On to Victory
Early 1945 at Bellaria. The squadron either lived in these tents, or in the back of trucks round the airfield/dispersal. It was pretty tough since the winter and spring of ’45 was particularly cold and unpleasant. Left to right, ‘Mike’ Widdowson (92 Squadron); ‘Hodge’ Hodgkinson (I don’t know which Squadron he was attached to – was it 92?); ‘Chas’ Alan Charles (601 Squadron) - They all lived together, and flew from the same aerodrome. 'Chas' was shot down on 20 March 1945. His amazing escape is not part of 92 Squadron’s history but you can read it here.
The effects of the New Year’s Celebration had scarcely worn off when Flying Officer Taylor took six aircraft to bomb an enemy strong point in a farmhouse. The bombing was not up to ‘92’ standard for the nearest 500 pounder fell twenty five yards from the target, but as the South African put it: “Still, accustomed as the Hun is to bombing, it’s not pleasant to have 500 pounders falling round your ‘Casa’ and to find yourself the target for a couple of straffing runs doesn’t improve a hangover at the best of times”.
Operations during the first three months of 1945 were seriously hampered by the prevailing weather conditions and with the Armies regrouping for their next big assault; attacks were directed almost without exception against enemy road and rail communications in Northern Italy. With the area covered in snow in the early part of the year, the enemy’s gun pits stood out like the proverbial dog’s ear so some attacks were made on these inviting targets. The occasional dusk patrol gave the pilots some useful night flying practice and those on the ground had the pleasure of watching the CO ‘Grease his kite onto the runway’, a feat which he seemed to be able to perform with uncanny judgement on each occasion he landed.
In January the Squadron said farewell to Flying Officer Warren-Hastings, sadly coarsened by his stay with 92. In his time on the Squadron his ‘Oh, bother it’ had been replaced by a far more robust expletive. He left complete with seven hundred pounds of kit for Senigallia, driven there by the Adjutant. Far from decrying such a spirit of self sacrifice in the Adjutant, all who knew their maps realised that the road to Senigallia passed through a certain place which was not without its glamorous attraction for him.
With so little flying the officers were thrown back on their own resources. Flying Officer Evans the Squadron Intelligence Officer recalls: “I suppose this accounted for the popularity of the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzles. I remember the Doc and the CO, both the keenest types invariably called upon every member of the Mess to solve a clue, and then when all else failed, the ‘Doc’ would look up the solution. In this way very satisfactory results were achieved to the no small delight of the two gentlemen in question. When intellectual activities began to pall, ‘Cheesy’ and ‘Skinny’ both real ‘92’ dogs was a never failing source of enjoyment. The Mess resounded with ‘Come on Skinny, uppy-duppy’ and other such inanities while ‘Cheesy’s’ attempted but constantly thwarted advances were watched with, one might almost say, a paternal instinct.”
Another spectacular bombing raid took place at the end of January on two special targets. The first an Intelligence Headquarters and Agent Training School at Villa Dolfin near Rosa, the second an oil storage dump at Caserze. Nine aircraft carrying two 500 pound bombs on a twin rack under the fuselage, reached the area half an hour after the Kittyhawks and finished bombing. They found the house still intact but planted nine bombs right onto the saboteur school and left the whole Villa heavily damaged.
January also marked the first departure of the married men. A big farewell party, in the course of which a hundred and eighty litres of hooch was consumed, was held in the Airmen’s Mess on the 19th of the month to celebrate the departure of the first twenty eight. Although they were all naturally overjoyed at the thought of returning, this was mixed with some tinge of regret for all had been with the Squadron since it came overseas at the beginning of 1942, some even were old ‘Biggin’ men and had accompanied it on its triumphal progress from Alamein through Libya, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy. No Squadron could lose such men as Warrant Officer Nixon, the Armourer; Flight Sergeant Rogers of ‘A; Flight; Sergeant Harding, Sergeant Whithead, Corporal Mann, Corporal Cabbert, Corporal Martin, and Corporal Wallis who had been with the Squadron since it reformed in 1939, without a sense of regret. Celebrations continued till 4am next morning and after the CO had helped to serve breakfast, they were helped aboard a three tonner which took them off to Ancona, the majority of them much the worse for wear.
The official diary had little to report for the first few months of 1945 but the following is worthy of mention:
“Much to our disgust five JU 87s came into the area in tight Vic at 17.15 hours. We were not scrambled as the Beaufighters were already airborne and dealt with them. This morning Flight Lieutenant Garner fetched Flying Officer Hutchinson (Canadian) from Rimini where he had arrived after some ten weeks in hospital in Naples and Sorrento recovering from a broken back. It was fine to see him again and we were all glad to know that he had made such a complete recovery. Naturally he had made good use of his time down there and his first request was “What about a spot of leave in Rome now”. Later in the morning Flight Lieutenant O.H. Jones, whom we have neither seen nor heard of for nearly two months since he left us at Fano for a ‘social call’ on the A.O.C. Balkan Air Force, reappeared in a replacement Spit he had flown up from Brindisi. Two months of cooling his heels on the ground we hope for his sake, will cure him of his desire to roll a Spit at fifty feet even though he does it very well. With ‘Jonah’ and ‘Hutch’ back the Mess is beginning to take on its old shape again.
