brigades (one mounted and the other infantry) were issued on the 20th November, after news had been received of the enemy’s attack at Barrani. The Mounted Brigade consisted chiefly of Yeomanry and Australian Light Horse, with a battery of horse artillery. The infantry brigade was made up of 1/6th Royal Scots (T.F.), 1/7th and 2/8th Battalions Middlesex Regiment (T.F.), 15th Sikhs, and some auxiliary troops. The whole force was commanded by Major-General A. Wallace, and the Infantry Brigade by Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan.

Both the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex had disembarked at Alexandria from Gibraltar on the 1st September.

A year had passed since the formation of the 2/7th. Middlesex was authorised by the War Office, and during that period the Battalion had passed through varied experiences. After several busy weeks spent in recruiting the men and preliminary training, the 2/7th had left Hornsey on the 24th September, 1914, for Barnet, where officers and men were billeted. On the last day of the month the first consignment of uniforms was received and, by the end of October, the whole unit was in service dress. Another move, this time to Egham, took place on the 20th November, the Battalion joining the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. In Windsor Great Park hard training was continued, though as only fifty rifles were in possession of the Battalion, instruction in musketry presented the greatest difficulties. “All through these weeks of hard work,” said Lieut.-Colonel J. S. Drew, who commanded the 2/7th, “the discipline and soldierly spirit of the Battalion steadily improved.” On the 27th January, 1915, orders were received to embark for Gibraltar at an early date. “This was a great shock, for high hopes had been entertained that the Battalion would be sent to France.” However, the Battalion swallowed its disappointment and, on the 1st February, entrained for Southampton, embarking on arrival at the docks aboard the Grantully Castle, being joined later in the day by the 2/8th Middlesex, who were also bound for “Gib.”

After a rough voyage lasting several days, the two Battalions reached Gibraltar on the 7th February, though they did not disembark until the following day. On the way up the Rock the 2/7th met the 1/7th marching down to embark for France. This was the only occasion on which the two Battalions met throughout the whole course of the War.

For the next six months the Battalion continued its training, especially in musketry, for which special facilities were available. On the 3rd July orders were received to send a draft of 3 officers and 260 other ranks to the 1/7th Battalion in France. Their departure was a heavy blow to the Battalion, which, by this time, had attained a high degree of efficiency. The draft, however, was replaced the same day by the arrival of a similar number of men from England.

On the 12th August the Battalion was ordered to prepare for Egypt, and, with the 2/8th Middlesex, embarked on H.M.T. Minnewaska. Out at sea the destination of the. ship was changed, and a few days later the vessel steamed into Mudros Harbour, the greatest excitement prevailing on board, as everyone expected to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula. At Mudros, however, it was made evident that the move to that Island was due to a Staff misunderstanding, and that the proper destination of the vessel was Alexandria. So, again choking down their disappointment, the Middlesex men saw their hopes of immediate active service dashed, and the boat put out to sea once more, for Egypt. Alexandria was reached on the 31st August, and on the following day the Battalion disembarked and entrained for Cairo, taking over the Citadel from Australian troops, a strong detachment of the Middlesex being sent off to guard prisoners of war at Maadi.

Ten pleasant weeks were spent at Cairo, and then, early in November, there were rumours of trouble brewing with the Senussi tribes of Western Egypt. On the 20th November the Composite Cavalry and Infantry Brigades were formed, and on the 22nd the 2/7th Middlesex was ordered to join the latter Brigade at once at Alexandria. The Brigade went into camp at Qamaria and refitted.

With the exception of its formation the history of the 2/8th Middlesex is largely that of the 2/7th Battalion.

The 2/8th Middlesex was formed at Hampton Court on the 14th September, 1914, its first C.O. being Lieut.-Colonel L. C. Dams. The Battalion was quartered in the Cavalry Barracks, Hampton Court, Hampton Court House, and other houses in the neighbourhood. Training was carried out in Bushey Park, though no uniforms or rifles were then available. On the 15th November, 1914, the Battalion moved to Staines, becoming (like the 2/7th Battalion) part of the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. From this period onwards there is little in the early history of the 2/8th which differs from that of the 2/7th, though on the day of the departure of the two Battalions from Southampton, great was the excitement aboard the Grantully Castle when, at the last moment, a draft of three officers and a small number of men joined the 2/8th: the men wore scarlet tunics! Like the 2/7th, the 2/8th also sent a large draft of officers and men to France, but to the 1/8th Battalion. When the Battalion left Gibraltar and arrived at Alexandria on the 31st August, the 2/8th was likewise quartered in Cairo, moving back to Alexandria on the 22nd November to join the Composite Infantry Brigade.

By the 23rd November the concentration of the Force under General Wallace was completed, and the troops began to move to Mersa Matruh. It was not, however, until several days later that the two Middlesex Battalions received their orders. The 2/8th was the first to leave Alexandria, the Battalion embarking on trawlers — two platoons per trawler — for Mersa Matruh on the 4th December. The trawlers reached their destination on the 5th, and the Middlesex men were landed and pitched camp close to the village. On the 6th December Battalion Headquarters and “A” and “B” Companies of the 2/7th Middlesex embarked on trawlers and aboard H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ for Mersa Matruh, “C” and “D” Companies remaining at Alexandria.

Concentration of the Force at Matruh was completed on the 7th December, and the village was prepared as a fortified base from which the Senussi could be attacked.

With the 2/8th, the 2/7th Middlesex was allotted a sector of the defences, and at once began digging operations. An insufficient supply of water was only one of the many difficulties. Wells were dug in the beach, but only brackish water was obtainable, and this had to be drunk in the form of tea: even then it was most unpleasant.

The first encounter with the Senussi took place on the 11th December, but neither of the Middlesex Battalions were engaged in the operations, which were carried out by other troops.

