92 Squadron pilots after they had destroyed three German Tiger tanks in a single sortie on the 13th of April 1945.
Left to Right:Warrant Officer P. G. Hoolihan of Mareeba, Queensland; Flying Officer C. W. Beasley of Westcliffe-on-Sea, Essex; Major J. Gasson DSO DFC of Cape Town, South Africa; Captain R. H. Jacobs of Johannesburgh, South Africa; Flight Sergeant (Flt Sgt) S. Widdowson of Moorends, Doncaster; Flight Lieutenant D. R. C. Aling of Selsdon, Surrey; Flt Sgt J. L. Burrow of Sedberg, Yorkshire.
After a brief period of training and refitting, long-range tanks were fitted to the aircraft and on June 14th the Squadron moved to Malta. Lord Trenchard said a few words to the ground crew who departed in a very small ship.
In Malta they operated from Luqa in conjunction with No 145 Squadron (of which newly promoted Squadron Leader Duke DSO DFC and Bar had assumed command) and No 1 Squadron, SAAF, making offensive sweeps over the Sicilian towns of Catania, Comesco and Gerbini until the invasion of Sicily on July 10th by Eight Army Divisions.
Ever since June the previous year, when 92 first flew with the South Africans there had been a grand spirit of friendship and cooperation between the two Squadrons and it was hoped that together they might open the score for the Wing in Operations from Malta. Their luck was out, however, for there was no sign of the Hun.
It is recorded that our desert weary warriors found it difficult to cope with the ‘Bull’ on the island after the comparative laxity of life in the desert. During the month the Squadron were honoured by a visit from the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, who thanked them for their great work in the last campaign.
The monotony was broken by the following signal “A 501, July 9. SECRET. The following Order of the Day by the Air Officer Commanding Malta is to be conveyed to all ranks. A British Army led by General Monty and an American Army commanded by General Patton are about to invade Sicily. The success of this operation will depend primarily on the amount of fighter cover that Squadrons operating under AHQ Malta can give to the shipping convoying Allied troops, also to the Army when it has landed. I feel confident that all ranks and especially the ground crews will cheerfully put forth their maximum effort to support our comrades in the Army and Navy throughout this critical battle – K.R. Park”.
Flight Lieutenant Thomas Savage opened the score for the Squadron and the Wing when the invasion began on the 10th. He destroyed a JU 88 but the Squadron’s joy was overshadowed when they received the news that both he and Flying Officer Dick-Sherwood were missing. Later it was confirmed that Savage had lost his life. When he destroyed the JU 88 he followed it down and was hit by ‘Ack Ack’ from our own warships but was unable to bale out.
On the following day the Squadron continued to cover the troops assaulting the beaches in the Pachino Peninsular and destroyed another four JU 88s who tried to interfere in this operation. This was 92 back in their old form. After another uneventful patrol on the 13th they landed at their new landing ground at Pachino and flew other patrols from there. That afternoon Pilot Officer Wilson force landed near Syracuse short of petrol, but the local inhabitants proved to be very friendly and gave him food and shelter for the night.
The Squadron ground crew left Malta for Sicily that afternoon. Corporal Wallace was told to pack his kit, take eighteen men and be prepared to get the men away by boat to Sicily. There were hundreds of ships in the harbour and on reaching the dock side they found Flying Officer Dicks-Sherwood who had been landed at Malta from a trawler, which had picked him up on the 10th July.
When the ground crew landed at Sicily they had to walk miles to the aerodrome and before they arrived the pilots carried out two patrols. In the second of these they were jumped by six MC 202s and Sergeant Ted Brister’s aircraft was badly shot up. He landed safely at base but it was interesting to note that although the enemy aircraft had the advantage of height and numbers they would not stay and fight after their initial attack. There were three more patrols during the day and early in the afternoon Flying Officer Jowsey and Pilot Officer Probert in Spitfire IXs encountered twelve MC 202 fighter bombers. Flying Officer Jowsey destroyed one while Pilot Officer Probert destroyed one and damaged another.
Two Spitfire L.F. VIIIs were delivered on July 15th. This meant that the Squadron was now flying three different marks of Spitfire at the same time – the Mk V, the L.F. Mk VIII and Mk IX. In the third show that day Flying Officer Jowsey and Flight Sergeant Askey each damaged MC 202s. After expending all his ammunition, Flying Officer Jowsey continued on the tail of the MC 202 for five minutes just in case the enemy aircraft found it possible to reverse the position.
On the 17th July, after two days of hearing terrific bangs as Gerries’ ammunition dumps were ‘going up’, another move to Cassibile took place. In spite of an intensive programme of fighter sweeps, patrol duties and bomber cover, the Luftwaffe was rarely seen. The Squadron diary records that ‘it appears the Hun knows our pilots are spoiling for a fight and he dare not risk his aircraft’.
Squadron Leader Humphreys announced on 24th July that one of the Squadron’s former pilots of the Battle of Britain days had been appointed Group Captain in charge of the Wing. He was none other than Group Captain Brian Kingcome, DSO DFC and Bar.
Before the end of the month yet another move was made, this time to Lentini West where they stayed until after the end of the Sicilian campaign. Thousands of tanks and lorries were just ahead of the Squadron waiting to cross into Italy via Messina, which was taken on August 17th marking the end of the campaign.
Although the Squadron had done invaluable and continuous support work, the pilots confessed themselves to be sadly disappointed at the lack of offensive action. The Kitty Hawk escort work was extremely monotonous and they were glad when that ended and they had the opportunity of some practice flying and sightseeing tours including climbing Mount Etna, prior to the invasion of Italy on 3rd September 1943.
The invasion began at 0430 hours and throughout the day the Squadron, now almost fully reequipped with the clipped wing Spitfire L.F. Mk VIII for low level work, maintained a standing patrol over the Strait of Messina, covering the landing throughout the day. The Squadron’s sorties totalled forty seven out of the Wing aggregate of one hundred and fifty seven. On two shows they encountered formations of eight FW 190s and forced them to jettison their bombs but were unable to make any claims.
Later that day they heard that Flying Officer Eric Dicks-Sherwood had been awarded the DFC and Flight Sergeant Brown had been promoted to Warrant Officer. A party was held the following day to celebrate this news, at which Group Captain Kingcome was present. The celebrations went off in the normal 92 Squadron tradition and by the time our intrepid aviators had recovered from their hangovers Italy had surrendered unconditionally.
92 Squadron was selected for the honour of being the first of the Wing to operate from the Italian mainland. On 14th September the ground crew were packed into the invasion barges bound for an unknown destination and the pilots flew to Grottaglie near Taranto.
The place was full of unserviceable Gerry and Italian aircraft and the hangars had been blasted away. They were told that there would be accommodation and messing but nothing was provided; however, the Italians seemed pleased to see them.
A series of sweeps over the Bari, Barletta and Foggia area followed, together with further cover for Kitty Hawk bombers attacking enemy transport and airfield. No contact was made with the enemy to the added annoyance of the pilots and September closed uneventfully for the Squadron.
A move to Gioia on September 23rd and Torterella early in October put the Squadron in the thick of it as usual and gave hope of a more active part in operations. They were only eight miles from the enemy at one point and Jerry patrols wandered very close at night. However the continued absence of the Luftwaffe meant that October too passed with little action.
During this time the Squadron heard that the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Humphries, and Pilot Officer Probert (who left at the beginning of September on expiration of his tour) had been awarded the DFC. On the following day Flying Officer Sissons took a party into Bari and was successful in buying some three hundred bottles of beer in time for the party that night to celebrate the awards. The Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant Travis, took the empty bottles back on the following day and tried to buy some more but he was informed that the NAAFI had taken over the brewery. The Squadron diary commented ‘Now we shall probably have to wait six months for the airmen to get half a bottle each’.
On October 10th, the fourth anniversary of the Squadrons reformation, the pilots were anxious to make an addition to their score. They were not disappointed, as during a patrol in the Termoli area they spotted a Dornier. Five of the pilots fired at it in turn and shot it down into the sea. A party was held that night although there was no beer. Group Captain Kingcombe and seven other original members of the Squadron including Warrant Officer Brown and Corporal Wallace were there.
Another point of interest during the month was the return of one of the pilots, Flying Officer Brendan Baker, who had been posted missing since the 16th August when, before being shot down he had destroyed two Macchi 202s. After baling out of his aircraft, he swam towards the shore, despite shrapnel wounds in the leg, and was picked up by the Germans who took him to hospital in Sicily. He remained there until just before the German collapse on the island, when all wounded were moved back to a hospital at Casenza and from there he was sent to Naples, where he spent a most uncomfortable night, as the town was being bombed by the Royal Air Force. When the Germans began to pull out of Naples taking with them the walking wounded, Flying Officer Baker managed to hide in a tunnel, where he stayed until picked up by the Medical Corps. He refused an opportunity to return to England, preferring to return to the Squadron, where he was given a great welcome. The pilots had bought some pigs and it was decided to kill one that day to provide a good evening meal. The NAFFI even supplied one bottle of beer and a bar of chocolate to each member of the Squadron. It seemed strange that although the NAAFI took over the brewery at Bari the beer came from Scotland. With the Squadron’s mail that night was a letter for Baker – a tax demand from the Inland Revenue.