“We must congratulate the ‘Doc’ on his early rising these cold winter mornings. Today he made breakfast at 9.15! Still he had a cast iron excuse this time for he had been up in the early hours dealing with some Polish soldier who had his throat cut out. Trouble was he didn’t get any business, for after taking his patient down to Rimini he had to hand him over to a Polish doctor who graciously replied to all his remarks with a click of his heels and ‘Please’! The ‘Quack’ came away a sad and rather puzzled man.”
The terrible weather broke for a day or two on February 8th, which gave more opportunity for some pleasant flying, but the sole topic of conversation at the end of the day was a ME 410 which flew right up the coast past the airfield at about one hundred feet at 1400 hours. Pilots, ‘Erks’ the lot, watched it cruise slowly along, unable to believe their eyes. The gun positions carefully sighted along the beach unaccustomed to such things as enemy aircraft perhaps blinked an eyelid but failed to fire. A 20mm gun which had been practising hard since lunch closed down to gape. The Ops phone rang wildly, a voice at the other end of the line screamed, “There’s a Junkers 188 flying up the coast!” Ops then called up all friendly aircraft and Flying Officer D. Stevenson, not long airborne with his section answered, but sad to say though our aircraft swept down and patrolled the coast from Cesenatico to Ravenna, they had no joy.
On February 10th armed reconnaissance flights were started. Flight Lieutenant A. Taylor, a Canadian, led the first but returned a little early from his trip because he thought he had been hit by heavy flak and Flying Officer D. Stevenson took over. Stevenson later strafed a horse drawn vehicle on the Po Delta, in a face of intense light flak and had the unusual pleasure of seeing it blow up with a small explosion.
On returning to the Mess, the pilots were delighted to hear that the CO had been awarded the D.S.O. a signal honour both for himself and the Squadron which the twenty year old Major handled with such magnificent dash and brilliance. The airmen celebrated the award and the departure of the remaining married men in the true ‘92’ style and Flying Officer Stevenson joined them with such gay abandon that he was completely U/S for the next two days.
On February 14th while everyone wondered how the war was going, the Wing Ops Officer informed the Squadron with no little pomp and circumstance that they could expect the airfield to be subjected to massed air attacks ‘any minute now’. It was hard to know what to believe as they were informed only two days before that the Russians were in the Eastern outskirts of Berlin.
The following day it soon became apparent, was ‘Der Tag’ for the Squadron was brought to readiness at first light. The Armourers were ordered to provide crews to man the guns for aerodrome defence, zealous Erks dug ‘slitters’ at high speed, pilots paced up and down scanning the skies and the whole field was agog with suppressed excitement and anticipation then at 10.00 hours the telephone bell rang and they were told ‘Flap Over’.
More armed reconnaissance flights were made immediately to the rear of the battle area as far North as Venice, during the latter half of February. On one of these Pilot Officer ‘Jimmy’ Ogg was hit by small arms fire while strafing ox cars carrying some oil drums. The bullets passed through the fuselage, behind his seat and cut the air pressure pipe. His aircraft was also caught in a box barrage of 88mm flak over Argenta so that the afternoon was not without its excitement, especially as Jimmy had to make a flapless and brakeless landing, which he did extremely well.
It is impossible to record in this history all the objectives that underwent attacks but one on February 23rd is worthy of note. This star performance by six aircraft led by Flight Lieutenant A. Taylor with Pilot Officers Pete Smith and Ginger Smith as section leaders, bombed and straffed about thirty TRGs just to the south of Camposampiero and four fires, two of them large and spreading, were left burning. When the CO went up there an hour later the smoke was visible from thirty miles away and as he drew near he saw a column of smoke rising to eight thousand feet and drifting away across Venice. Below, the trucks were blazing furiously and were still burning twenty four hours later when the next ‘recce’ patrol flew up there.
The Spitfire continued to prove it an extremely robust war machine nearly always returning to base, despite intense flak encountered on the strafing runs. The Squadron’s greatest flak magnet was Flight Lieutenant D. Ayling holed four times in four trips once with a large hole in his port wing; he still managed to get back safely.
On another attack on March 10th Flight Lieutenant Taylor attacked an ammunition dump scoring two hits and causing explosions and fires. The CO following up with a low level strafe at four hundred feet hit a big camouflaged dump about thirty yards long and twenty feet wide which blew up in a sheet of flame which rose to fifteen hundred feet. The CO flew straight through this and miraculously came through safely though both radiators were holed and he had a piece blown off one of his propeller blades. The show was repeated in the afternoon when Sergeant B. Barton’s bomb hit a house in the area which blew up in a sheet of orange flame. The other bombs fell in the area but set nothing off. A huge black patch one hundred yards across and the ruins of two houses scarred the spot where the CO had blown up the dump in the morning.