At midnight on the 14th December, Colonel Dams was ordered to take his Battalion out to Old Matruh to assist the 15th Sikhs and 6th Royal Scots (under Colonel Gordon), who had gone out in the morning and had been heavily engaged with the enemy. After marching through the night, the 2/8th Middlesex, at dawn, took up a defensive position, through which Colonel Gordon’s force retired. Colonel Dams then threw forward two companies of his Battalion on the flank of the retiring column and engaged the enemy, H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ firing her 6-inch guns over the heads of the Middlesex men into the enemy, who were massed in the hills on the Battalion’s flank. The 2/8th finally formed a rearguard to the force retiring, until the latter reached camp at Matruh. “The whole thing,” said Colonel Dams, “worked like an Aldershot field-day — the Battalion carried out the various movements with drill-book precision.”

For the first fortnight the 2/7th Middlesex, without seeing anything of the fighting, had a strenuous existence. Three times the line of defence was changed, each change necessitating the digging and wiring of several miles of trenches; many stone sangars were also constructed.

On the night of the 18th-19th December the camps of both Battalions, which occupied somewhat exposed positions, were heavily sniped by the Senussi. An advanced post of the 2/7th was also attacked, but beat off its assailants without difficulty. This was the first occasion on which the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex during the War came under rifle fire from the enemy.

The 2/8th Battalion each night mounted picquets round the camp, most of the picquets being situated on a line of hills running parallel with the sea and about half a mile from it. During the night of the 19th December a detached picquet (known as Pinnacle Picquet) was sniped by a small body of Senussi. The Middlesex men returned the fire, but so far as could be seen no casualties were inflicted on the enemy.

From the 15th to the 23rd December no operation of importance was undertaken against the enemy, but in the meantime it was known that he was concentrating in the neighbourhood of Gebel Medwa, about eight miles south-west of Matruh, his forces being estimated at about 5,000, with four guns and some machine guns, commanded by Gaafer.

On the 25th December (Xmas Day) General Wallace attacked these forces. He divided his Command into two columns — the Right and the Left. The former consisted mostly of infantry, which included the 2/8th Middlesex; the latter column was a mobile force of cavalry.

Before dawn on the 25th both columns left camp, and by 7.30a.m. the cavalry had cleared the Wadi Toweiwa, about seven miles south of Matruh. The Right Column moved westwards, and at 6.30 a.m. the advanced guard came under fire from artillery and machine guns from the south-west. But the enemy was soon driven off, and by 7.15 a.m. the main body of General Wallace’s Force had crossed the Wadi Rami, and could see the enemy in occupation of an encampment about a mile south of Gebel Medwa.

At 7.30 a.m. the 15th Sikhs were ordered to attack the enemy’s right flank, the Bucks Hussars and 2/8th Middlesex to co-operate by making a containing attack along his front, to be launched simultaneously with the attack of the Sikhs. Deploying west of the road and despatching one Company to occupy Gebel Medwa in order to secure their right, the Sikhs advanced. At the same time the Bucks Hussars moved forward, while the Middlesex, keeping to the north-east of Gebel Medwa, sent a Company to relieve a company of 15th Sikhs occupying the hill, which thereupon rejoined the Battalion. This Company of Middlesex men was apparently the only one of the Battalion which saw fighting on the 25th December, the action being thus described by an officer then serving with the Battalion: “The whole Battalion took part in a big attack on enemy forces about seven or eight miles inland from the camp. A start was made before dawn on Xmas Day, and the fighting lasted all day. The Battalion bivouacked that night in the desert, and returned to camp the following morning. Only one Company (‘C’ Company, under Captain Alliston) actually found themselves in the front line of the attack, and suffered casualties (three men wounded). The attack was a great success, and a considerable number of the enemy was killed or captured.”

The attack by the Sikhs was successfully carried out, and by 2.15 p.m. the nullahs at the head of the Wadi Majid had been cleared, and by about 4 p.m. the Wadi itself was taken. The enemy’s losses were over 100 dead, 34 prisoners, 80 camels and much livestock, also 30,000 rounds of S.A.A. and a quantity of artillery ammunition.

In this action the 2/7th Middlesex took no part, but from the 28th to 30th December the Battalion formed part of a mobile column intended to attack a Senussi camp some twenty miles distant, at Jerawla. On the approach of the column the enemy forsook his camp and fled, leaving behind large quantities of grain, nearly 100 camels and about 500 sheep. The camp was burned, and on the 30th the column returned to Matruh.

This affair carries the narrative of operations in Western Egypt up to the end of 1915.

Captain Palmer, 2/8th Middlesex R.


Tom Hardy’s character’s experience in the Dunkirk movie most closely resembles that of New Zealand Spitfire pilot Alan Christopher Deere.

Dunkirk (2017) History vs. Hollywood

When Allied defense against the German FALL GELB operation broke, London organized Operation DYNAMO: a desperate withdrawal of 340,000 British, Commonwealth, and other Allied (120,000 French and 20,000 Belgian) troops from the beaches and port of Dunkirk. The operation lasted from May 25 to June 2, 1940. Many clamored aboard rescue ships without even basic equipment, while all tanks, trucks, and heavy weapons were abandoned on the beaches. This massive amphibious retreat was made necessary by a German breakthrough that split the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some French and Belgian divisions from the rest of the French Army which forced surrender by Belgium on May 28. There was significant misunderstanding and hostility at first between British and French troops in the enclave, as most of the French who were evacuated were not embarked until nearly all British troops had already left. The main reason was that the French High Command refused to accept the need for any evacuations until after the Belgian surrender on May 28, but later used the British evacuation as an excuse for military failure and signature of the armistice on June 22.