On the 1st November, the Eighth Army began the assault on the River Trigno Line. 92 Squadron maintained a continuous patrol over our forward troops and together with No 417 Squadron, escorted Bostons and Warhawks of the Wing on bombing missions over Yugoslavia and anti-shipping patrols in the Adriatic.
By 6th November, Squadron Leader E.D. Mackie DFC and Bar had taken over command of the Squadron and patrols over the Sangro river where the enemy had established his winter defence line formed the major activity for the new Squadron Commander. In spite of the most aggressive intentions of the pilots very little contact was made with the Luftwaffe. In the month nearly four hundred operational sorties were flown with a flying time of over four hundred and fifty hours. Three FW 190s were claimed destroyed with several more probably destroyed and damaged.
At the end of November the Squadron moved up the Adriatic coast to Canne and it was there on the 26th that Leading Aircraftsman Stanley Dickerson went for an unexpected flight on a Spitfire’s tail. The planes were dispersed all over the aerodrome, in case of enemy air attack. It was a lesson learnt from the Battle of Britain. It meant that the pilots had to taxi from there to the newly laid metalled runway. The weather that Autumn was horrible, and the mud was awful. If they revved the engine too much to get through the mud, there was a very real danger that the tail would lift up. To avoid this, they would get a crew man, the Rigger Fitter, to sit astride the tail plane while they taxied, and to leap off as they opened up. On this day Ken Warren was taking off but Dickie, his fitter, didn’t get off the tail in time and Ken took off with Dickie clinging on for dear life. “Dickie” takes up the story at that point:
“I was sitting on the tail and the pilot must have forgotten about me when he got on the runway because he opened the throttle and off we went. I banged on the fuselage as we took off, but, of course he couldn’t hear me, though he must have known something was wrong as the tail was heavy. Then the ‘Number Two’ in the formation caught sight of me sitting back there, flew over, waggled his wings and pointed backwards. My pilot suddenly realised what had happened.”
To the obvious question how he managed to hold on ‘Dicky’ replied, “I didn’t have to. The slip stream from the propeller pushed me against the fin, so I just sat there.
“We were about six hundred feet when the pilot circled round very gently and came down on the runway in a beautiful three point landing. I didn’t even feel a bump when we landed.”
Another obvious question “Weren’t you scared?”
“No not a bit,” he replied, “But I was a bit worried about the pilot. You see, he had to go up on a show over the Sangro rover, I thought he might be upset by taking me up on the tail. So directly the aircraft stopped I jumped off and ran up to him and gave him the ‘thumbs up’ sign, and shouted “Okay sir, Everything’s fine. Go on, get upstairs.”
On December 3rd, Yellow Section led by the Commanding Officer went on patrol along the River Sangro. They climbed to nineteen thousand feet and were no sooner on patrol that they sighted twelve ME 109 fighters and fighter bombers on their port side at eighteen thousand feet flying east. The CO fired at two of them, but was unable to concentrate because the Hun, for once, was inclined to mix it. He closed to three hundred yards astern of another and this time made sure of it. It crashed on the side of a hill west of Casoli. Meanwhile Sergeant Hanson gave a burst at another which slowed down. He closed to fifty yards and the enemy aircraft burst into flames before crashing near Casoli. Red Section, at ten thousand feet, patrolled with no incident apart from seeing the ‘flamer’ go in. 92’s partners, No 601 squadron, reached their two hundred destroyed on the same day and this success led to a celebration in the 601 Squadron Pilots’ Mess that night.
The following day was uneventful but just after midday on December 5th while Yellow Section were investigating a formation of ‘Bogies’ flying towards Pescara, Red section met twenty five plus F/W 190s and ME 109s. Sergeant Peacock damaged an F/W 190 and Lieutenant Sachs, a South African from Randfontein, Transvaal, shot the Squadrons record up to one hundred destroyed since Alamein.
Outnumbered by twelve to one he knocked down two F/W 190s. His own aircraft was badly hit and he decided to try to crash-land. On the way down he collided with another F/W 190 and saw it fall away out of control. This one was put down as a probable because he did not see it crash. After the collision Sachs bailed out and landed safely in our own lines sixty yards from his wrecked aircraft.
The Squadron received a signal from the Army that he had been picked up and it was not until his return to camp late that night that the story of his successful combat was pieced together.
Sachs said: “I was on patrol over the Sangro River when I saw the twelve F/W 190s in a dive. I closed in on one and saw my cannon shells smash into the fuselage. Then the enemy aircraft went into a spin and I thought ‘That’s the ninety ninth as I saw it crash into the ground and burst into flames”.
Seeing another 190 on the tail of a Spitfire, Sachs turned towards it and closing into point blank range, gave it all he had. The Squadron’s one hundredth Desert Air Force success went off with a bang; the explosion being so violent that Sachs windscreen was shattered by debris and a large lump hit his starboard wing.
Seeing his aircraft was damaged the FWs then began to attack Sachs, diving on him from all sides. “I saw a cannon shell smash into my tail plane, ripping away the starboard elevator”, he said. “Then, in a turn, I saw a 190 come straight at me. The next moment I felt a convulsive shudder and I was still wondering what had hit me when I saw the 190 dive away out of control. It had collided full tilt with me. I did not have time to see it go in, so I am claiming it as a probable. I was now being attacked on all sides and crippled by the collision, with my port wing damaged and my starboard cannon blown out, I was a sitting target.
“Behind me I heard an explosion. My engine, hit by bullets began to splutter and smoke, and with my controls jammed, there seemed little chance of celebrating my successes. I was most surprised and relieved when the 190s suddenly broke off their attacks and flew away.
“But I was not yet out of the woods. With my engine on fire, I pushed back the hood to bail out. I was half out of the aircraft when I felt something tug my back. My parachute had caught up on something. The aircraft was now spinning down. Once more I tried to get free but still remained trapped. Suddenly I felt myself thrown clear. Even as I pulled the ripcord I heard my aircraft crash beneath me and the next instant I landed safely in our own lines within sixty yards of my Spitfire”.
This success brought the total number of enemy aircraft destroyed by the Squadron to two hundred and ninety three and a half confirmed. “On to the three hundred!” was the slogan of the eight pilots as they took off for the final patrol of the day and they were not disappointed because the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Mackie, who was leading, destroyed a ME 109 which went down in flames. This made eleven aircraft destroyed in eleven days without losing a pilot.
Before breakfast on the 16th four Spitfires on patrol encountered sixteen enemy aircraft near Casoli but only Sergeant Hanson was able to get into position to open fire. He made no claim but the Forward Controller later reported that a ME 109 had crashed. The next Section patrolled without incident but it was decided to increase the number of aircraft to eight. This was a wise move because another formation airborne just before lunch, had a dice with twenty FW 190s. Flying Officer Hazel damaged two of them and Flying Officer Ives damaged a third. There were too many around to allow the pilots to observe full results of their efforts. Again, in the afternoon they met over twenty FW 190s and ME 109 fighters and fighter bombers. Flight Lieutenant Hards probably destroyed an ME 109 while Squadron Leader Mackie and Sergeant Hanson damaged a ME 109 each. Two days later Flight Lieutenant Hards DFC DFM was promoted to command No 111 Squadron.
A report issued by the Public Relations Department, received in December gave due praise to the Desert Air Force and in particular 92 Squadron. It read ...
“The Spitfires of the Desert Air Force have been constantly sweeping the skies over and behind the enemy lines on the Eighth Army front since the invasion of Italy, but they very seldom ever caught a glimpse of an enemy aircraft prior to the start of the Sangro River battle. With the crumbling of the enemy’s winter front, however, the Luftwaffe has obviously been ordered into the air to try to prevent at all cost the advance of our ground forces. Formations of as many as forty and fifty enemy fighter bombers and fighters have appeared over the battle area at a great height and attempted to dive down and strafe our own troops and vital bridges carrying tanks and supplies over the Sangro River itself.
“With few exceptions these attempts have been frustrated and the enemy aircraft driven off with severe losses. Since the Sangro battle started the Desert Air Force Spitfires have destroyed eighteen enemy aircraft and probably destroyed and damaged many others.
“The East India Squadron has played a prominent part in turning the enemy raiders back, and has the proud distinction that not once has the Luftwaffe got through to its objective when East India Squadron pilots were on patrol. They have invariably forced the enemy to jettison their bombs and the FW 190s and ME 109s which were not shot down were chased out of the skies”.
The whole Squadron hoped for some clear days so that the Hun would be coaxed into the air, for the pilots to reach the three hundred destroyed mark before Christmas. Unfortunately, very bad weather and low cloud made operations difficult and kept the Germans on the ground but the Squadron, with the other units of the Wing, were able to give valuable support to the Eighth Army battling for Ortono.