One of the rare close support shows came up on March 14th, when the CO led four aircraft in an attack on an enemy occupied building. Three direct hits completely demolished the house but on the last run Warrant Officer Hoolihan an Australian was hit by small arms fire. The bullet exploded in his cockpit narrowly missing one of his vital parts, his rudder controls were also damaged but he managed to bring off a successful emergency landing at Cesenatico.
Later in the day the usual sorties were flown against rail communications as a result of which the Castel Franco Belluno line was cratered in three places and a series of green flashes from the power pylons close by probably deprived the local inhabitants of their electric light supply for some days. The Pardenone Casarsa line also cut, but unfortunately after a subsequent strafing attack on some TRGs, Pilot Officer Ogg who was leading called up to say that his engine was running very rough. Shortly after glycol was seen streaming from his machine and at about two thousand feet he bailed out and was seen to land successfully in a fairly isolated piece of marshy country near a farmhouse. Everyone thought that this should give him a very good chance of escape and his friends called out over the radio, “Best of luck Jimmy, we’ll be looking out for you”.
At this time there were some new postings to and from the Squadron including Captain R Jacobs from the South African Air Force, who became the new ‘A’ Flight Commander and Flight Lieutenant Travis who had been the Adjutant for the past two years. He had a few days left in Italy before he was due to return to Britain. I will let you, Dear Reader, try to imagine how he passed his time but I should include a comment from the diary which said, “We are very sorry to lose him and we hope that before he leaves Italy his crowning ambition may be achieved.”
Towards the end of March 1945 Long Range forty five gallon tanks were fitted to the aircraft and they penetrated much further over enemy territory than before. On one occasion following a narrow gauge railway the Squadron flew up a narrow valley with snow capped peaks towering on either side, as far as the Italian Austrian Frontier. They had a glorious field day shooting up cars which appeared to be moving along the roads quite oblivious to their enemy’s presence. In all it was a most exhilarating experience.
April 1st was Easter Sunday and one that was long remembered. For in the space of two hours two pilots had bailed out over the sea. One of them Flying Officer Beasley, about twenty miles south of Caorle, the other, Sergeant “Mike” Widdowson, who was helping to escort a Catalina to rescue Flying Officer Beasley, had to bail out twenty five miles north east of Porto Garibaldi. Fortunately the weather was good, the sea calm and both pilots were rescued; “Hank” by a Catalina and “Mike” by a Walrus.
By April 1945 it became obvious that the ‘Big Push’ was in the offing and the pilots were all eager to return to their old job of intensive close support. The ground crews were keenly awaiting it too as then they would have material results for their work. On one of the first sorties after the Squadron’s return to this role on April 3rd, the CO was hit in the engine by flak but fortunately he was able to make a crash landing on the beach about two hundred yards our side of the line. After some artillery men had steadied him with several whiskies, they provided him with transport to the nearest Army Observation Post Strip and from there he was flown back to base – just in time for a late breakfast.
The return to close support work was marred by an unusual spate of bomb ‘hang-ups’. On some occasions the enemy must have wondered what was going on as the Spits made dive after dive before they could get rid of their bombs. Another show on April 8th was marred when Flight Lieutenant Ben Garner had to bail out; his story is worthy of record and is given in his own words.
“I took off at 1700 hours leading two aircraft, identified the target at 1715 and went in to dive bomb from eight thousand feet. My first bomb hung up, the second hit the house and the third hung up. I told the section that I was gaining height for a second attack and to follow me down in a strafe on some gun pits.
“I was steady in my dive with one eye on the port cannon muzzle where shells were exploding almost continuously in long yellow flashes when a heavy explosion seemed to envelope the aircraft, momentarily forcing me hard down in the seat. The cockpit filled with smoke, I could not see a thing through the canopy and the aircraft seemed to be wallowing drunkenly up to the right. I immediately jettisoned the canopy by pulling it, bending my head forward and hitting it hard on the sides simultaneously with both elbows. I tried to right the aircraft, but the controls seemed lifeless so I flung open the cockpit door, pulled out the harness release pin, half turned left to free the chute from its recess in the seat and with both hands on the hinges of the open door, I forced myself up and over the wing root fairing. The aircraft felt on the point of stalling as I left and once I was free it swept gracefully down in a slow spiral to the right. I felt for the ripcord, pulled it and almost immediately the chute streamed and opened. Looking down I found myself only just, but far enough, over Boche lines, across the canal over Porto Garibaldi. Intending to take advantage of the bombing wind I tried slipping the chute out to sea without any visible result. As a last resort I began slipping hard south to fall in our lines. Miraculously the wind changed and combined with energetic shroud line pulling, I drifted south west over the town and landed in a field. During the descent I did not see or hear anyone firing at me, fully expecting plenty, but a very friendly Spitfire did sweep close by me, causing me to oscillate and spilling air from the canopy. On landing I lay flat in the long grass, shed all my flying clothing and after waiting t see what the Boche would do, I began snaking through the grass, as far away from the flying kit as I could. I reached a small canal at the edge of the field and hid a while in a grassy hollow to find out why our guns were shelling just off to one side. From the pinpoints of the bursts I came to a definite conclusion that I was in No Man’s Land and that some of the houses around might be occupied by the Boche. Landing south of the canal through Garibaldi I thought I might be quite safe, but apparently the Army was still engaged in patrolling this area and ‘winkling out’ enemy elements from the houses south of the canal. I decided to lie low until early twilight, then I slipped over a low bank, across some small wooden sluice gates and belly crawled south along a narrow gorse covered spit between some water filled salt pans. Mines and my silhouette on the sky line were my main fears. I must have belly crawled some three hundred yards stopping frequently to listen and making a wide detour around a large group of houses which I thought might be occupied by the enemy. Until I began my detour out into the marshes I followed new looking dog paw marks in the mud, at least the dog might have been heavy enough to set of any mines.