The evacuation was accomplished with the aid of hundreds of civilian craft of all types and sizes, the famed “Little Ships” that included personal yachts, London river barges, and fishing vessels. But mainly it was carried out by Royal Navy minesweepers, destroyers, and other warships. A heroic rearguard defense was made by elements of French 1st Army and selected British and Canadian units, while the RAF fended off Luftwaffe attacks on the beaches and ships and the Royal Navy fought off German E-boats. The RAF lost nearly 200 fighters over nine days defending the Dunkirk enclave; the Luftwaffe lost 240 planes attacking it. The Allies also lost 9 large warships ships and 9 destroyers, with 19 more destroyers damaged. Daylight ship runs stopped on June 1. Another 60,000 French troops and elements of the British perimeter force were evacuated under cover of night on June 2.

Escape of over 320,000 enemy soldiers from Dunkirk was made possible by Adolf Hitler`s “stop order.” For two critical days, May 24-25, he forbade Panzer forces to pursue a retreating and badly demoralized enemy. But it is important to note that the generals of the OKH agreed with Hitler: their attention was drawn south to what they believed would be a large battle in front of Paris. Hitler and the OKH alike wanted to preserve worn and tired Panzer divisions for that fight and to let slower arriving German infantry and the Luftwaffe finish the job along the coast. About 120,000 British troops remained in France after Dunkirk. Smaller evacuations got some men out, but most of the 51st Highland Division was compelled to surrender on June 12. Over 156,000 British, Canadian, and Polish troops were then evacuated from Cherbourg. although 3,000 died when their departing liner was bombed by the Luftwaffe just off the French coast. Behind the German lines, Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS carried out several massacres of French civilians-a sign of occupation practices to come. There were also instances along the perimeter of British troops shooting unarmed or individual surrendering Germans. Dunkirk was not the first time that British forces were chased from Europe by the Wehrmacht and forced into desperate evacuation by sea-British failure in northern Norway was contemporaneous. More dark days and forced amphibious departures from Greece and Crete still lay in the future for the British Army and its Commonwealth and minor European allies. And as Churchill told the House of Commons on June 4: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”


France, the battle launched on 10 May 1940 when German forces attacked through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, and forced the capitulation of France on 22 June. Some 40 Australian airmen took part in this brief campaign as members of Royal Air Force squadrons, and ten of them were lost in action. Three were killed while flying protective sorties over the Dunkirk beachheads during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in late May and early June. While none of these pilots were in formed units of the Royal Australian Air Force or retained a formal association with that service, many had received their initial flying training in the RAAF before being seconded (and then usually transferred) to the RAF.

Under these arrangements, the pilots concerned were permitted to wear out their RAAF uniforms before being required to replace them with RAF clothing. It is recorded that at least one man, Flying Officer Leslie Clisby, was still wearing his RAAF tunic-although in an advanced state of disrepair-when shot down over Neuville, France, on 14 May. At the time of his death, Clisby was officially credited with having destroyed fourteen enemy aircraft in combat (his unofficial tally was reportedly nineteen, and possibly higher). Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Clisby was arguably the first `Australian’ air ace of the Second World War.

Lex McAulay (1991) Six Aces: Australian Fighter Pilots 1939-45, Brunswick, Vic.: Banner Books

Siege of Matarikoriko

Note. The interiors of the covered Pits were lined with Fern &c. and used as sleeping places. Food was also cooked in them.
J. R. Jobbins.

Matarikoriko, one of the pas (forts) comprising the main Maori stronghold on the Waitara River in New Zealand’s Taranaki district, was besieged by troops under Major-General Thomas Pratt (commander-in-chief of British forces in Australia) on 29-31 December 1860. Located eight kilometres from the sea, on the river’s southern shore, it was the first-encountered of three formidable fortifications sited on the Kairau plateau and was accordingly the first tackled by Pratt when he took to the field on 28 December. Moving up with 900 men and four guns, the next day the British began constructing a redoubt able to accommodate 500 men about 730 metres from the Maori positions. This was intended to serve as a depot and start-point for a sap to facilitate an attack against the pa, and also for an attack on the next Maori work at Huirangi.

Under a brisk fire from well-concealed rifle pits less than 150 metres away, the British troops laboured all day and received little rest during the night from incessant Maori harassing fire. The exchange of fire on this day was remarkably heavy, with the British alone using an estimated 70,000 bullets along with 120 artillery rounds. The next day, Sunday, a white flag was flown over the stockade and its defenders insisted that they did not wish to desecrate the Sabbath by shedding blood. An armistice was accordingly arranged for the rest of the day, although this did not stop the British from working to finish and improve their redoubt’s parapets, and in preparing barbettes and platforms for mounting two 8-inch guns. Next morning it was found that the Maoris had abandoned the pa, leaving twelve of their dead buried within it. The cost to Pratt’s troops had been three killed and twenty wounded.

The action is principally of note because of the involvement in the British force of a naval brigade of 138 officers and men. Included in this corps were two officers and 30 sailors from the Victorian government’s auxiliary-screw warship Victoria (variously described as a barque, sloop or corvette), this being the first military operation carried out by any Australian armed unit overseas.

James Cowan (1922-23) The New Zealand Wars, 2 vols, Wellington, NZ: W. A. G. Skinner; Tom Gibson (1974) The Maori Wars, Wellington, NZ: A. H. & A. W. Reed; Colin Jones (1986) Australian Colonial Navies, Canberra: Australian War Memorial


Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross, watercolour by Charles Doudiet, Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Depiction of the Eureka Stockade by Beryl Ireland (1891)

The spark that detonated rebellion came in October 1854 with the murder of a digger. The culprit, his mates had good reason to think, was the publican of the Eureka Hotel at Ballarat and a known crony of the goldfields police. A mob of 5000 angry diggers burned the pub down. Three diggers who were marginally involved in the bonfire and riot were arrested: yet another injustice. When a deputation of diggers-Humffray, Black and Kennedy-went to Melbourne to petition for their mates’ release, Governor Hotham promised to look into the affair but then ordered police and companies from two regiments, the 12th (East Suffolk) and the 40th (Somerset) to march to Ballarat, a decision that broke any trust the diggers had in him.

