The Desert Campaign
As the Squadron prepared to embark ‘somewhere to the east’ all the men were medically examined for service overseas. The CO and Mac McGowan were both passed unfit and destined to remain at home, while the leadership of the Squadron was given to Squadron Leader Birchfield.
During the three weeks in January 1942 that Birchfield led 92 there were three incidents and the Squadron suffered the loss of two pilots, purely through flying accidents. On the 9th, Sergeant Payne, a Canadian, took off and did not return. His wrecked aircraft was found in Ashly Wood on the 11th. On the 19th Flight Lieutenant Morgan was leading a section with Sergeants Thompson and Novak for formation flying practice. They met a Beaufighter at about two thousand feet with which they started to ‘Dog Fight’. During the subsequent “combat” the Beaufighter dived steeply and went straight into the deck – exploding on impact. Then on the 22nd Sergeant De Rinzi collided in the circuit with Flight Lieutenant Offinburgh of 609 Squadron, flying a Spitfire Mk Vc. Both pilots were killed instantly.
On 27th, Squadron Leader Wedgewood arrived to take command. Everyone was very sorry to see Squadron Leader Birchfield leave after such a short time. He had proved a very popular CO.
The Squadron left Digby for their unknown destination on the 11th February 1942 and two days later set sail from King George V docks on the Clyde in HT Ormonde of the Orient line.
The voyage was terribly unpleasant with nearly double the normal numbers on board and a great shortage of fresh water. Most of the eleven officers and 317 other ranks suffered from diarrhoea most of the way and everyone was glad when they disembarked at the Imperial Forces Transit Camp at Clairwood just south of Durban. They sailed from there after a two week stay, in HT Nieuw Amsterdam a much more comfortable ship to Port Tewfik. Then via Fayid to the Squadron’s next location, Heliopolis, with the Desert Air Force.
The arrangements for unloading the baggage had to be left with the crew of the Nieuw Amsterdam, who left the whole lot unguarded at the quay side, to the mercy of the local population. Consequently every single item of any value was stolen.
The rest of the officers and aircrew numbering twenty one sailed on HT Bergensfjord changing ship at Freetown to HMS Ulster Monarch.
Some time was spent settling down at Heliopolis and converting the transit camp there into a permanent station. Squadron Leader Wedgewood, as well as commanding 92 became the Unit’s first CO. By the end of June some Fairey Gordons were allotted to the Squadron and an intensive period of training began.
The Eighth Army had been pushed back to El Alamein, having lost some eighty thousand men in battle. General Rommel, at the head of his Afrika Korps, was boasting that he had in his grasp the handle of the door to the Nile and Mussolini was soon to hurry to Africa in order to head a victory parade into Alexandria and Cairo.
By the beginning of July reinforcements, arriving rapidly and in strength, were being sent to the Eighth Army. The Squadron was given instructions that at Landing Ground 92, there were enough Hurricanes available, and the CO, his two Flight Commanders and the ten most experienced pilots left to fly them.
The first operational flight in the Middle East took place on the evening of July 4th. Flight Lieutenant Morgan with Pilot Officers Carpenter, Wales, Chisholm and Ryder were patrolling the battle line at 1800 hours when they met about twenty JU87s escorted by ten ME 109s. The top cover engaged the 109s. In the dog-fight Flight Lieutenant Morgan shot down one JU 87 and damaged another. Pilot Officer Wales shot down one JU 87; he had his machine badly shot up by a 109 but was able to return to base. Pilot Officer Carpenter engaged a JU 87 and shot off his port wing tip and Pilot Officer Ryder probably destroyed another. Pilot Officer Chisholm went through the fight with one wheel down and damaged another JU 87.
More patrols were flown and escorts for Hurricane bombers were provided on the following days. On the 17th the Squadron led by Squadron Leader Wedgewood whilst returning from one such escort were jumped by about twenty five ME 109s. Pilot Officer Samouelle shot down a 109F but the Squadron lost four planes flown by Flight Lieutenant Cocker, Warrant Officer Mitchell and Sergeants Groom and Watson. Two planes were seen to hit the deck but the pilots baled out. The next day Flight Lieutenant Cocker was reported as having returned safely.
The next contact with the enemy was made on the 24th when Chisholm shot down a 109. Unfortunately Sergeant Moore was shot up. He managed to bale out successfully, wounded in the leg and with his arms burnt, but he died two days later.