Christmas Day in sunny Italy was celebrated in grand style. After breakfast four pilots carried out an uneventful patrol over Ortona but low cloud and heavy rain caused the cancellation of the remainder of the flying programme. Some readiness was done in the afternoon but the pilots were released in time to assist the other officers and senior NCOs in waiting on the airmen for their Christmas dinner. Each man had four bottles of beer to wash down the splendid meal of turkey, pork, plum pudding, mince pies and Christmas cake and there was a parcel of seventy cigarettes on each plate. At night the officers and pilots carried out guard duties on the landing ground to allow the men to continue their celebrations.
The Squadron’s achievements to date were duly acknowledged in an Air Ministry News Bulletin issued on the 31st December, which stated: ‘This is the highest scoring Spitfire squadron of the Desert Air Force.’
January 1944 opened uneventfully, mainly due to the terrible weather and routine patrols became the main activity until the 17th of the month when the Squadron moved to Marcianise. It appeared that the Eighth Army would not go anywhere without 92’s top cover.
This new landing ground near Naples was to be the Squadron’s base for the impending landings at Anzio. At this time the Squadron diary recorded:
‘It is interesting to note that our Squadron was again called upon to provide the first cover over our invasion forces. When Sicily and Italy were invaded we were proud that 92 were off at dawn patrolling the beach heads and in darkness today twelve of our pilots took off to patrol over the British and American forces, which had landed thirty miles south of Rome, this morning. To our horror the tenth aircraft to take off struck a tree and burst into flames on hitting the ground and Flying Officer C.J. Dibden died from injuries and burns. He was a most popular pilot and will be sadly missed. Patrols over the beaches and the convoy from Ponziane Islands to the landings were continued throughout the day and our contribution involved thirty eight sorties. Unfortunately we made no contact with any enemy aircraft. A total of one thousand three hundred and forty six sorties were flown today by the Tactical Air Force and besides damage inflicted on their transport, nine enemy aircraft were destroyed.’
Operational hours flown for the month reached their highest total since the previous July – five hundred and forty sorties were carried out involving a flying time of seven hundred and fifty five hours.
Since the end of 1943, the Squadron had been very anxious to claim its three hundredth enemy aircraft destroyed, but despite a continuous patrol over the Anzio beach head and the numerous missions with the bombers the Luftwaffe could only rarely be coaxed to fight. Twenty five sorties were flown over the Anzio area on February 2nd and during the last snow six of the Squadron’s pilots encountered a ‘gaggle’ of fifteen to twenty FW 190s flying east to the battle area. The Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Mackie, brought this personal score to sixteen destroyed by chasing one of them until he saw it crash. Flying Officer ‘Curly’ Henderson claimed one damaged when he returned, but Flight Lieutenant Nicholls was able to confirm that it had crashed in flames so ‘Curly’ was also credited with one destroyed.
To keep the Squadron commander from becoming too homesick he invited four nursing sisters from his native New Zealand to the Pilots’ Mess one evening, early in February 1944. He said at the time, “It will do the chaps good to hear English speaking female voices again”. Two days later he had some harsh words for our ex-colonials from the other side of the Atlantic when a formation of Mustangs opened fire on his Squadron; however, they did no damage, so he soon cooled down.
During the first half of the month at least nine pilots had to make forced landings owing to their engines cutting out in flight. After two episodes on the 14th during which flight Lieutenant Wooler had to bail out, the aircraft were grounded. Samples of the petrol were analysed and the presence of corrosive sulphur was detected. They found that petrol was freezing in the petrol cooler on the Spitfire VIIIs, so they decided to blank off the airflow to the cooler to cure this problem. Special supplies of sealed petrol arrived and all the tanks and bowsers were flushed out and this put an end to the trouble.
Two days later the pilots were having lunch when a call came through from Wing Ops asking if they could get a section airborne at once. In less than ten minutes (although several of the aircraft were undergoing ‘daily inspections’), five of the pilots had taken off. They had been on patrol for twenty five minutes when vapour trails were seen orbiting Rome, increasing in number and shortly afterwards a ‘gaggle’ of aircraft was sighted flying down the coast. They were identified as twenty FW 190s in a tight formation with a top cover of six ME 109s flying five thousand feet above. Our pilots flew to intercept and met the enemy aircraft head on as they dived to bomb the road north of Anzio. The Huns continuing to dive turned northwards, but the 92 pilots gave chase. Flight Lieutenant James Edwards DFC destroyed a FW 190 and Lieutenant Gasson shot the tail off a ME 109 which crashed in flames. Warrant Officer Young damaged another 109. This brought the Squadron total of enemy aircraft destroyed to the three hundred mark and a tremendous party was held that night to celebrate their victory. At the party both the first and second flight commanders of ‘A’ Flight were present in the persons of Wing Commander ‘Paddy’ Green DSO DFC, and Group Captain Brian Kingcome DSO DFC and Bar. Edward’s success in shooting down the coveted three hundredth also earned him the sweep stake organised by the Squadron and Gasson’s ME 109 his first success was his twentieth birthday present.
At the end of the month they said goodbye to squadron Leader Mackie whose tour had expired. He was replaced by Squadron Leader G.J. Cox DFC, from 72 Squadron.
March found the Squadron mounting the rather uneventful patrols over the Cassino battle area where large formations of Bostons were bombing, without any opposition. On the night of the 18th the volcano of Vesuvius, ten miles to the south of the landing ground, erupted and thousands of tons of lava in a red hot mass was seen flowing down the mountain side. The main stream, which was a quarter of a mile wide and seven feet high was said to be the biggest display since 1929.
For some it was a little too close for comfort and the following morning Corporal Wallace recalls having to shovel the lava ash off the aircraft.
The Luftwaffe remained reluctant to fight and never seemed to be airborne at the same time as the Spitfires. Nevertheless by the end of March a new record had been established of one thousand and twenty five operational flying hours in one month.
Their luck changed at long last on April 14th when a couple of 109s were seen creeping in behind Yellow section which were escorting thirty six Mitchells who had gone out to bomb the landing ground at Viterbo. Flight Lieutenant Garner did a head on attack on both, shooting one of them down; while the other, turning to port in a climbing turn was picked on by Flying Officer Montgomerie, from New Zealand, who closed to one hundred yards and shot it down in flames.
They were in luck again on the 19th when eight aircraft were scrambled to intercept a couple of FW 190s recce aircraft that were flying down the coast from the Tiber. Flying Officer Paul Jones, an Australian, was the first to spot them and Red Section led by the recently promoted Captain Johnny Gasson SAAF at once gave chase, closing to three hundred yards North East of Cisterna. Most of the combat was fought out at deck level, one FW 190 taking a tremendous amount of punishment from Johnny and Paul before the pilot decided to bail out at four hundred feet, (his chute opened at fifty feet) while Flight Sergeant King chased another into the mountains damaging it before it finally disappeared – probably into a hill side – for ‘Y’ service, the Intelligence branch, had no report of it making base.
On April 23rd the Squadron moved to Venafro. As soon as the Spitfires arrived they were ‘turned round’ by the servicing crews and led up by Captain Gasson to do an independent fighter sweep over Viterbo. Half an hour later Gasson and Flight Lieutenant Garner landed with the news that just South East of Avezzano they had run into twelve FW 190s with three ME 109s as top cover. Our pilots had got ‘stuck in’ immediately and in the ensuing stern chase Gasson had shot down one Focke Wulf while Garner had disposed of a ME 109. Twenty five minutes later Flying Officer Montgomerie landed having added another ME 109 to the score and shortly afterward Lieutenant Manne, SAAF came in to tell how he had damaged an ME 109. That evening at the Stag party in the Mess diversion was found in watching the barrage of ‘dingle berries’ over Naples and roundly cursing the Army on night manoeuvres for lighting flares all round the aerodrome when enemy aircraft were passing overhead.
The assault by the Eighth Army and the American fifth Army aimed at linking up with the beach head at Anzio, capturing Rome and driving the enemy back to the Psi-Rimini Line, provided the Squadron with its next close support duties. On 12th May, when the River Rapide was crossed, continuous patrols were maintained over the battle area and cover for the Mitchell bombers were provided. These were led by Group Captain Kingcome. No enemy aircraft were seen on this occasion and word was going round that the Luftwaffe had withdrawn from the area altogether. However, on the following day the Boss wrote the following:
“After a period of standby readiness in the morning in the course of which six aircraft were scrambled on an interception which proved friendly, twelve aircraft led by Squadron Leader Cox DFC Officer Commanding, and including Flying Officer L.J. Montgomerie and Flying Officer P. Jones took off at 1240 hours to provide area cover for twenty four Baltimores which were bombing targets near Pico and Pentecorvo. At about 1330 as they were patrolling at sixteen thousand feet near Terracina, they sighted a formation of twenty two aircraft. They were flying in perfect American formation and were not thought to be hostile. However, turning about we watched them cross the coast, turn inland round Gaeta and bomb our troops on the lower Carigliano. Realising now that they were FW 190s we engaged them as they streaked for Rome. Squadron Leader Cox damaged one and destroyed another which crashed in flames, while Flying Officer P. Jones shot down another (his last operational flight too), the pilot baling out and a third (the four hundredth for 244 Wing) was shared between Lieutenant V.V. Boy, Warrant Officer C.D. Young and Flight Sergeant A.H. Phillimore. Flying Officer Montgomerie who was top cover joined in the fray later, and after dicing in and out of cloud he damaged a FW 190 before it finally disappeared. Altogether a most magnificent show. In the evening twelve more of our aircraft went out on an area cover sweep to B25s that were bombing Itri and Pico but the Hun did not appear again. However, later on we learned that 145 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader N.F. Duke DSO DFC and bar, had run into him near Acre and had destroyed three and damaged three more.” So much for the report that the Hun had withdrawn from central Italy.