On 29 November 1854 thousands of diggers gathered in the sunshine on Bakery Hill, beneath a flag of their own devising, the Southern Cross. The German Friedrich Vern called upon them to burn their licences rather than submit to the government. Peter Lalor spoke next, reminding the men that here was tyranny as bad as that in old Ireland. The Italian Raffaello Carboni, who had come to Australia to find happiness, wine and song, called on them to fight tyranny. Not for the last time in dramatic episodes in Australian history, the grog had been freely passed around, and when a couple of diggers burned their licences hundreds more threw theirs into a great bonfire.

Next day, when Commissioner Rede and his force attempted to inspect licences he was greeted with jeers, oaths and laughter. ‘We’ve burned them! ‘ the diggers shouted and marched in a mob through the heat to Bakery Hill. Here, in the late afternoon, Lalor again hoisted the Southern Cross and called upon all those among the 2 0 0 0 assembled who were willing to fight, to stand together. Kneeling in the dust, he led them in an oath: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’ It was stirring, but it was treason. Others shouted for the vote, for short parliaments, for democracy.

1854: Eureka Stockade Battle

Over the next two days the diggers built a fortress from timber slabs on Bakery Hill-the Eureka Stockade-and fashioned crude pikes from staves and knives. Lalor organised them into ‘divisions’ like an army, under the command of his confederates, Ross (a Canadian) and Thonen (a German). Few of the rebels had guns. By Saturday night only 150 diggers were still with Lalor, the rest having melted away.

It was Sunday, 3 December 1854, and this battle was being fought on the goldfields of Ballarat, Victoria, between Peter Lalor and his band of goldminers sheltering in a makeshift fortress-the Eureka Stockade-and the freshly arrived forces of the British colonial government of Victoria, troops from Melbourne with police in support.

The government forces had crept out of their nearby camp under the cover of darkness and quietly assembled within striking distance of the stockade by 3 a. m., when they started their surprise attack.

These troops were just as ruthless as Major Johnston’s had been in 1804, cunningly waiting till most miners had left the stockade on Saturday night to return home to families and attend church on the Sabbath. Although 800 miners had been guarding the stockade, only 200 had stayed-including Lalor-in case of attack.

Captain J. W. Thomas now began advancing stealthily towards the stockade leading his party of 276 men, all armed to the teeth with the latest weapons. They included 152 infantry, 24 cavalry and 100 mounted and foot police.

The troops had timed their attack well, as most of the remaining miners were sound asleep, but one alert sentry saw their shadowy shapes and fired a shot.

Captain Thomas warned his men: `We are seen. Forward and steady, men! Don’t fire, let the insurgents fire first. You wait for the sound of the bugle’. Meanwhile, the miners woken by the sentry’s shot leapt to their feet, groped for weapons and rushed to man the barricade with rifles, revolvers, cutlasses, swords, pikes, pitchforks or whatever they could lay their hands on.

Just 300 metres short of the stockade, Thomas ordered his centre section to prepare for a full frontal assault, one section to advance on the right flank and another on the left, to prevent miners-such as Lalor-escaping. He also ordered a final section to remain behind as reserves.

Then the troops charged, running across the open ground straight for the makeshift fortification which they could just see in the dark, along with the glint of the gun barrels and blades brandished by determined defenders. These defenders waited until the troops got to within 150 metres of the stockade and then opened fire, sending a scattered volley into the uniformed ranks, felling several men, who fell clutching their wounds.

Taking aim at an officer directing the troops, one of the miners shot Captain Henry Wise, who stumbled wounded to the ground. Picking himself up, the bleeding captain bravely pushed on only to be shot again, a wound that would prove fatal eighteen days later.

The miners let out a whoop of joy. Their first hit at officer level. Things were looking good. The army bugler then sounded his long-awaited signal and the disciplined troops opened fire in the pre-dawn light, from the front and both flanks, pouring lead into the stockade and the poorly armed souls defending their wooden fort.

Miners lucky enough to have rifles or revolvers tried to shoot back; others, like the Irish pikemen, had to wait for hand-to-hand combat. But the miners had neither the training nor the weapons of the troops and could not stop them targeting miner after miner, filling the stockade with wounded and dying men.

Firing his rifle at the fast-approaching troops, Lalor was shouting encouragement to his men when he was shot in the left arm and knocked to the ground. Knowing he would be a prime target once the troopers scaled the stockade, Lalor took refuge under a pile of timber, then called out to a couple of comrades to help whisk him away before it got light. Amid the smoke, noise and confusion of the battle, the two smuggled their wounded leader out through an opening at the rear of the stockade.

Realising they were overwhelmed, Lalor urged others to escape. But it was too late. When the troops scaled the barricades they shot or bayoneted any miners resisting them. Captain Thomas demanded the miners surrender. Routed, they threw down their arms.

By the time the troopers let up-twenty-five minutes after the battle began-they had killed fourteen miners outright (most of whom were Irish) and wounded another eight who later died of wounds. They also wounded twelve others (including Peter Lalor), who all escaped and recovered, and also captured 100 prisoners.

After the battle the government forces killed at least two more. Witnesses said some of the troops `ran amok’ and killed two bystanders before destroying the miners’ tents and property. The miners were so outclassed that defenceless women ran forward and threw themselves over the injured to prevent further indiscriminate killing by the troops.