On the 27th, the date of Rommel’s last attack in that particular phase of the campaign, the Squadron had a good bag. Whilst out on patrol over the battle area, they ran into another formation of JU 87s and ME 109s. Squadron Leader Wedgewood shot down a JU 87 and Flight Lieutenant Morgan got a 109, bringing the Squadron’s total to 199 ½.
During the night of July 31st – August 1st, at about 0230 hours, a very heavy blitz took place, chiefly directed at the tented camp at Heliopolis where nine hundred and fifty men were living. It started with a bombing run across the main station aerodrome, during which two or three aircraft were set on fire. This lit up the aircraft dispersal in the tented camp and the bombs were dropped there. Unfortunately one bomb of a stick fell near a three ton lorry which Tysoe, Howard, Taylor and Murphy, all airmen on 92, were sheltering and they were all killed. Later in the day the news was received that Pilot Officer Atkins had been killed while on patrol and Flight Sergeant Reece was severely wounded.
The A.O.C. Western Desert, a first world war squadron boss, now Air Vice-Marshal Coningham visited the Boss at LG 92. He said he was extremely pleased with the way the Squadron pilots had fought in Hurricanes and then much to the delight of all concerned announced that the Squadron was to move up to Landing Ground 173 and be re-equipped with Spitfires immediately. Later that day, Pilot Officer Chisholm and Colquhoun-Thompson scored in shooting down an ME 109F.
The last two weeks of August 1942 brought much activity, in the form of Offensive sweeps and in providing cover for the bombers engaged in hammering reinforcements for the Afrika Korps, which were being brought up as rapidly as possible in preparation for Rommel’s next major attack. The 19th August was a particularly successful day, when Squadron Leader Wedgewood and Pilot Officers Chisholm, Cooke and Bradely Smith destroyed four ME 109s and got another four probables and four damaged. Flight Lieutenant Samouelle was shot down during the combat but ‘belly-landed’ unhurt. The next day Cairo radio gave the Squadron a terrific ‘write-up’. The Commanding Officer, Chisholm and Samouelle were mentioned by name. The fact that a whole Squadron – in number of ME 109s was accounted for with the loss of only one aircraft with the pilot safe, was described and the exploits lauded. Although it was a ‘line’, the boys listening in the Mess thoroughly enjoyed it. Air Vice-Marshal Coningham sent a personal signal, congratulating the CO and his lads on their great triumph, and saying that he would be using the Squadron a great deal during the next few weeks.
At this time, no small consideration was being given to the possibility of the enemy attempting to parachute troops onto the landing ground. Defence plans were drawn up, in conjunction with a detachment of Indian troops, and rifles and Sten guns were issued to the men.
On the 22nd the Squadron did very well against the ME 109s. The Messerschmitts wouldn’t come down to fight with the Spitfires but kept ‘pecking’. Although the Squadron was outnumbered all the 109s were engaged till our bombers had gained their objective.
Pilot Officer Colquhoun-Thomas crashed on the aerodrome and instantaneously burst into flames. ‘Coco’s’ death was a sad loss as he was a fine fighter pilot and a very likeable, popular chap.
The enemy were engaged daily until the end of the month with another six enemy aircraft being accounted for. Four pilots attached from the South African Air Force fought with the Squadron and shared in these claims, bringing the Squadron’s score to 208 ½ destroyed.
On the night of August 30th, Rommel struck again in an attempt to break the deadlock and the Luftwaffe was extended to its limit in support of the attack. The full weight of the Air Force attack was turned upon the enemy columns and their supporting aircraft and 92 joined in the fray with great success. Offensive sweeps, top cover for the bombers, patrols and interceptions kept them busy from dawn to dusk and a total of over thirty sorties within twelve hours was a common achievement.
By the 6th September with the help of Lieutenants Sinclair and Rabbie from No 1 Squadron SAAF the Squadron shot down a further four aircraft and damaged eleven others. Then the battle died down and the Afrika Korps was back where it had started from a week earlier, having failed to achieve its objective.
During a sortie on the 7th, Pilot Officer Menzies on his first operational trip unaccountably spun at seventeen thousand feet. For some reason he couldn’t get out of the spin, didn’t bale out and went slap in. The diary for the day records ‘Poor Menzie seemed a good chap; he only joined the Squadron yesterday afternoon’.