Two days later on May 15th the CO was leading eight aircraft and ran into a couple of ME 109s. As soon as the Hun saw the Spitfires they half rolled in an aileron turn and dived for the deck making off towards the North, hotly pursued by Flying Officer Montgomerie who shot one of them down, and Johnny Gasson who damaged the other before losing it in cloud on the mountain tops. Monty’s combat report was quite unusual. The pursuit had taken the aircraft well into enemy territory when he closed with the Messerschmitt and set fire to its engine with a short burst.
He flew his Spitfire alongside the disabled enemy and watched the proceedings from a distance of a few yards. The German pilot carefully undid his harness, waved nonchalantly to the New Zealander and climbed out of his aircraft – to land safely well behind his own lines.
A spectacular individual effort took place a few days later when on a patrol near Civita Castellano; sixteen FW 190s were seen climbing up behind the Squadron formation, which were at thirteen thousand feet, this time they really stayed to fight. An exciting dice took place after which the enemy finding themselves out turned, dived away, but not before four of them had been damaged by Johnny Gasson. Johnny then chased another and passed below him when he was some twenty feet off the deck, preparing to land. The German pilot was so surprised that he ‘spun in’ and Johnny added another damaged to his credit. He did all this with his gun sight out of order as all the electrics in his aircraft had failed. He then proceeded to attack another formation of Focke Wulfs which were orbiting above him.
The attack on the Hitler Line, or the ‘Dorey Line’ as the enemy called it, at the end of May, kept the Squadron active and many patrols were flown over the battle areas. Very little opposition was encountered and despite a total of nearly eight hundred sorties being flown in the month only five enemy aircraft were destroyed.
June 1944, during which the Squadron moved to Littorio on the outskirts of Rome, was occupied mainly by patrols and low-level attacks with cannon on the retreating enemy’s road and rail transport.
While carrying out a weather recce in the middle of the month, Flight Sergeant Cunningham-Leny ran into thick cloud down almost to deck level and after hitting a tree and turning westwards his engine temperature went ‘off the clock’ and he forced landed in a field near Torre Flavia. He managed to get a hitch back to Rome where, after wandering about the streets of the city complete with Mae West, parachute and flying helmet, he eventually arrived back at Littorio where the Squadron were amazed to see him walk in at half past seven in the evening.
A particularly successful attack was made on an ammunition train in a siding near Fano on the 23rd June when a number of trucks were exploded, On the same day came the sad news that Squadron Leader Bushell, who reformed the Squadron in 1939, was one of the officers whom the Germans had murdered at Stalag Luft III.
Bushell’s incredible story since being shot down on the first day that 92 entered the battle is one that the World will remember from the film, based on another 92 Squadron pilot’s book, ‘The Great Escape’ by Paul Brickhill. Taken prisoner by the German motor cyclist who had followed the Spitfires’ flight, Bushell spent a few days in a French hospital. Then he was transported to Dulag Luft, Frankfurt, the reception Centre for aircrew prisoners where the interrogators found themselves outwitted by the charming barrister who seemed to have all the answers – except those they wanted!
In Dulag Luft Bushell met ‘Wings’Day who had been shot down on 13th October 1939, when as CO of 57 Squadron he was flying his Blenheim on a suicidal reconnaissance. Wing Commander Day soon discovered in Bushell the very man he’d waited for to help him plan and carry out an escape. Because of Roger’s intimate knowledge of Switzerland and the borders with Germany and his linguistic command of both French and German, Day appointed Bushell his intelligence officer on the Camp’s Escape Committee. Within months both Day and Bushell had tasted freedom – but Day was caught after three days and Bushell less than one hundred yards from Switzerland. It was disappointing but invaluable experience which could be passed onto the aircrews now arriving in ever-increasing numbers (by 1944 there were over one hundred and forty thousand British POWs in German or Italian Camps).
Bushell was now ‘purged’ to Stalag Luft I at Barth on the Baltic, from which camp the first two RAF escapers successfully reached England (Flight Lieutenant (now Air Commodore) Harry Burton CBE DSO) and the late Squadron Leader John Shore MC AFC). Their success inspired Bushell to even greater efforts and when prisoners were herded into cattle trucks for a move to a new camp, Bushell and a Czech slipped out via a loose floorboard when the train was in Hannover sidings. Train jumping, they at last reached Prague but were somehow betrayed – several Czech helpers were tortured and executed and Bushell was roughly handled by the Gestapo before being sent to the latest German POW Camp – Stalag Luft III at Sagan, a terribly bleak spot in the North German plain, amid acres and acres of pines.
It was late in 1942 when Bushell arrived, the Germans incredibly allowing him to retain a civilian suit obtained in Prague. ‘Wings’ Day was away on one of his regular bids for freedom and Roger took over as ‘Big X’ in charge of the Compound’s escape organisation, The Senior British Officer, Group Captain H.M. Massey DSO MC had flown in both Wars, his game leg suffering injury when he bailed out from a bomber over the Ruhr. He gave Bushell every assistance and deservedly got the CBE and promotion to Air Commodore after repatriation.
Bushell gathered around him a first class team including John Gillies, (also ex-92 and shot down the same day as Bushell) Paul Brickhill, ‘Nellie’ Ellen, Tom Kirby Green and all who could make a contribution, either as language teacher, ‘forgers’, tailors, compass makers or map makers. Then he conferred with the specialists who would prepare the actual escape, feeling that a tunnel was the only sure exit for a number – and his target was at least two hundred escapers! Bushell knew that the German Commandant possessed almost every scientific device for detecting tunnelling: the best plan was therefore to construct several, hoping that whilst the Goons would discover some, at least one would remain uncovered – that would be their pipeline to freedom.
Canadian Roger Floody (technical adviser to the film ‘The Great Escape’) surveyed the huts for points at which to start the digging and determined that stoves were the best bet, with special lugs for lifting the surround up to get at the shaft beneath, As the ‘engineers’ – nicknamed ‘moles’ proceeded with their back breaking digging, willing helpers – most of whom knew they had no chance at all of inclusion in the hoped for mass exodus from the camp, toiled cheerfully to remove and hideaway the tell – tale sand and to help man the ‘sentry posts’ when the guards were patrolling. In Bushell’s master plan nothing was left to chance and every weakness examined thoroughly and some would have given up under Roger’s scathing criticism of less than perfect forgeries but that they knew that here was a dedicated man whose brusque manner hid a one track ambition – to get out – and stay out until he got back to the United Kingdom.
‘Nellie’ Ellen (now Wing Commander (Retd) OBE) controlled the camp radio, giving out the news, both good and bad. More and more men were still arriving as the Allied air offensive gathered momentum – Norwegians, Dutch, Poles, Czechs, Americans and men from every part of the Empire – to swell the numbers in the North Compound. In May 1943, a diversion was staged to distract the Camp Commandant and his guards away from their everlasting search for tunnels. An audacious daylight break was staged when a party went for their delousing treatment. Belgian and Dutch officers acted as ‘fake’ German guards with camp concocted uniforms and only wretched luck prevented a few from reaching neutral Switzerland, though most were captured within hours, as was expected. These escape attempts were often valuable exercises in discovering exactly what ration documents were being used, where the trains were searched and the many vital sections of the great jig-saw which Bushell was trying to fit together and which could only be completed from firsthand knowledge.
In October 1943 the brilliant ‘Wooden Horse’ escape was made from the East Compound and when news filtered back that the Flight Lieutenants, Eric Williams and Oliver Philpot DFC, had made the home run to UK with Lieutenant Codner R.A., Bushell pushed his men even harder. The Commandant redoubled his probes – under the huts, in the roofs, along the wires, wherever the prisoners might conceivably break out. Meanwhile ‘Wings’ Day had been recaptured, punished in the ‘cooler’ and finally returned to Stalag Luft III. The escapers were paired up and Bushell planned to evade with his old friend Bob Tuck who was making his third attempt at escape.
With Tuck’s command of Russian and Bushell’s fluent German and French they could have travelled either Eastwards or Westwards, but Tuck was arrested a fortnight before the escape and taken off to Strafflager. In his place young Captain Scheidehauer, a Belgian, accompanied Roger and as the world now knows, the big departure began on the night of 23rd March 1944, two hundred names being drawn from over six hundred who had participated in the project.