“Once by the house I began walking in a semicircle out in the marsh until I reached a wide canal. I considered swimming this; the marsh water was quite pleasant even though the mud stank unpleasantly. However, I decided to walk along the bank until I reached the west bridge.
“The canal was leading me back again to Porto Garibaldi and noticing slit trenches in the banks, I decided to go warily and listen occasionally. Walking along the bank top, I became suspicious of dark forms in the scrub at the bottom of the bank and as I walked by and looked down again one of the forms whispered ‘Halt’ quite alarmingly. I stopped all in good time for they were pointing ‘Tommies’ at me and I told them I was a pilot. They told me to come down the bank where we exchanged identities, themselves Scots Guards, I the pilot whose whereabouts and possible activities they already knew. Apparently the Guards were on an outgoing fighting patrol. I was ferried across the canal, taken to Company Headquarters where particulars of contact were phoned to No 224 Wing. From there I jeeped to Brigade, thence to Divisional Headquarters where I stayed overnight. I was jeeped back to my Unit the following morning after a very fine breakfast.
“It was quite good fun really. The Army Units from the boys in the line up to Div HQ were magnificent, quick on the trigger, maybe, but magnificent hosts. Indeed, I felt somewhat embarrassed being looked after, almost mothered, by so fine a bunch as those in 56 Division.
“In passing I cannot account for the explosion which occurred. No flak was seen. The Army Units reported a big brownish burst beneath and behind me, but saw no bomb burst afterwards. The aircraft crashed within twenty yards of a Scots Guards unit but did not explode. I watched it catch fire after a while when ammo began exploding and the tanks went up. The wreckage burned for quite a long time. The bomb may be under the wreckage or failed to explode. In my opinion I was either hit by a mortar shell, or artillery fire.”
On the day following Garner’s escape, April 9th, the Eighth Army opened its campaign to destroy the German Armies in Italy. The crossing of the River Senio was proceeded by a heavy assault of over eight hundred Liberators who dropped over one hundred and seventy five thousand fragmentation bombs on the enemy troop concentrations in the battle area and by systematic attacks by the Desert Air Force on pinpoint targets and ‘Timothys’ on selected areas.
The eleven aircraft, led by the CO and Captain R. Jacobs (SAAF), attacked Tiger Tanks concealed in houses in the Massa Lombarda area and enemy strong points in the area, they then ended up by strafing enemy troops dug in along the banks of the river, through the haze and dust of the battle. The last show was in conjunction with 241 Squadron when more enemy positions received direct hits but the aircraft were unable to strafe as our own artillery recommenced their shelling a minute or two early. This was a pity as the success of a ‘Timothy’ depended upon perfect timing and both on this day and subsequent days the Army tended to open up again before the aircraft had completed their operations. Still, between the Desert Air Force and the “Heavies” the enemy was well softened up and when the Eighth Army crossed the River Senio at 1930 hours they did so with negligible casualties.
Captain Jacobs led another brilliant attack two days later, the eleventh on an enemy strong point in a pumping station, in which he completely saved the day for the 40th Marine Commandos. In a letter written later a Major R. Matters wrote “I would like to thank the pilots of the four spitfires who bombed and shot up the Menati pumping station. We were in an extremely sticky position, in fact had almost given up hope, when the aircraft came along and saved the situation. This action had the effect of subduing an enemy strong point which was causing severe casualties and materially helped us to get forward to our objective. If we have to ask for such support again we hope to dial the same number”.
These results were not achieved without loss for while making an attack on enemy strong point near Masa Lombarda, Pilot Officer ‘Pete’ Smith’s bomb exploded either just as or just before it left his aircraft. He was blown to pieces and his loss was a grievous one for he was a likeable fellow of sterling character. His operational tour had not been done easily and it was sad to think that the next day he was to go back to England.
From April 12th the Wing’s role was switched from strategical targets to close support, under Rover Controls and it was from these operations that some magnificent results were obtained.
April 13th was a tank day for Johnnie Gasson when he and his section found no less than six Tiger Tanks in various positions which were reported to Rover Control, who ordered them to attack.