Some of the wounded fled to surrounding bush, where they died a lonely death without being counted in the toll. The official record of deaths in the Ballarat District Register shows twenty-seven names associated with the stockade battle at Eureka.

By 8 a. m. Captain Pasley, the second-in-command of the British forces, sickened by the carnage, saved a group of prisoners from being bayoneted and threatened to shoot any police or soldiers who continued with the slaughter. But some soldiers and police did go wild, destroying tents and property without reason, bayoneting the wounded and even shooting two innocent bystanders. Because of this aftermath, some witnesses called Eureka a massacre.

Lalor certainly agreed, writing:

As the inhuman brutalities practised by the troops are so well known, it is unnecessary for me to repeat them. There were 34 digger casualties of which 22 died. The unusual proportion of the killed to the wounded is owing to the butchery of the military and troopers after the surrender.

The battle might have been overwhelmingly one-sided and brief, but the miners put up a brave fight in their short-lived attempt to defend their stockade and the call for freedom that the fortress represented. They did better than their Irish predecessors at Vinegar Hill in 1804.

Seventeen soldiers and one trooper were killed or wounded, twenty-four diggers lay dead; another twenty or more wounded (including Lalor, who was hidden by a priest and later had his arm amputated). The 114 prisoners were thrown into gaol to await trial. The bourgeois shuddered at word of Eureka. Even Henry Parkes called the revolt an ‘un-British error’ probably caused by foreigners. He was correct: of the fourteen diggers killed on the day, eight were Irish and two German. One was an Englishman and only one was Australian-born. Hotham made one last error: he ordered that thirteen of the ringleaders be charged with high treason, the only penalty for which was death. The trial became a farce and the sentences were lenient. David Syme’s Age pronounced the general feeling: It was the government that was rotten, not the people. When Governor Hotham caught a chill and died in early 1855, much of the bitterness of Eureka was buried with him.

Eureka would live on in folklore as the day of the Good Fight. ‘Stand up my young Australian, in the brave light of the sun, and hear how Freedom’s battle was in the old days lost-and won,’Victor Daley (another Irish nationalist) would write in ballad. ‘Ere the year was over, Freedom rolled in like a flood/They gave us all we asked for-when we asked for it in blood.’

Tanks at Monte Cassino

A 17-pdr anti-tank gun and crew near Cassino, 17 May 1944. A Sherman tank can be seen in the background.
NA 15075
Part of
No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit
Gade (Capt)

German Panther tank camouflaged between buildings, near Monte Cassino, Italy, Apr-May 1944.

In an effort to break the disastrous stalemate at Anzio, the Allies launched Operation Diadem on 11 May 1944. The key Allied armoured formations involved in the battle were the US 1st, Canadian 5th and British 6th Armoured Divisions, as well as the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade.This was an all-out armoured thrust designed to pierce the German defences; it also served to distract Hitler from the impending invasions of Normandy and the French Riviera, and the massive Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front. After months of deadlock the honour of taking Monte Cassino would eventually fall to Polish Shermans.
Operation Diadem called for a rapid penetration of the Gustav Line at Cassino and a joint thrust northwards. Lieutenant General Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army was to push up the Liri valley as far as Sora and up the Sacco valley as far as Valmontone, southeast of Rome. Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s US 5th Army was to drive along the coast to link up with the US 6th Corps, which would break out from the Anzio beachhead and strengthen the final push on Rome.

On the left two British divisions were to push up the coast to pin down the 3rd Panzergrenadiers, and in the meantime the US 1st Armored and 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions were to conduct the main attack towards Campoleone. The fighting was heavy, with the Americans losing a hundred tanks, and little progress was made until the 1st Armored Division finally pieced the Caesar Line.

During the fierce battles for Cassino tanks proved to be of limited value; in the town itself they were hampered by rubble and craters which prevented them from moving freely. During the First Battle, when the houses and streets of Cassino were still recognisable, tanks losses were high because they made suicidal frontal assaults and blundered into anti-tank ambushes and well laid mines. In just twelve days of fighting the US 756th Tank Battalion had twenty-three of its sixty-one tanks knocked out, with another twenty-one damaged. An armoured sortie into the Cassino massif early in the Third Battle was hopelessly mismanaged, resulting in considerable losses.

Pantherturm I

The defenders had no intention of surrendering any ground. During March and April the German paratroopers toiled on Cassino’s defences, hauling up their anti-tank guns to protect the most vulnerable sectors, as well as manning the fortified dugouts and bunkers that overlooked the approaches to the top of the Cassino massif. In addition, between Cassino and Rome the Germans had constructed a whole series of defensive lines upon which they could fall back. One of the strongest was the Hitler Line; this was studded with Panther tank turrets embedded in concrete, which were ready to exact an appalling toll on Allied tanks and infantry.

Captured German Fallschirmjäger parachute troops file past a Sherman tank of the New Zealand Armoured Brigade at Cassino.

The battle for Monte Cassino comprised four major engagements, involving American, British, Canadian, French, New Zealand and Polish forces.The centrepiece of the battle was the struggle for the monastery overlooking the town of Cassino. By early 1944 the western section of the German Winter Line was held by their forces in the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano valleys, and the surrounding mountains and ridges known as the Gustav Line.The Germans did not occupy the monastery and incorporate it into their defences until after American bombers flattened it in mid-February.

After struggling for six weeks through 7 miles of the Bernhardt Line at the cost of 16,000 casualties, the US 5th Army finally reached the Gustav Line on 15 January. The first assault was launched two days later. Although US troops got across the Rapido, tanks were unable to reach them, leaving them at the mercy of the panzers and self-propelled guns of General Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadiers.