With the lull in activity the Squadron was granted a very well earned seven days leave. On their return two pieces of good news awaited them. Firstly, Sergeant Pilot Watson who had been missing believed killed, since July 17th was a prisoner-of-war. Secondly Squadron Leader J H Wedgewood had been awarded the DFC. He had led the Squadron on practically every trip in the desert and had done more than anyone to build up the reputation of 92 Squadron. He had also shot down nine enemy aircraft – no mean feat. This was the first ‘gong’ the Squadron won in the desert and everyone felt it was thoroughly well deserved.
The remainder of September passed fairly quietly, though there is one episode worthy of note. On 21st a patrol of eight Spitfires, led by the CO, ran into a formation of fifty assorted ME 109s and Macchi 202s. The Spitfires maintained formation and fought the enemy with such skill, that after ten minutes the Germans and Italians had had enough and returned to their own area with their tails between their legs. The patrol then continued their way to El Alamein. Though no enemy aircraft were shot down, the Squadron put up a grand show, proving that eight Spitfires well handled, could hold their own against more than fifty enemy machines. On their return the Squadron were immediately congratulated by the AOC personally.
Two more dog fights took place in September. One on 26th when the Squadron was ordered off as top cover to Hurricanes and went out to Daba. They were attacked by 109s and Warrant Officer Kenwood and Pilot Officer Turvey were shot down but both baled out successfully. Flight Lieutenant Morgan and Pilot Officer Rose both shot down 109s and Pilot Officer Carpenter got a probable. Then on 28th Flight Lieutenant Morgan and Pilot Officer Chisholm were scrambled to chase a JU 88. While out they ran into twenty ME 109s. A terrific dogfight followed. Both pilots fired, but the going was too hot to see results. The remainder of the Squadron had been scrambled shortly afterwards and they ran into another bunch of ME 109s. Flight Lieutenant Samouelle shot one down and Pilot Officer Carpenter damaged another.
The whole area round the landing ground 173 was very flat. There was not enough camel thorn to bind the sand together so the ground was very powdery and dusty. Vehicles and aircraft sank up to a foot in the sand and scorpions and centipedes made things most awkward.
On the 2nd October Lieutenant Rabbie and Flying Officer Hill were scrambled in the morning and after getting airborne in one minute five seconds, for which they were congratulated by Group, they were vectored out on to a JU 88. When they eventually found it, they both fired and bits flew off the aircraft, then Lieutenant Rabbie chased it out to sea and kept firing till he saw it crash. This was the first twin engine bomber to be shot down by 92 Squadron in the year and brought the total to 218 ½.
The first rain of the winter came on October 5th. At first it was just enough to lay the dust but soon it turned to landing ground into a waterlogged quagmire.
Providing top cover for the bombers kept the Squadron very busy during the great air effort, which was the prelude to the Eighth Army’s offensive against El Alamein, which opened on the night of the 23rd October. On the following day the Squadron flew from an advanced landing ground, but although the pilots were intent on action, no contact was made with the Luftwaffe. Two days later they had better luck and Flying Officer Waddy DFC, an Australian, destroyed an ME 109. This made him the second highest scoring fighter pilot amongst the Australians with 14 ½ confirmed destroyed.
On the 27th Wing Commander Love, the Wing Leader, led a dusk patrol to try and catch a Stuka Party, which usually bombed our lines at dusk, but on this occasion none were seen.
Resistance in the air stiffened on 28th and 29th, the crucial day of the battle, when the Afrika Korps tried to stage a counter-offensive and the Squadron on offensive patrol ran into superior numbers of German and Italian aircraft, probably drawn from Sicily. As always the Squadron gave a good account of itself bringing the total claim for enemy aircraft destroyed to 231 ½ . Squadron Leader Wedgewood DFC brought his personal score to thirteen on that occasion.
November started with a party on the 1st to celebrate the 100th victim since the Wing became operational. The 100th victim was shot down by Flight Lieutenant Samouelle of 92 Squadron on October 29th but wasn’t confirmed until two days later.