After destroying one tank with two direct hits and damaging two more, the tanks were strafed as they lumbered along to seek shelter under some trees. This blew another up and left the second damaged and smoking. Meanwhile Flying Officer C. Beasley blew a Tiger Tank over the side of the canal bank along which it was moving and left it lying at an angle of sixty degrees with the gun muzzle in the mud. Telegrams of congratulations which came in later from the New Zealand Division credited the Squadron with four Tiger Tanks destroyed,
Flight Sergeant Stanley (Mike) Widdowson’s logbook entry for 13th April reads: Duration 1.10: Close support for ground troops west of Massa Lombarda area.‘This is probably the best of all my trips so far!” His diary for 1945 recalls:
“We were sent out to do close support of the ground troops whose advance had been slowed by a determined enemy defence. As we went over the front lines I could see below the flash of exploding shells from ground fire, lots of smoke, and the bright bursts from flame-throwers. Suddenly, I spotted a Jerry ‘Tiger’ tank crawling along a road only a few hundred yards in front of our troops. The tank commander must have heard and seen us flying overhead, and he quickly took evasive action and turned up a cart track to hide behind a farm house. However, by banking my ‘plane I kept the tank in view all the time. Then, as it got to one of the farm buildings, it simply stopped, reversed, and bulldozed its way backwards through the wall, disappearing from view. It was a very clever manoeuvre to try and hide from us. I reported it over the R/T to the Flight Commander (Johnnie Gasson), but after a few seconds of looking from his ‘Spit’, he said could not see it. I then reported the tank to the army front line ‘radio chap’ and he said “OK, try to get it”. The Flight Commander. told me to go in front of him and lead him on to it. I got into position, lined up on the building which hid the tank, and made a very steep dive, pulled my sight through the target onto where the tank’s gun was poking out, and pressed the bomb release. We were attacking just ahead of our troops, and so I had gone in as low as I dare to make sure I got a direct hit, but as I pulled out of the dive, my ‘kite’ was rocked by an explosion that almost put it out of control; it skidded and yawed a bit, and I thought I had been hit by some heavy flak. Then one of the other chaps coming in behind me yelled over the R/T and said I had got a ‘’direct hit on the ‘Tiger!’’ and it ‘’had blown up’’. My 500lb bomb must have hit it smack on top and blown up the tank’s ‘ammo’ at the same time. When I flew back over it to look, I could see that it, and the building, were completely destroyed. Those parts of the tank that were still recognisable had started to burn: the fire was still going nearly an hour later when we eventually headed for home.
“There was more to come: We spotted two more tanks making off across some open fields, but we had no bombs left. Instead we came in low and let them have everything we’d got: We all strafed them with cannon and m/guns (machine guns). This seemed to make little difference, so I came around again and lined the rearmost one up in the sights, and then let him have it a second time. This time I made some good hits and, as the cannon fire hit home, the tank slowed, did a neat ‘pirouette’, and blew up! The remaining, leading Tiger had already taken a pasting from our other ‘Spits’, and was limping off at a very low speed; but now we had now used all our ammo, so we reported it to the ground control, and turned back to return to base. After we landed, the CO and Captain Jacobs congratulated me on ‘a job well done!’
“Next day after ‘ops’, I was told to ‘report in’ to the CO. When I arrived, there were some other ‘bods’ talking with him, and I was then interviewed by a Flight Lieutenant and a Squadron Leader who asked me about yesterday’s attack on the Tigers. They took my home address and name, and then we went outside to have our photo taken with the other chaps who had been on the ‘op’. They then photographed us all in front of one of the ‘Spits’. It appears they were very impressed with my job of work destroying that first Tiger tank, and are going to give the ‘show’ a write-up in the ‘Air Force News’ and ‘Eighth Army News’.
The 16th was another great day when the Squadron destroyed one tank, twelve lorries, three Armoured Fighting Vehicles, two guns and four ammunition carriers. The enemy defended themselves stoutly and as a result of intense light flak four aircraft were severely damaged and Warrant Officer P. Hoolihan from Australia was forced to land. The last thing that he was heard to say was “I think I’m going to land on the Hun side of the lines”. Whether he managed to get his kite down successfully and was taken prisoner was not known but later when that area was cleared of enemy troops, Captain Jacobs and Flight Lieutenant Calvan spent a whole day searching for traces of both him and his aircraft without finding anything. Patrick Hoolihan, aged 24, didn’t know it but he had recently been promoted to Pilot Office. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 30 October 1945 for his "skill and gallantry on a large number of sorties". Patrick’s name is located at panel 124 in the Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial.
Another pilot, Pilot Officer P. Davis, who attracted enemy flak on several occasions and got away with it each time, was forced to crash land near Castel San Pietro. Picking a suitable field he put his kite down safely and after being entertained by the Polish Corps was back with the Squadron just after lunch, little the worse for his adventure.
The Squadron kept up their close support attacks without respite for another week, then on the 23rd the Hun started his retreat to the River Po by which time the Armies were advancing so fast that further close support was neither necessary nor desirable. Accordingly the bomb racks were removed from the Spitfires and forty five gallon long range tanks were fitted.