By 1030 pm the first man was on his way but almost at once delays were caused by those who had added unauthorised baggage, often blocking the tunnel. In fact only eighty six men were through the tunnel at 5.00 am when the break was discovered, one of the last out being Wing Commander Leonard Trent who received the VC after the War for the flight which led him to the POW Camp. Ten escapers were quickly rounded up after the exit was found almost by chance, by a sentry who strayed away from his normal beat. Seventy six men were now at large at various distances from the camp and there is no need for me to enlarge on the disgusting conduct of the Nazis. Suffice is to say here that fifty of these gallant airmen were executed by the Gestapo including, alas, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who, with his companion, had managed to reach Saarbrucken, en route for France and Gibraltar via the Pyrenees.
Eight of the escapers were neither executed nor sent back to the Stalag; five, including ‘Wings’ Day, went to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, from which they never expected to return. Happily they survived and ‘Wings’ was promoted and retired in 1950 as Group Captain H.M.A. Day DSO OBE AM.
Fifteen were recaptured, interrogated and – by great good fortune – returned unharmed to Stalag Luft III. Only three made their way back to England. But for Himmler’s unwarranted panic over the break – he thought it was the signal for a general uprising of the oppressed peoples under Nazi yoke – this would have been perhaps the biggest ‘home-run’ from any POW Camp in World War II. Bushell had hoped that perhaps ten would reach UK and that the thousands of troops and Home Guard, Hitler Youth and Police involved in searching for the escapers would have a useful effect on the Allied war effort, perhaps allowing prisoners from other camps to get away.
Flight Lieutenant Bram van de Stok, a Spitfire pilot of 41 Squadron, Tangmere, spotted Roger Bushell and others on Breslau Railway Station but wisely kept clear and made his own journey as planned, reaching Gibraltar via France and Spain after some hair raising thrills. Their guide for the Pyrenees crossing was murdered by the Gestapo but the party pressed on and Van de Stok, awarded the MBE, lived to qualify as a doctor and now practices in New Mexico. The other pair, Jens Muller of 331 (Norge) Squadron and Per Bergsland of 332 (Norge) Squadron, both from North Weald, Essex, made for Sweden and when questioned by Police, were accepted as forced labourers and reached the country to be flown to RAF Leuchars; they were later decorated by both British and Norwegian Governments.
Back in Italy at the end of June 1944, such was the decline in the activities of the Luftwaffe that the decision was made to convert the fighter elements of No 244 Wing from a purely fighter role to that of fighter bomber, a decision received not without a certain amount of regret by No 92 Squadron. However by the way of a Swan Song, the Hun reappeared in force on one last occasion at the end of the month. Six Spitfires escorting twelve Baltimores of No 21 Squadron SAAF to the marshalling yards at Cesena were attacked by twenty five to thirty ME 109s and FW 190s who seemed to fill the sky. In the dice that ensued Lieutenant Boy SAAF managed to get in a telling burst from four hundred yards and claimed a FW 190 damaged, for it spun down to deck level before managing to pull out. The highlights of the running fight which lasted over half an hour and continued from the target area to South of Ancona, were remembered for many a long day. Flight Lieutenant L. Smith shook off four ME 109s that had fastened onto his tail, by a series of steep turns at full bore. Then Lieutenant Boy and his number two – Sub Lieutenant Robinson, a Royal Navy pilot – were jumped by eleven ME 109s but managed to extricate themselves somehow. Finally Flight Lieutenant Ben Garner was pursued by four 109s when he broke away from the fight, which chased after him at deck level. Fortunately, three of them broke off just north of Ancona but one ‘persistent B...’ as Ben put it, came on closing to five hundred yards. Here Ben broke into him and after an exchange of fire the 109 made off north while Ben raced for home.
All the bombers – with the exception of one which was hit in the port engine and crash landed at Tortotteto – got back safely, blissfully unaware that there had been enemy fighters in the area. They even reported fire as ‘intense light flak’. At twelve thousand feet they must have been some guns!
A short period of practice bombing with five hundred pound bombs was carried out at the beginning of July. Then on the 11th the Squadron attacked an important road junction in the San Giovanni area, but owing to the intense amount of light flak the road remained uncut. Accuracy of bombing was soon developed and the Squadron implemented a full programme of attacks on tactical targets in support of the Eighth Army and Fifth Army battling Northwards through Italy. Ammunition dumps, roads, railways, bridges, transport, gun emplacements and convoys were among the objectives bombed. Occasionally, a German aircraft was intercepted as, for example, on the 21st July when the Commanding Officer and Lieutenant Manne SAAF on dawn patrol intercepted and destroyed a JU 188 over the airfield, near Perugia. Frequent ‘scrambles’ were made too, in an effort to intercept reconnaissance aircraft which were sent over our lines, but no contact was made.
On 18th July, one flight of the Squadron was detached to Rosignano on the West coast of Italy to prevent German reconnaissance aircraft from taking photographs of the preparations then in progress for the landings on the Riviera coast. Four enemy aircraft were destroyed from that day until 15th August, when the invasion of Southern France began. The last one on 13th August, was shared by Pilot Officer Young and Pilot Officer Stevenson while patrolling at thirty thousand feet. During the action Pilot Officer Stevenson’s aircraft was hit by the German, an ME 410, and he was forced to bail out over the sea near Leghorn, spending the night in his dingy. He was picked up by a launch the next morning, quite happy, for the pilot of the Messerschmitt, also in his dinghy less than half a mile away, had treated him to an excellent display of Verey lights during most of the night. This was the last reconnaissance flight the Germans were able to make, and the Squadron’s last combat with the Luftwaffe.
On the 15th August, the invasion of Southern France began, the first invasion of Southern Europe in which 92 Squadron did not play a leading part. A total of thirty six sorties were flown over enemy fighter bases in the Turin - Genoa area, but entirely without incident, for no attempt was made to interfere.
A few days later the Squadron commenced ‘cab-rank’ duties – an RAF officer located in a forward position post with the Eighth Army and in touch with the aircraft waiting above him, directed the aircraft to the target requiring attention; in this instance a house in a village. The house received a direct hit from a five hundred pound bomb.
On the 25th August, Mr Churchill landed at the Squadron’s base in the DC 3 and addressing the crowd that gathered about him said “God bless you all”.
The following day the Eighth Army opened the assault on the Gothic Line. The Squadron assisted by patrolling the battle area, as well as by making successful attacks with bombs and cannon on tactical targets, chiefly on the enemy’s lines of communication and gun emplacements. Many ‘cab-rank’ duties were carried out too, with extremely good results. During one of these later operations Captain Lawton SAAF was hit by flak and forced to bail out. He arrived back at the Squadron the following day none the worse for his experience which he described in his own words: “As I hit the water I released my ‘chute, wriggled free and inflated my dingy. After about twenty minutes I saw the Walrus and after it had landed I paddled to the flame float it had dropped and waved it about to indicate my position. I had no trouble in boarding the Walrus through the back hatch. The machine had to taxi back as it was too heavy to take off. About forty five minutes later it was mistaken for a German ‘E’ boat and was fired upon and set on fire by two Royal Navy Motor Torpedo Boats. The three of us dived into the water and swam away with the aid of our Mae West’s. Fifteen minutes later we were picked up by the MTBs. At about one o’clock in the morning the one MTB hit a mine and had to be towed back. I was then taken on board another boat and taken to Ancona”. The Doc’ prescribed some leave at Sorrento.
Montgomerie had just returned from an exciting patrol with F/O A. Taylor in the course of which they had chased an ME 410 and held it in the dive, only to lose it just as they were getting within range for, as it flew inland over La Spezia Harbour at 1000 feet, the guns threw up an intense barrage of light 'flak' and they were forced to turn away. As he returned to the circuit, Montgomerie’s engine failed and he crashed, sustaining serious injuries.
Montgomerie died from his injuries early next morning, on 27th August, and was buried at the War Cemetery at Fallonica in the afternoon. A Roman Catholic Chaplain officiated and the pall bearers were P/O Young, W/O A.T. Condon, F/O W.R. Fair and W/O F.R. Newman, Fl Lt White and F/O Evans A detachment of the Squadron under the command of F/O Lunn, was also present to pay their last respects to a very fine man. 'Monty' was not merely an exceptionally capable fighter pilot, he was a man of the highest character, vital, modest, chivalrous and level headed, winning the respect admiration and affection of all with whom he worked. It was indeed a privilege to have known him.
On September 6th the Squadron was reunited at Fano. From then on the Battle of Rimini Ridge provided No 92 Squadron with close support activity for a considerable period. Particularly heavy bombing and ‘straffing’ attacks were made on gun sites, railway bridges, troop concentrations, tanks, road bridges, junctions, motor transport, machine-gun posts and enemy strong points. An attack which won high praise from the Army was made on the strongly fortified village of Giovanni di Galigeu, perched on top of a ridge, dominating the whole of the 4th Indian Division front. Not only did this operation prevent an enemy counter attack, but it made it possible for our troops to take the village, a key position, virtually unopposed. It was later learned that one of the bombs had demolished the enemy battalion Headquarters, killing the Colonel and his staff.