When the Third Battle commenced on 15 March it was hoped to launch a decisive blow on the German defences in the monastery and town. This included a surprise attack by the British 20th Armoured Brigade moving up a track from Cairo to Albaneta Farm towards the monastery. The conditions were completely unsuitable for tanks. A German counterattack from the monastery left the tanks stranded round Castle Hill; lacking infantry support, by mid-afternoon they were all knocked out.

The final battle commenced with Operation Diadem on 11 May and saw the British 8th Army make two opposed crossings over the Rapido river. Once this was bridged, tanks of the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade moved up to support the infantry – armoured support had been lacking during the first two battles. In the meantime the Polish Corps fought against the German paratroops in and around Cassino in what was clearly a grudge match.

While the Polish Corps consisted of two infantry divisions, the 3rd Carpathian and 5th Kresowa, they had the normal allotment of divisional tanks and were supported by the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade.The latter consisted of the 1st and 2nd Polish and 6th Kresowa Armoured Regiments, equipped with American-supplied Shermans. In total the Poles mustered 50,000 men, who had arrived in Italy between December 1943 and January 1944 and first went into the line in March. Around 80 per cent of these troops were former Russian prisoners of war, but they were strengthened with Poles from the Carpathian Brigade that fought with the British 8th Army at Tobruk. A Polish armoured division was formed but this was committed to the Normandy campaign.

After the failure of the assaults by the Americans, New Zealanders and Indians, the same formidable defences confronted the Poles. In particular, the monastery, the south and west of the massif, and part of the town were held by the paratroops, whose key strongpoints were situated at Colle Sant’ Angelo – Point 706 – Monte Castellone; in the monastery and the upper reaches of the town; on Points 593 and 569; and around Massa Albaneta.
The German 1st Parachute Division holding Cassino had considerable firepower. It was supported by 242 Assault Battalion, 525 Anti-tank Battalion (equipped with self-propelled 88mm guns), four artillery battalions from the 10th Army and one from the 90th Panzergrenadier Division. In addition, 71 Werfer Regiment had forty 150 and 300mm mortars near Pignataro and thirty 150mm and 200mm mortars at Villa Santa Lucia. The Nebelwerfer or ‘Moaning Minnie’ six-barrelled rocket launcher was a particularly devastating weapon.

The Poles had great difficulties in concentrating their men at the forward jump-off points, and were assisted by five Cypriot mule companies and two British jeep platoons in moving up their stockpiles for the attack. The 3rd Carpathians had the job of storming the monastery ruins after securing Point 593 and Albaneta Farm to the northwest. The 5th Kresowas were to assault Phantom Ridge and Sant’ Angelo to the south. The going was tough for all the Allied forces committed to the offensive. Astonishingly, within 20 minutes of the opening Allied barrage the Carpathians were on Point 593 and the Kresowas had gained Phantom ridge, though they suffered fearful casualties in the process.

Polish tanks with names like Claw, Pygmy and Pirate advanced on Albaneta on 15 May firing on burnt-out Allied tanks, the remains of the March attack, which were being used as enemy machine-gun posts. They were soon halted by mines, and sappers had to crawl under the tanks for protection from snipers as they worked to clear them. ‘We were in utter despair,’ said one Polish tank commander, ‘being unable to reach our comrades dying in front of Albaneta. With real fury we blasted away at the ruins, and at every suspicious bush or pile of stones.’ The tankers took no chances and showed no mercy. Anything that moved was deluged in machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire by the Polish tanks. On the night of 17 May the determined Poles finally gained all their main objectives, including Point 593, but not Albaneta, where the Germans clung on to the last.

Polish troops moved into the monastery on 18 May to find it abandoned.The 1st Parachute Division had called it a day. Lieutenant Casimir Gurbiel and a platoon of Uhlans from the Podolski Lancers were the first Poles to enter the monastery. The only remaining Germans were the badly wounded; when asked why they had held out so fanatically, they replied they had been told the Polish did not take prisoners. Nearly a thousand Poles died in the two attacks.

Six days later the Canadian 5th Armoured Division breached the line, opening the route to Rome. The Allies hoped that this would break the deadlock that had blighted the Italian campaign to date. It was not to be.

Vultee Vengeance

Vengeance Mk.IIa Unit: 12 Sqn, RAAF Pilot – Flt.Lt.John Hooper. Cooktown AB, Queensland, Australia, September 1943.

Vengeance Mk.II Unit: 45 Sqn, RAF India, 1943.

No. 45 Sqn new the Vengeance for 15 months in the Far East, where it achieved limited success. This example is a Vengeance Mk II shown whilst based in India in 1943. The Vengeance was based on the German idea of the ‘Stuka’, and similarly needed fighter cover to operate with any success.

Think of the most effective dive- bomber of World War Two and one would be forgiven for believing that honour might go to the German Junkers Ju 87 `Stuka’, the Russian Petlyakov Pe-2 `Peshka’ or the American Douglas Dauntless.

But another American type takes the top slot for delivering the maximum number of direct hits for the minimum amount of losses. It was an aircraft its crews came to love and the Japanese learned to fear, yet it never went to war with US forces: the Vultee 72 A-31 Vengeance.

Like many aircraft developed before 1939, the birth of the Vengeance was not especially easy. Although the French had been first to consult the Americans on a new dive-bomber design, with l’Armée de l’Air officers urgently seeking to address their ailing military aircraft programme, the Vengeance ultimately evolved to a British specification.

The Model 72, brainchild of Richard Palmer, head of engineering for Vultee, was a twoseat single-engined monoplane with a distinctive wing shape. It was specifically built as a divebomber, with all-metal stressed skin construction and airframe loads adjusted accordingly. Its powerplant was a 1,700hp (1,268kW) Wright Double Cyclone R-2600-A5B-5, which gave it a maximum speed of around 279mph (448km/h) and the ability to climb to a little above 24,000ft (7,315m). Its range was comparatively limited, but it was never intended that the Vengeance should fly far to its target.