The month of April went down in history as the month in which the German Armies in Italy were forced to their knees and had to seek for the signature to our terms of unconditional surrender. Although the terms were accepted on the 28th, the enemy were continuing to fight, badly disorganised and retreating fast northwards, hotly pursued by our Armies. The remaining days until 1st May, when all organised resistance in Italy ceased, were occupied in low level attacks on the fleeing enemy transport column. On one of these on the 30th, Flying Officer Stevenson disposed of a grey staff car racing up into the mountains near Gemona. Rows of burnt out transport were seen along the roads but unfortunately ‘Steve’ picked up a stray bullet and had to crash land in the mountains near Lago Santa Croce. He made safe wheels up landing and called up from the ground to say that he was alright and then started his escape and evasion plan which got him back to the Squadron five days later.
On May 1st, 92 Squadron flew on its last operational mission of the campaign when Flight Lieutenant Ben Garner took four aircraft on a shipping recce of the Trieste area. This was followed by a move north to Treviso on the 2nd. Flight Lieutenants Garner and Evans made an early start to arrange some suitable billets for the men but learning that no arrangements could be made till the following day, they spent the night in luxury at the Royal Daneli Hotel in Venice. The advance party had an amazing journey in a long column of British Tanks and Mechanised transport all moving north. There were red scarved Partigani, bristling with Sten guns and hand grenades, cycling along the road or congregated in the villages and women and children standing outside their houses waving wildly and delirious with enthusiasm.
When the Squadron arrived they chose a very pleasant camp site overlooking the river and tents were erected and everyone was very happy before a thunderstorm broke. When the weather cleared the CO and Flight Commanders went to look for a suitable ‘Casa’ for the Officers’ Mess and found an ideal spot in a neighbouring village. The Squadron were delighted that evening to welcome back Pilot Officer Jimmy Ogg who had been hiding for nearly six weeks up at Portguara.
On the following day with the officers in their quarters, a delightful house decorated in the Venetian style, lights and water laid on, with comfortable furnishings and a room where they could hold dances, Flying Officer Don Stevenson arrived in a Fiat car, accompanied by Flying Officer Reid Hutchinson (Canadian) and ‘Steve’ gave his tale:
“On April 30th I was leading a formation of six aircraft on a long range armed recce of the Udine and Gerona areas. I went down to strafe the Staff Car when I must have been hit in the oil tank by small arms fire. Twenty minutes later whilst I was following a road, which led through the mountains, the engine started running very rough, the oil pressure was reading zero, the temperature was ‘off the clock’, and greyish smoke was pouring out of the engine. As I was at only four hundred feet I decided to crash land on a fairly flat field in a hollow surrounded by dense forest and steep hills. This I learnt later was a place call Consiglio and was used as a supply dropping strip for the Partisans. I landed successfully and after blowing up my IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe), made my way into the forest to await developments. A few minutes later an Italian peasant and his son approached the aircraft. I called them over and was assured there were no Huns in the immediate vicinity. They offered to look after me whilst they sent word to a British Parachutist Captain who was working with the Partisans. The Captain contacted me later and gave me instructions to make my way to the Partisans hideout in the hills. This I did later in the day and found some other Allied flyers in hiding with the Partisans. The following day we heard that the town of Vittorio Veneto had been captured by the Partisans and that British troops were expected in shortly, so we decided to trek down the mountains into the plain and arrived in time to welcome the first British elements.
“There was no transport going south – the Army was pushing forward rapidly and as I was anxious to rejoin my Squadron as early as possible, I decided on a plan of my own. I was fortunate in finding a damaged German Staff Car and with the aid of two Italian Mechanics worked part of the night and the whole of the next day to make it serviceable.
“By the evening of the second May, it was ready and I drove all night, three hundred kilometres and reached base in time for breakfast, having been away three days”.
The last few days of the war were spent visiting Venice, lunching at the Officers Club at the Luna Hotel, looking for supplies of beer and buying fishing tackle to take back to the Squadron’s ‘Camp Site’. Then on May 8th the Air Officer Commanding announced a holiday. At 1500 hours the Squadron heard the Prime Minister announce the cessation of Hostilities in Europe. After the King’s speech in the evening the Sergeants’ Mess visited the Officers’ Mess to celebrate but somehow VE Day seemed an anti-climax and the party did not go with the swing that one might have expected.
On the same day the Squadron fishing enthusiasts, the CO and Pilot Officer J Peacock brought back a small pike, their first success. More important to them than the end of the war was the fact that the fishing round the tented camp had been spoilt by the ‘Jerries’ and the ‘Ities’ who used to blast the river with mines and hand grenades. No idea of sport those fellows.