The Squadron continued to devote its energies solely to close support work, bombing machine guns’ emplacements and fortified positions on the Fortunato Ridge, softening the defences and helping the Army to capture the ridge and the town of Rimini.
On 6 September P/O G. Meagher in Spitfire VIII, JF895 was presumably hit by flak and crashed at Poggio Berni. and on the 11 September Captain Lawton MD, in Spitfire VIII, JF704 was hit by Flak off Rimini and forced to ditch in the sea 5 miles east of the town.
Bad weather allowed but little flying in October, but successful attacks were made on guns at Cesena near Forlimpopli and at Bertinoro, in the town of Fano on the Adriatic Coast.
The Squadron Commander at this time was Major P. Venter SAAF but unfortunately his aircraft was hit by flak and his propeller damaged, crashed on landing. The Major was seriously injured so Johnny Gasson, who had recently been promoted to Major and returned to South Africa, was sent for as the next commander of No 92.
Also one afternoon in October 1944, the pilots were amazed to see Flight Lieutenant Don Wright walk into the mess. He had been hit by flak on the enemy side of the bomb line six weeks before and he was soon giving an account of his adventures. It appeared that shortly after bailing out, an Italian farmer arrived on the scene and from his attitude it was clear that he took Don for a German. However Don soon put him right on that score and provided with a guide, after about half an hour’s walking he made contact with the partisans who gave him breakfast. After a couple of hours sleep he found himself fit enough to cope with the situation and influenced by the fact that one of them could speak a little English and that he knew an attack on the Gothic Line was imminent, he decided to stay with them.
Moving north to the Partisan Headquarters, he met there another Englishman who had escaped from the enemy and after a month they were joined by a South African pilot. During the time Don made several efforts to obtain a guide but was told it was too dangerous to attempt to get through the lines but eventually towards the end of September the Partisans decided to send an agent with two guides through the lines and Don went with them.
In his own words:
“We left at about six o’clock in the evening with me carefully hugging a bottle of ‘Grappa’ – and walked until midnight when we slept at a farmhouse. By this time I was wearing civilian clothes as this made it possible to move by day, We left early next morning and with occasional breaks for food and rest we walked until midday when we found ourselves just behind the lines and we had high hopes of getting through that night. By this time we had three guides as we had collected another guide at the house where we had stayed the previous night. Unfortunately we had to abandon the hopes of crossing that night as we learnt that there were three hundred troops ahead of us as well as several gun batteries on either side. At this stage two of the guides got scared and left us, so that evening we moved back and stayed the night in a farmhouse. Next morning we hid in the wood near the house to wait for news and learned that troops were still in the neighbourhood and that patrols were out. We hid in the wood all that day and slept at the farmhouse for the night as it had started the rain. Next day we hid in the farm as it was raining heavily and it was here that we had our first and only really narrow escape for while we were hiding in the farm, a squad of Jerries arrived with the intention of occupying the house! But, fortunately for us they pushed off.
“Our position was then becoming too dangerous so we decided to make a break for it that night. Conditions for walking were ideal as it was pouring with rain and the visibility in the hills was down to about one hundred yards. We left at about five o’clock and by seven o’clock we reached a farmhouse. The guide went on ahead to this house and came back with the good news that we were through as Polish patrols had been there an hour previously. We slept that night in the farmhouse and had the pleasant experience of being shelled. Next morning I contacted our troops and my troubles were at an end.”
Don returned just in time to see the film ‘You were never lovelier’ at the Desert Air Force Welfare Cinema, that evening. He and most of the Squadron seized the opportunity to feast their eyes on Rita Hayworth and were not disappointed.
On October 10th the Squadron celebrated its fifth birthday and it’s third overseas. By happy coincidence it was on this day that Major Johnny Gasson arrived back after three months in the Union to take over command of his old squadron. The ovation he received in the Airmen’s Mess that evening showed how much his return was appreciated. With him everyone was delighted to see Lieutenant Eric Manne SAAF – who after bailing out on the dreaded Friday 13th – had made his way back through the mountains to our own lines. With such a kick off no wonder the Squadron party was such a success. The presence too of Group Captain ‘Paddy’ Green, one of the original Flight Commanders, accompanied by Miss Patricia Burke who, with commendable courage braved the swaying mob in the Airmen’s Mess and even attempted to sing a song added to the enjoyment of the party.
Flying Officer ‘Tubby’ Fair (a Canadian) was in great form with a trumpet, an instrument well suited to his peculiar love of discordant notes and even the ‘Stores Basher’ Flying Officer W. Hastings, after being ‘baptised’ into the Squadron with a liberal supply of vino, was seen later pursuing an unsteady path back to his tent assisted by two unknown airmen.
Two weeks later Lieutenant Eric Manne wrote an account of his adventure, here is his story:
“After bailing out I landed on the side of a hill where some farmers were ploughing. They came running over to me and helped me out of my parachute. I disengaged it from the grape vine into which I had crashed and hid it under a haystack. I couldn’t speak Italian so I asked them in English where there were some Partisans and they pointed in a Southerly direction towards the hills. I saw my aircraft burning in a hill about a mile away so I thought I had better get going. I made off down the hill in the direction the farmers had pointed. Halfway up the next hill I stopped at a farm for a drink and a rest and there I suddenly realised I was still wearing my Mae West. After taking out the emergency rations, I gave it to a small child. An old woman brought me some water and some old clothes which I exchanged for those I was wearing; then I set off again to the top of the hill.” Here Eric was contacted by an Italian peasant who provided him with a guide.
“After about two hours we stopped at a farmhouse for lunch and were given spaghetti, a couple of fried eggs, brown bread and vino. Little did I realise that for the next ten days I was going to live on spaghetti and brown bread. After lunch a couple of young lads who were Partisans who lived at the farm, borrowed two bicycles and with me on the crossbar of one of the bikes we set off, travelling some distance before stopping at another farm where I met eight Partisans bristling with guns and hand grenades! After spending the night on the hay in a barn, we set off at nine o’clock next morning for their Headquarters. Arriving there at three o’clock I was delighted to find four Americans – part of a Fortress crew and a South African Private who had been taken prisoner in the desert. I gave them my Emergency Rations and boy; you should have seen them get in! The same afternoon we saw a P40 in trouble and the next afternoon a pilot of 250 Squadron joined ‘our happy band’.”
Eric spent five days here amusing himself by burying the inside of an Ox that had been killed for fresh meat, peeling potatoes (on one occasion only), attempting to signal to aircraft with a mirror, lazing around and ‘yarning’ with the others. On the fourth day two of the Partisans decided to go back to their farms near the front line and it was decided that he go with them.
“Setting off at three o’clock the next afternoon we walked till two in the morning when we slept at a farmhouse for a few hours before setting off at seven o’clock. At lunch time the same day we arrived at their farms to find ‘hell’ going on in the hills just south of us. Two uneventful days were spent here but about seven o’clock on the morning of the third day one of the farmers came running into the house shouting “Via” – that there were ‘Tedeschi’ coming up the hill. Grabbing our things we dashed off up the hill and lay down in a gully. After an hour or so we were signalled to come out. I climbed out first, intending to get some chestnuts, when happening to glance up the hill about two hundred yards away I saw thirty Jerries outside a farmhouse. I dived back into the ditch and told the other chaps and there we lay unable to get out for there were few bushes or trees to hide in.
“Ten minutes later guttural voices broke our ears and looking up we saw about twelve Germans walk past us not more than ten yards away. How they failed to see us will always be a mystery.
“After this narrow escape we decided not to stay at the farmhouse any longer so the farmer took us to a cave which was well hidden by bushes. Here we stayed for the next few days and the farmer brought us food. Then at six o’clock in the evening of the seventh day, he came into the cave to tell us that there were Americans on the top of the hill. He took one of the boys up the hill with him and an hour later they returned with an American Patrol and our journey was at an end.”
By the end of October 1944 the Squadron was accommodated in billets. Apart from a month in Malta when the aircrew were accommodated in hotels, the Squadron had been under canvas continuously for thirty one months.
The officers moved into their new quarters in the 15th Century Palace of Count Borgogelli. Now for the first time in its long history the spacious but rather sombre dining hall with its rich panelled ceiling emblazoned with a proud armourial shield re-echoed to the laughter and revelry of young British and Dominion fighter pilots – worthy occupants at last.
The Squadron spirit and morale remained unchanged and showed itself in a very outstanding manner during the conversion from fighter to fighter bomber work. At first, from a pilot’s point of view the changeover was not popular, but when it was realised just how important the work was, the pilots showed the utmost keenness, determination and even pleasure in the execution of their duties which were attended by very considerable success.
At the beginning of November after a silence of nearly two months the Squadron heard that Flying Officer Meager, a New Zealander, who just disappeared on a straffing run on September 6th, was now a prisoner of war. So the ‘Fuhrer’s own pilot’ as he used to call himself, became the Fuhrer’s guest for some time.
The next two weeks in the month gave way to a series of dinner parties, one given by Group Captain Brian Kingcome DSO DFC as a farewell party and another attended by various female guests who, in spite of language difficulties, seemed to get along well with our types.