Among pilots asked to test the new type as part of the British Air Commission was Battle of Britain veteran Wg Cdr Mike Crossley DSO DFC. Satisfied, the British signed an initial contract for 400 Mk. Is and 300 Mk. IIs.

The honour of being the first RAF unit to operate the Vengeance fell to 82 Squadron, although its sister unit, 84, became the first to bomb Japanese targets. Two other RAF outfits – 45 and 110 Squadrons – were also equipped.

The Indian Air Force flew the Vengeance, 7 and 8 Squadrons taking the type, and a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) unit, 12 Squadron, began receiving it in October 1942 too; others were to follow.

All three air arms shared the same early frustrations. Oil leaks, faulty piston rings and temperamental electric fuel pumps caused equal concern. Many aircraft returned home with the air gunner’s hand cramped from continually pumping the hand-drive wobble pump.

The mounting for the twin 0.30in machine guns in the rear cockpit was inadequate and the similar-calibre four guns in the wings tended to overheat and jam. Some Vengeances would come back with all their defences out of action.

The CO of 82 Squadron, Wg Cdr Dennis Gibbs, reported it was not until April 1943 that he obtained serviceable aircraft which could be flown every day! Gibbs was later be awarded the DSO for his period in command, one of only a handful of Vengeance aircrew to be recognised

– a cause of considerable frustration and anger at the time and since. Early Vengeance sorties comprised sea patrols, hunting with little success for elusive Japanese submarines. Between the first deliveries in the late autumn of 1942 until operational readiness was achieved the following spring, most of the time was spent in local flying and intense bombing practice.

Squadrons also experimented with tactics, including the optimum flying formations, the ideal length of dive and angle of attack. `Vics’ of up to a dozen aircraft were considered ideal, diving from 10,000ft to 4,000ft to achieve an accurate drop and allowing for a suitable margin to descend lower if required. Terminal velocity with dive brakes extended and one-third throttle was recorded at 320mph at 90°, or 290mph at 75°.

Pilots were soon getting the hang of things, some being able to place their bombs within 15 yards (13.7m) of the objective. This encouraged an official report declaring the Vengeance as ideally suited to being “used with good effect against small targets”.

The crews of 110 Squadron celebrated a `Red Letter Day’ on March 19, 1943 when a box of six Vengeances bombed a Japanese headquarters in Htizwe village on the Arakan Front in Burma, supporting Allied troops who were heavily engaged. All 12 bombs burst in the centre of the target, causing considerable damage. More sorties were flown against enemy strong points and pillboxes over the next few days, prompting a congratulatory signal from the Air Officer Commanding, Bengal.

Other RAF units were soon in the fray, among them 82 Squadron. Attacks were made throughout May and June 1943 before 82’s place was taken in the line by 45 Squadron to maintain momentum. Targets in and around Akyab Island became the priority to disrupt the landing and transportation of supplies to Japanese forces.

An unusual task was a precision strike on a photorecce Spitfire that had crashed behind enemy lines. The Allies did not want its camera equipment falling into Japanese hands so 45 Squadron was ordered to destroy it.

As well as front-line objectives, Vengeance units were also briefed to support the behind-the-lines activities of the famed General Orde Wingate and his `Chindit’ special forces. When the first columns moved off, 84 Squadron, under Sqn Ldr Arthur Gill, was ready in support and relieved soon after by its counterparts in 45 Squadron.

Increasingly the RAF units worked alongside one another in a pattern not dissimilar to the `cab rank’ system perfected by Hawker Typhoon squadrons over Northern Europe. With increased liaison with ground forces, Vengeances could drop down from the skies to pick off targets where they were most needed. For example, on January 17, 1944 two dozen Vengeances from 45 and 110 Squadrons attacked a Japanese stronghold at Kyauktaw twice in the space of less than 20 minutes, with devastating effect.

The action was one of the last the men of 45 Squadron were involved in before being pulled out of the line to re-equip with DH Mosquitos. Sadly, on the unit’s last-ever Vengeance operation, Plt Off Hedley Jewell’s aircraft was shot down.

Consigned to the “Forgotten War” but gained a reputation for incredible accuracy, and was ergo much praised by the army. Also, it was a very strong aircraft that kept bringing its crews back (“45 missions was not uncommon” – direct quote of OC 84 Sqn who commanded the unit whilst it was equipped with Vengeances).

Powerfully influenced by the successes achieved by the German Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber in the early months of the war, the British in 1940 ordered several hundred Vultee V-72 aircraft from the USA, a type that had not then been selected for the US Army Air Corps, and production lines were established at Vultee’s Nashville plant and the Northrop plant at Hawthorne, California. Before the first British aircraft was delivered in 1942, however, the United States had entered the war, and further aircraft were ordered for the USAAF, The American aircraft (designated the A-31 and A-35, but generally referred to as the V-72) did not match up to expectations and almost all were relegated to target towing and other training duties from the outset.

Missions by Australian Vengeance squadrons (12, 21 `City of Melbourne’, 23 `City of Brisbane’, 24 `City of Adelaide’ and 25 `City of Perth’) mirrored those of their RAF counterparts. Although they were initially on invasion alert, operations in earnest began in New Guinea in September 1943 from Tsili, hitting Japanese radio location installations on the islands of Kaial and Wonam and supporting the Australian 9th Division’s amphibious landing on Satelberg.

Nadzab in northern New Guinea became a focus in the winter of 1943- 1944, with strikes on enemy positions that were holding up the advance of the Australian 5th and 7th Divisions moving along the Huon peninsula. At one fortress known locally as `Shaggy Ridge’, RAAF Vengeances from 24 Squadron dropped nine tons of bombs in an initial attack, and in less than a week a painful thorn in the Australians’ side had been removed.