Such is the wartime history of No 92 (Fighter) Squadron, a record of high endeavour of the deeds of brave men and of duties performed cheerfully, often in the face of overwhelming odds. A truly proud record and one imperishable in the annals of the Royal Air Force. The Squadron’s bag of enemy aircraft for the years 1939 to 1945 stood at:
Destroyed 317 ½
The total of destroyed enemy aircraft was made up as follows:
ME 109 160 DO 17 9
JU 88 50 HE 111 8
ME 110 21 ½ JU 87 7
Macchi 19 Savoia Macchetti SM82 5
FW 190 17 Others 21
Thus in addition to holding the record for fighter squadrons in both the Battle of Britain and the campaigns fought by the Desert Air Force, 92 Squadron was the top scoring fighter squadron of the Royal Air Force in World War Two.
In the Ground Attack Role they had dropped 546 tons of bombs, destroyed 53 motor transports and damaged 61, destroyed 145 rolling stock and damaged 191, destroyed 6 locomotives and damaged 11 and destroyed 5 tanks and damaged 4.
During the war the Squadron had gained 2 DSOs, 27 DFCs and 10 bars to DFCs, 2 DFMs and 2 Bars to DFMs.
Yet the Squadron was to spend nearly two more years overseas, before its number reappeared as one of the Meteor equipped Home Defence Squadrons. Much of this period was spent in Italy at Treviso, still as part of No 244 Wing as they had been for some years. Occupational and training flying was the main activity.
The first few days after VE Day were spent practicing for the Desert Air Force fly past to be held later in May. There were also several informal parties and dances. On one of these Sister Helen Jones, an old friend of the Mess, together with three other Nursing Sisters, stayed the night in the Mess. Flight Lieutenants Garner and Ayling gave up their rooms to them. ‘Tommy’ the Mess waiter not being informed had the shock of his life when he went in with an early call to find women in the beds.
The pilots all came into some pretty interesting flying as the Squadron obtained a Bücker Jungmann trainer with Hungarian markings that a couple of Australians had found in a field near Mestre.
This aircraft was in excellent condition and Flight Lieutenant Ben Garner who flew it back to Treviso gave an impromptu display doing steep turns round the Mess to the delight of the members’ lady guests who were just arriving for a dance.
There was another party the following evening given by Flying Officer Jimmy Longstaff, the Engineer Officer, who was leaving after almost two years continuous service with the Squadron which he joined back at Ben Gardane in May 1943. Throughout that time he never spared himself and it was justly said that during his tenure of office ‘92’ had the finest aircraft maintenance on 244 Wing. An eminently practical man, he solved many tricky problems that had baffled others and it was due to him that the mystery of bomb hang-ups, which had threatened the Squadron just before the final campaign, was solved. The pilots were indeed fortunate to have had a man of his calibre looking after their machines throughout the strenuous Sicily and Italy Campaigns.
A few interesting trips were made into the Dolomites during the free time in the latter half of May. Four of the officers drove right into the heart of the mountains to visit Cortina on the 17th. When they arrived they found it entirely occupied by the Huns who were continuing to use it as a hospital area. Flying Officer Evans wrote at the time:
“It was indeed an amazing sight to see the Huns in their Staff Cars strutting armed through the streets and occupying all the Hotels, we began to wonder who had won the war. Certainly the Herrenvolk had lost none of their arrogance. We lunched with the British Town Major who was delighted to see us, said he hoped to get the Hun cleared out in the next ten days or so and he would look out a villa or Hotel for us. Sounds promising – even the CO was interested when he heard there was excellent trout fishing to be had there.”
After a couple more visits to Cortina, arrangements were made with the proprietors of the Corona Hotel, which the officers discovered held a stock of excellent liqueur brandy, to accommodate up to forty members of the Wing, as soon as the Germans could be moved out. It was their intention that the Hotel would be used as a Wing rest camp. The CO drove up the next day to clinch the tentative arrangements that had been made but returned the following day with the news that there was no hope of getting it. An American Colonel had told him that it was a 5th Army area, that it was to be reserved as a hospital area for the Huns and further that he was putting it out of bounds to all British troops. It can be imagined how this news was received.
However, the time was passed practice flying both for the Desert Air Force flypast and in the Bücker Jungmann which had by now been completely repainted and with sky blue fuselage emblazoned with the Squadron’s Crest, sky blue wings and cherry red spinner it looked remarkably smart.
All this was marred by deep regret for the death of Flight Sergeant Cowan who was killed while air testing a new machine. The aircraft crashed into a house and exploded in a little village. How and why it happened remained a mystery for when Flying Officer Stevenson went there to find out from the villagers what had happened, he got two conflicting stories from them.
Another near fatal accident was narrowly avoided during one of the formation practices when Flight Lieutenant D. Ayling was ‘fenced in’ and his port wing tip was shorn off as he attempted to break away. However the flypast itself at Udine went off perfectly. A running commentary was given over the Eighth Army Radio and everyone was agog with excitement as the commentator announced ‘Here comes 92 Squadron led by Major J. Gasson DSO DFC and Bar’ and followed it by ‘Verray nice’.
The Squadron Intelligence Officer managed to get himself a couple of trips in the trainer looking at some of the Squadron’s bombing exploits during the last two months of the campaign. The petrol train at Camposampiero, the saboteur school at Villa Rosa, the Methane Plant at Bagnoli and was able to confirm for himself the extreme accuracy not merely of the bombing but of the subsequent claims.