The Squadron’s reputation for determined and accurate bombing attacks despite heavy flak, was continually being enhanced and enemy strong points, troop concentrations and guns were incessantly bombed. In addition to these devastating attacks, enemy morale was sapped (hopefully) by a more subtle form of poison in the shape of leaflets dropped over Faenza.
At lunch time one day in mid-November everyone was delighted to see Flight Sergeant Hoolihan, an Australian, still extremely cheerful in spite of a damaged shoulder and heavily bloodshot eyes. With his aircraft on fire, he had tried to dive through the door but got stuck halfway; probably his Mae West was stuck on a hinge. However, thankful to be alive at all as his story will make only too clear:
“I used my hand to push myself through the door and got onto the wing but the parachute harness hooked on the door. The air pressure took me off the wing, then the aircraft slowed down and I must have broken free. I have no recollection of opening the chute myself; I only assume I hit the tail plane as I hurt my shoulder. The next thing I remember was finding myself floating down with my ‘chute open. There was a large hole in the ‘chute and I landed heavily, but I had got away with it.”
The excellent bombing results and the strafing that was being so highly praised by the Army continued into December. At this time these operations became known as ‘Timothys’, which involved extremely close support of our forward troops. On one such mission on December 4th just before the Squadron moved up to Bellaria, Pilot Officer R, Fry managed to drop his bomb right into one of the enemy’s gun emplacements.
On the following day Ravenna fell and a party went up from Bellaria to view the city. They were unable to get in as the bridge across the river was still under construction. However nothing daunted, Flight Lieutenant G. Sarll and Flying Officer D. Stevenson crossed by boat. They returned late in the evening with the news that the place was ‘full of Ities in their Sunday best’.
Flight Lieutenant Sarll was one of the Flight Commanders; Captain Dougy Lee (SAAF) was the other. Both keen rugby players they went down to Rimini to represent the Wing in a match against 324 Wing. These two stalwarts returned ‘on their knees’ at night and took all the next day to recover. Yet somehow the war went on.
The aid given to the Army was the closest form of support. On one occasion during ‘Operation Pig’ on December 14th, an attack was made on enemy troops ‘dug in’ along the Naviglio Canal, a few miles North East of Bagnacavello and only about one hundred yards from our forward troops. The CO after investigating from deck level and seeing enemy troops sheltering in the trenches which were dug out deeply into the West side of the steeply sloping West Bank of the Canal, led his men on three steep angled straffing runs to ensure that the shells and bullets really got down among the Huns.
Two Tiger tanks were destroyed on December 15th and an enemy counter attack was broken up at Bagnacavello and Fusignano. F/O E W McCann in Spitfire VIII, No. JG121 was hit by flak and crashed into an ammunition dump at Bagnacavallo, where it exploded.
Squadrons of No 224 Wing had made no fewer than thirty six sorties to destroy an enemy observation post in a church tower at Bagnacavello without success and on December 17th when the task was given to No 92, six Spitfires succeeded in demolishing the tower, with four direct hits.
By the end of the month the Squadron had quite a little poultry run containing geese, turkeys, ducks and chickens outside the Officers’ billet. Enough to provide an interesting and varied fare for Christmas. Meanwhile thanks to the two Canadian pilots Flying Officer A. Taylor and W. Fair, the Mess was well supplied with ‘cookies’ and delicious Christmas cakes. Tragically Bill Fair was killed three days before Christmas and with that accident the Squadron suffered its’ most serious and tragic loss for many months. ‘Tubby’ as he was called on 92, was returning to base in Spitfire VIII, No. JF513, with his Number Two, W/O Long, after being hit as he pulled out of his bombing dive. He was attempting to bale out when the port wing dropped and he went in from two thousand feet and was killed. In losing him the Squadron had lost one of its oldest members, he joined 92 back in Mascianese the previous April and certainly one of its keenest most determined and efficient leaders. Though he was one of those who, by his very daring, always seemed to attract the flak (he was hit on innumerable occasions) he never failed to press home his attacks to the limit. Not only a fine pilot, he was a most likeable and jolly fellow and his generosity was unbounded.
For 92 Squadron Christmas day turned out to be a ‘White Christmas’, so beloved of the Crooners of the era, but the Huns were on their toes as usual. Three ‘fours’ were briefed to attack gun positions around Lugo. Out of the first four attacking aircraft two were very seriously damaged and in fact the CO whose ailerons were jammed and Jimmy Ogg who was hit in the starboard radiator both did magnificently to get their aircraft back to base. Though the gun which was seen camouflaged inside a haystack escaped damage it was hoped that the Huns lost their Christmas lunch when a house about twenty yards away was hit and left burning.
So ended the year 1944, an eventful year in which the Squadron converting from a fighter to a fighter bomber role, proved that it was as adept at close support work as it was at aerial combat.
The brilliant and inspiring leadership of Major Johnny Gasson and Captain Lee, both of the SAAF and Flying Officer A. Taylor and W. Fair both Canadians, had re-established the Squadron’s supremacy as the foremost fighter unit of 244 wing and therefore of the Desert Air Force, united behind a CO who had won the admiration, respect and affection of all ranks. The Squadron’s score stood at three hundred and seventeen and a half enemy aircraft destroyed – one hundred and seven enemy aircraft probably destroyed and one hundred and eighty four enemy aircraft damaged. One thousand seven hundred and twenty five 500 lb bombs, approximately three hundred and eighty six tons, had been dropped on operations.
Some excerpts from 244 Wing Operations Record 1943
The Squadron flew to Pachino, being the first squadron to land on Italian soil. Enemy air operations dwindled completely after the first few days of the invasion and operating from Pachino, then Casabile and finally Lentine - chiefly remembered for the blitz of the night of August 11th - the main job was escorts to Kittyhawks and Baltimores and 'stooge' patrols (air patrols looking for targets of opportunity. Asst. Ed.). August 17th saw the entry of 8th Army into Messina and the close of the Sicilian campaign. After a brief spell of rest, during which pilots and airmen visited Mount Etna, the Squadron was re-equipped with Spitfire Mk.VIII's and we were ready for the next phase. F/Lt. Carpenter contracted malaria and his place as 'B' Flight Commander was taken by F/Lt. Nicholls DFC, F/Lt. Hards DFC DFM being 'A' Flight Commander.
The invasion of Italy began on September 3rd and taking off before dawn, the Squadron maintained a standing patrol over the Messina Straits throughout the day to cover the landings. FW190 fighter bombers were intercepted on two occasions and forced to jettison their bombs. Following the unconditional surrender of Italy on September 8th, six pilots, three ground officers and sixty men flew to Grottaglie near Taranto and sixteen pilots brought the Mk.VIII's over in the afternoon. '92', being the only fighter squadron to operate from mainland Italian soil at the time, was accommodated with 239 Wing at Grottaglie.
Unfortunately few or no enemy aircraft were encountered in the offensive sweeps and escort patrols to Kittyhawks over Bari and Foggia, and later over Termoli, as we followed in the wake of 8th Army advancing up the Adriatic coast. '92' moved to Goia on 23rd September and to Tortorella on October 5th. We did however celebrate the 4th anniversary of the Squadron by shooting down a Dornier Do17 flying north east near Termoli, no less than five pilots sharing in the success!
The middle of the month saw the Squadron at Triolo and from here moving later in November to Canne, where Sqn.Ldr. Mackie DFC & Bar took over from Sqn. Ldr. Humpfreys. Uneventful interception patrols were flown in vile weather over 8th Army during the battles of the Trigno and the Sangro rivers. Then our luck suddenly changed and at the end of November and beginning of December eleven enemy aircraft were destroyed in as many days with no loss. The successful pilots being Sqn.Ldr. Mackie - two, Lt. Sachs - three and one each for Flt.Lt. Nicholls DFC, Fg Off Henderson DFC & Bar, W/O Warren, F/Sgt. Bristow, F/Sgt. Buchanan and F/Sgt. Hanson. This brought the Squadron total of aircraft destroyed since leaving England to 101, while the total score was 294 1/2 confirmed. With the 300th almost within grasp, the pilots were intensely keen to achieve it before the end of the year but few opportunities presented themselves and with appalling weather at the start of 1944, flying was cut down to a minimum. A Messershmitt Me410 brought down over the Sampro by Fg. Off. Henderson and a Messerschmitt Me109 destroyed by Flt.Lt.Garner were the only additions to the score.
On January 17th the Squadron was switched to the other side of Italy. Taking off from Marcianise L.G. near Naples in darkness on January 22nd, twelve of our aircraft patrolled over the British and American forces which had landed thirty miles south of Rome at Anzio that morning. In all 38 sorties were flown in the course of the day over the newly established bridgehead. During the month 775 operational flying hours were put in, our highest total since July 1943. Two more enemy aircraft were destroyed early in February by S/L Mackie DFC & Bar and F/O Henderson, but generally speaking the Luftwaffe never seemed to be airborne when we were on patrol. Eventually on February 16th five of our aircraft patrolling over the Anzio bridgehead saw vapour trails over Rome and shortly afterwards they ran into a gaggle of twenty FW190's with six Me109's as top cover, flying down the coast towards Anzio. F/Lt. Edwards DFC DFM, who took over 'A' Flight when F/Lt. Hards DFC DFM left, destroyed one FW190 and Lt. Gasson an Me109, thus bringing the Squadron total of aircraft destroyed to 300! In the middle of February S/Ldr Mackie DFC & Bar left the Squadron which had done such excellent work under his leadership, no less than twenty enemy aircraft having been destroyed since his arrival in November 1943. Sqn.Ldr Cox DFC assumed command.