Throughout February, the RAAF units combined to bring even greater weight to their strikes and on the 24th of the month, 23 and 24 Squadrons hit enemy anti-aircraft batteries in Hansa Bay. Sadly, they lost two of their aircraft in the strike – including one carrying an army captain as an observer.

The Vengeance saw considerably more service in the RAF, a total of 1,205 being delivered, the Vengeance Nik I, Vengeance Mk II and Vengeance Mk III corresponding to the American A- 31, and the Vengeance Mk IV to the A-35. Tests with the first Vengeance Mk Is led to numerous alterations, and it was not until late 1942 that deliveries started in earnest. By that time the tactical weakness of the dive-bomber had been recognized, and it was decided not to employ the Vengeance in Europe where it would be easy prey for the excellent German fighters. Instead the type was sent to equip RAF squadrons in India and Burma where, operating under top cover provided by Hawker Hurricanes (and later by Supermarine Spitfires and Republic Thunderbolts), it would represent the best weapon against difficult jungle targets.

The Vengeance was first in action in July 1943 in Burma, having started to replace the veteran Bristol Blenheim with the RAF; it eventually equipped four squadrons (Nos 45, 82, 84 and 110) as well as several in the Indian Air Force. As expected, however, the Vengeance proved extremely vulnerable in the presence of Japanese fighters and so seldom ventured abroad without strong fighter escort. The type did nevertheless prove very effective during the Arakan campaign, and in a number of successful raids destroyed a large number of Japanese vehicles and quantities of stores being assembled in the jungle.

By the last year of the war conventional fighter-bomber tactics were seen as the best means of ground support, and demands for the Vengeance diminished rapidly. The Vengeance squadrons’ powers reached their zenith in the spring and early summer of 1944. Crews were engaged in all the major actions along the Indo-Burmese border and in particular the battles in and around Imphal and Kohima.

Flying hundreds of sorties, the dive-bombers were pushed to the limit of their endurance. Two `ops’ per crew per day were not uncommon, with some attacks delivered on enemy targets within a few yards of friendly forces. Even a near miss could cause terrible damage, so accuracy was essential and the 14th Army was once again full of praise for their air force colleagues.

Despite the increase in volume and frequency of strikes, casualties were remarkably low. Losses to Japanese aircraft were virtually unheard of: enemy fighters seemed unwilling, or unable, to engage. The Vengeances that did fail to return inevitably did so as a result of flak or, at the point of pulling out of a dive, to small arms fire. At least one of the squadrons worked out a new tactic: attacking the target in two `vics’ from opposite directions to divide the enemy’s antiaircraft fire. A misjudged approach could have fatal consequences. Occasionally a Vengeance would be caught in the blast from the bombs of the aircraft in front of it, although the fuses were timed to avoid this.

Under the command of Sqn Ldr Hemango Choudhuri, the crews of 7 Squadron, Indian Air Force, were briefed on May 25, 1944 to bomb a strategic bridge near Imphal. The structure was of vital importance to the Japanese army’s lines of communication and nothing short of total destruction would do.

The Vengeances swept down through thick cloud to register a direct hit, seriously delaying the Japanese advance. Other raids on similar bridges were attempted but never with the same degree of success.

The start of the monsoon season in June signalled the beginning of the end for Vengeance operations in the Far East. In what appeared to be undue haste the squadrons were withdrawn and re-equipped.

It was fitting that the Vengeance’s final combat operation was flown by 84 Squadron, the unit that had first taken the dive-bomber into action. Appropriately, it was led by the CO, Sqn Ldr Gill, with Flt Lt Alan Blackburn in the rear seat.

Twelve Vengeances made an early afternoon attack on an enemy ammunition dump on July 16. The sortie was completed with the usual high degree of accuracy, most of the bombs and incendiaries falling in the target area. All the aircraft returned safely to base.

While the Vengeance was enjoying its swansong, thousands of miles away in the US the decision had been taken to cease production and the last one rolled out of the factory on June 2.

New roles were found for those yet to be delivered, some becoming garishly painted target-tugs and sturdy or reliable station `hacks’. Trials were even undertaken to use the Vengeance to carry poison gas.

By mid-1945 most had been relegated to target-towing duties.

In total, 1,528 of all types had been built, of which 1,205 were passed to the RAF – some purchased outright and others on Lend-Lease.

So how does the Vengeance rank in the list of the all-time greats? Comparing various bombers in the Far East for their bombing accuracy, a study by the Indian Air Force found the B-24 Liberator registered 50% hits and the B-25 Mitchell 60%, whereas the humble Vengeance achieved 100% accuracy.

It’s time that Vultee Vengeances – and the men that crewed them – are given the recognition they so richly deserve.


Vultee Vengeance Mk I

Type: two-seat dive-bomber

Powerplant: one l,700-hp (1268-kW) Wright R-2600-A5B-5air-cooled radial piston engine

Performance: maximum speed 449 km/h (279 mph) at 4115 m (13,500 ft); climb to 4570 m (15,000 ft) in 11 minutes 18 seconds; service ceiling 6795m(22,300ft); range1930km(1200 miles)

Weights: empty 4672 kg (10,300 lb); maximum take-off 7440 kg (16,400 lb)

Dimensions: span 14,63 m (48 ft 0 in); length 12.12m (39ft 9in); height 3.91 m (12ft 10in); wing area 30.84m2 (332 sq ft)

Armament: four wing-mounted 7.62-mm (0.3-in) machine-guns and two 7.62-mm (0.3-in) machine-guns in the rear cockpit, plus a bombload of four 227-kg (500-lb) bombs carried internally.