The Day Fighter Leaders Course had recently been started and some of the senior pilots were posted to attend while those left behind were involved in a Bomber Interception Exercise under GCI (Ground Controlled Interception). On the weekends the members of the Squadron were able to tour the local area, like Flying Officer Jimmy Ogg who went back to visit the Italian Family who had sheltered him for six weeks. Many people visited the Venice Lido which was taken over as an RAF station, the command of which was given to Captain ‘Douggie’ Lee, 92 Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight Commander. Meanwhile on the morale side the NAAFI had commandeered yet another Brewery. While under local management the Brewery at Udine made an excellent brew, available in any quantity, under NAFFI control the official records state that “Beer had been rationed to three pints a week for every officer and airman. There had been such a marked deterioration in quality that it has been decided not to purchase further supplies!”
The remainder of the Squadron’s service at Treviso was spent practice flying. A new practice bombing range was ‘christened’ by 92 and several pilots reported direct hits, but the results from the Range Officer were very different. It was proven later that his plotting apparatus was out of order. This new range gave added interest to the pilots and ground crews. Along with practice bomber and fighter interceptions, practice formations and aerobatics, authorised low flying and the practice bombing the pilots were kept interested and so ‘up to form’.
At the end of July the Squadron said a fond farewell to the CO, Major Gasson, who, together with Captain D. Lee, started the first stage of their long journey home to South Africa.
The new CO, Squadron Leader C.T. Bell, arrived on the following day from the Rear Desert Air Force Headquarters.
Under Squadron Leader Bell in the latter half of 1945, the Squadron came in for its share of the natural reaction common to the Service at the end of the war, a falling off in morale and the unsettlement caused by demobilisation from its numbers. Before long 92 became the sole surviving member of 244 Wing as 601, their partner squadron, went back to the UK while 145 and 241 Squadrons both disbanded. The Dominion members had nearly all left for their homelands by the September, which was a melancholy thought for those who remembered the magnificent spirit and heroic achievements which bound the Squadrons together on the Wing.
However every effort was made to preserve the spirit and fine reputation gained by the Squadron during its campaigns and one example of this was the organisation of a fine rest centre at a Hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites. Being a world famous skiing resort, it was possible with the support of Group Captain Dundas, Commander of the Wing, to give many of the pilots and NCOs some elementary experience and instruction in the art of skiing; the centre soon earned the unofficial title of 92 Squadron ‘Annex’.
Squadron Leader W. P. Sampson DFC took over the Squadron in January 1946 and was Officer Commanding for three months, being succeeded by Squadron Leader H.R.P. Pertwee DFC.
In the April practice started for the flypast to mark the anniversary of the end of the war. This time it was to include a formation aerobatic display and practice dive bombing runs. It is sad to record that during one practice Flight Lieutenant Jones, ‘B’ Flight Commander was killed when his engine cut out and he crashed while attempting to make a forced landing.
The show itself was a great success and an audience of many high ranking British and Allied Chiefs had an impressive view of Flight Lieutenant Stevenson’s spectacular bomb dives.
In September 1946, the Squadron was informed of a move to an unknown destination, a week later this was announced as Zeltweg in Austria. The trek northwards through breathtaking scenery proved most interesting and even the Squadron’s horses under the fatherly eye of Flying Officer Hedger survived the journey.
The beginning of October saw the Squadron once again resuming the normal flying programme with a series of cross country flights to give the pilots the opportunity of familiarising themselves with the surrounding landmarks. A sound knowledge was necessary owing to the proximity of the various occupational zones and national boundaries.
During one of these flights on 9th, Flying Officer Mills did not return. Searches were organised and his crash was eventually located on the 11th. He had struck a wooded hillside and was killed instantly.
During the remainder of the year, the effect of the release scheme was reflected in the work of the Squadron and it became increasingly difficult to maintain serviceability. Eventually twenty five percent of the aircraft had to be pushed to the back of the hangar.
However, the training programme was kept going with the emphasis on dive bombing and formation flying. The Squadron took part in the two armament displays which were attended by many distinguished British and Foreign representatives.
Heavy snow kept the aircraft on the ground during the last weeks of 1946, despite every effort to keep the runways clear and in compensation for the lack of flying, the Squadron once again enjoyed a season of winter sports on the many slopes within walking distance of the Aerodrome. Christmas itself was celebrated in true RAF style, with food and drink in ample supply for foraging parties had been sent into Italy during December for that purpose.
On New Year’s Day 1947, the Squadron received the unwelcomed news that they were to disband. Many parties were held to commemorate the break up but no one was really happy at the thought of leaving the unit, when they learnt their fate. Most of the pilots were posted to a Pilot Training Course for disposal, which meant a rather uncertain future. When the ground crew postings came through there was a lot of rejoicing, they were to be posted to the UK.
And so, with just over seven creditable years as its second period of existence, 92 were again disbanded. The aircraft were flown back to a Maintenance Unit in Italy and the pilots and ground crew to their next posting or to the UK for demobilisation.