Routine patrols over the bridgehead, where we met with occasional success, interspersed with bomber escorts kept the Squadron busy until we moved up to Venatro towards the end of April. Here the Squadron prepared for the assault on the Gustav and Hitler lines and our luck changed, for on the very first patrol on April 23rd twelve aircraft, which had taken off to do a sweep over Viterbo, almost immediately ran into twelve FW190's with three Me109's top cover just south of Avezzano and destroyed three of them, the successful pilots being Capt Gasson, F/Lt. Garner and F/O Montgomerie. The latter had the interesting experience of setting an Me109 on fire, flying alongside and watching the enemy pilot bale out with what was suspiciously like a wave of the hand! On May 13th a further twenty-two FW190 fighter bombers were intercepted over the Lower Garigliano and by destroying three of the enemy and severely damaging two more, we gained the honour of shooting down the 400th aircraft for 244 Wing. Two days later, just before landing from a dusk sweep of the road network south of Rome, two Me109's were sighted and as they half-rolled towards the 'deck', they were hotly pursued by F/O Montgomerie and Capt Gasson, now 'B' Flight Commander. One was destroyed and the other damaged before being lost in cloud over the mountain tops. The most spectacular individual effort during this period was that of Capt Gasson DFC who, with his reflector sight unserviceable, took part in a 'dice' with sixteen FW190's which were attacking some Bostons near Curta Castellana and after damaging three in quick succession, pursued a fourth at nought feet over Viterbo airfield. As he streaked across, he passed underneath an FW190 that was levelling off at around 20 feet! This promptly spun in and was destroyed. Capt Gasson went on to damage the other before breaking off combat and returning home. These were but isolated occasions and enemy air activity shrank steadily to negligible proportions and by the middle of July the Squadron, based at Perugia under the guidance of S/Ldr Cox DFC ably supported by F/Lt. Montgomerie DFC and F/Lt. Garner as Flight Commanders, began converting regretfully to fighter bomber work. Fortunately however, at the latter part of the month one flight was detached to Rossignano on the west coast to prevent high flying enemy 'recce' aircraft from seeing the preparations that were going forward for the invasion of southern France.
Pilots moved to and fro between Rossignano and Perugia, alternating between fighting and bombing. This arrangement suited everyone admirably, for not only were four 'recce kites' destroyed - one of them an Me410 shot down in flames off Leghorn by P/O's Stevenson and Young was the last 'recce' flight that the enemy was able to send down prior to the invasion of the Riviera Coast - but a high standard in bombing was also attained. Our role in the invasion of southern France - the first invasion in which '92' had not played a leading part - was a minor one, though on D day and D+1 we flew 36 sorties over enemy fighter bases in the Turin - Genoa area. No opposition was met. When the 8th Army was ready however to open its assault on the Gothic Line, the 'bomber' flight moved secretly in the dead of night on August 23rd to Loreto. After a brief spell there the Squadron was re-united at Fano on September 6th under the command of Major Venter and from now on devoted its energies solely to close support work. After a successful month's flying, the outstanding features of which were :
The concentrated bombing of machine gun nests and fortified positions on the Fortinato ridge, "these softened the enemy defences and enabled the army to carry the ridge and capture Rimini.
Attacks on a wood at La Torre where a concentration of enemy tanks was dispersed.
The bombing of San Ciovanni di Galilea which killed a German colonel and many of his men and allowed our troops to enter unopposed.
The destruction of three locomotives in four days, two of them on successive mornings by F/Lt. O.H.E. Jones.
Bad weather then intervened and during October there was little flying, though we had two good days. One on the 21st when enemy gun positions that had been holding up the advance of the army beyond Cesena were attacked. Direct hits were scored on two 105mm guns a couple of miles south of Fortinipopoli, while four bombs fell in a cluster among some medium guns on the side of a hill close to Bertinovo and caused a huge explosion. The other was on the 24th when a strongly fortified building near Fortinipopoli received five direct hits, while three direct hits and a near miss were scored on two 210mm guns in the same area. The end of the month also saw the Squadron in billets for the first time since leaving the U.K. October was also notable for the fact that Major Gasson DFC, who had left us back at Fabrica in June, was appointed to command his old squadron. With him, Capt Lee, F/O Taylor and F/O Fair, we had a magnificent team at our disposal. It was directly due to their leadership that the Squadron earned, during the next two months, such a high reputation for accurate bombing and for attacks pressed home to the limit, no matter how intense the 'flak'.
November 3rd saw seven direct hits on an important enemy strong point in a factory in Zucchero-officio. November 5th, two direct hits and three very near misses on gun positions in the Forli area. November 6th, five direct hits, followed by a large explosion and dense clouds of white smoke, on enemy troop concentrations on the western side of a little village near Forli. November 7th, three direct hits and four near misses on enemy strongpoints in the Ravenna area, followed by six direct hits on San Martino near Forli. November 10th, four direct hits on an enemy strongpoint two mile west of Forli. November 17th, fourteen direct hits out of twenty-three bombs dropped in attacks on gun positions and enemy occupied buildings in the Faenza area. Great as these achievements were, they were far surpassed by those of December. In one fortnight of intensive flying from Bellaria between the 14th and the 27th, the Squadron received no less than four telegrams of congratulation from the army for the magnificent support given them. The first followed a strafing attack on December 14th on enemy troops dug in on the banks of the Naviglio Canal only 300 yards ahead of our own troops. General Hoffmeister, Officer Commanding 5th Canadian Division, later told Major Gasson, who led the attack, that enemy casualties from this attack were over thirty killed and when his troops went forward to occupy the position, they took seventy prisoners for the loss of only two men! The next day two Tiger tanks were destroyed and an enemy counter- attack broken up in the Bagnacavallo and Fusignano areas. Gp/Cpt Dundas, the Officer Commanding 244 Wing, added his congratulations and those of all the other squadrons on the Wing to those already expressed by the army.
A most successful strafing attack on Boxing Day enemy troops dug in along the Senio river, a mile and a half below Alfonsini, was followed on the 27th by the bombing of a Tiger tank concealed in a farmhouse near Castel Bolognese. The army later told us that it had been found 'brewed up'. But what gave us particular satisfaction was an attack on an enemy observation post in a church tower in Bagnacavallo on December 17th. Before '92' was called in, the other squadrons in the Wing had flown no less than thirty-six sorties in attempts to flatten it. All had failed, but Captain Lee, Flight Sergeant Peacock, Flight Lieutenant Wright, Sergeant Doyle, Sergeant Wilson and Pilot Officer (name illegible. Asst. Ed.) demolished it with four direct hits and two near misses! Thanks to the excellent and inspiring leadership of Major Gasson, ably helped by Captain Lee, Flying Officer Taylor and Flying Officer Fair, we had by the end of 1944 established our supremacy as the foremost fighting unit of 244 Wing and therefore of the Desert Air Force. (In spite of having left North Africa in May 1943, the Desert Air Force kept its name until the end of the Italian campaign in May 1945).With the army more or less static on the line of the Senio river for the first three months of the new year, the Squadron has had little support work to do and most of the time has been spent in doing the very necessary and important, though less spectacular, work of cutting enemy lines of communication, destroying his rolling stock and road transport and impeding his water borne traffic in north and north east Italy. During these three months a total of 117 heavy guns has been destroyed with 143 damaged, 20 mechanised transport destroyed and 16 damaged, 9 barges destroyed and 42 damaged, 6 locomotives damaged and 14 armoured vehicles destroyed with 54 damaged. (There is a little confusion at this point as a separate list dated 31st March 1945 gives the following totals : Total tonnage of bombs dropped - 546 tons. 53 motor transport destroyed - including staff cars. 61 motor transport damaged. 45 heavy guns destroyed. 191 heavy guns damaged. 6 locomotives destroyed. 11 locomotives damaged. 9 barges destroyed. 11 barges damaged. 4 tanks destroyed - including 3 Tigers. (At this point there appears to be a page missing and the list incomplete. Whatever the exact figures, and in the heat of battle there is bound to be some discrepancy, it is obvious that '92' had been very busy in the ground attack role.) No more fitting tribute could have been paid the Squadron than the award of the "DSO to Major Gasson DFC in the February of this year and under his guidance, the Squadron looks forward to the coming months to playing a part not unworthy of its high tradition.
Squadron score : 3171/2 enemy aircraft destroyed. 107 probably damaged. 184 damaged. With the end of the war fast approaching and the Luftwaffe a spent force, little or no air combat took place over the battlefield and '92' continued to operate in the ground attack role.