The Eighth Army broke through the enemy defences around El Alamein on the 2nd and fighting was reported south of Daba. The enemy was on the retreat and the Squadron, up on patrol, observed the road between Daba and Fuka to be blocked with vehicles moving westwards. Another three ME 109s were added to the Squadron’s bag that day, including a first for Pilot Officer Carpenter.
A few days later the Squadron moved forward to a landing ground near Daba. The battle had evidently only recently passed the same way as lorries of captured prisoners were encountered. The smouldering shells of burnt out German tanks were littered along the track and there were signs everywhere that the enemy had retreated very hurriedly.
At Daba they found several ME 109s in perfect condition, dated September that year. The Spitfires took off from Daba to advance to Sidi Haneish and could see the enemy in full retreat, apparently having reached the ‘wire’ on the Egyptian Frontier.
Two days later the Squadron went out on patrol near Sidi Barrani. An enemy convoy was on the retreat and the Squadron dived down and strafed it sending trucks up in flames and overturning lorries. By the 10th it became clear that a very considerable victory had been won and the Axis forces were cleared right out of Egypt and had almost reached Tobruk.
As the enemy retreat continued, water shortage became an acute problem with the main party of 244 Wing and Wing Headquarters all travelling together by road. They managed to obtain three hundred and fifty gallons at Fuka which had to last the two hundred men for three or four days. Rations were also somewhat difficult to obtain, but fortunately supplies of petrol, aviation petrol and ammunition were plentiful.
The continual movement, rising in darkness, travelling at first light became quite a strain and the enormous convoys on the roads cut their speed until they only travelled about six miles in four hours, following the pipe line across Egypt and into Libya.
Corporal Wallace, one of the mechanics who somehow managed to keep the aircraft serviceable during the trek across the desert, recalls one such move.
“I was detailed to take two lorries and eight men, forty miles across the desert to service the planes in the forward area. We started off at five pm without a compass, just told to head South West. I remember we travelled across the desert all night long until 0200 hours. Jerry was bombing just ahead of me and I found we were in the middle of a mine field! We managed to get out in daylight but could not find the landing ground so I decided to return to base. We were very lucky to find base at all and when we did a second party set out with maps and compasses but they too could not find the planes. Later we found out that we were only one mile from the planes when I decided to turn back.”
They reached Gambut West in Libya on the 13th where they rested for a few days and waited for supplies. There was no sign of the enemy in the air when the Squadron went up on patrol, they were said to be well on the way to Benghazi where they had been in January of that year. Preparations for the journey into Tripoli continued.
On the 18th Flying Officer Neville Duke DFC was posted back to 92 after a tour as an Instructor at El Ballah.
Within a few days 92 Squadron moved up to Msus and together with their old associates, 601 Squadron and 145 Squadron, began sweeps over El Agheila and Agedabia.
On December 1st a farewell party was held to say goodbye to the CO and Squadron Leader Wedgewood DFC officially handed over to Squadron Leader J.M. Morgan DFC, previously a flight commander, on the 2nd. The entire Squadron felt his departure as a personal loss. He had taken command of the Squadron at Digby in January, brought it overseas, and led it with conspicuous gallantry in the battle in the desert. His personal score was thirteen destroyed and during the four months of fighting under his leadership the Squadron shot down forty two confirmed destroyed. He was an extraordinary able leader in the air and his ‘first twelve’ were probably more efficient than any other twelve the Squadron had ever had even in its history. The AOC Western Desert had personally recommended his return to the UK after a particularly meritorious tour of duty and he was to be promoted to Wing Commander in the near future. Sadly the Squadron learned a few days later that he had been killed while flying back to England when the Halifax in which he was travelling crashed at Malta. He was posthumously awarded a Bar to his DFC in February 1943.
For the remainder of the year the Squadron travelled steadily westwards, stopping at forward landing grounds for a few days, carrying out offensive patrol over the forward areas, reconnaissance flights, and providing cover for the bombers which were blasting the retreating German road convoys. They would then move on again in the wake of the Eighth Army. The next move was to Antelat, then El Hassiat, then Nogra; this latter landing ground being located only eighteen miles from the German lines at El Agheila
They spent Christmas at El Merdunne. The tents were decorated with sprigs of camel thorn and desert flowers, food was excellent and the beer supply plentiful. A thoroughly good time was had by all.
January 1943 found the Squadron stationed at a landing ground near Hamrat, in Tripolitania but bad weather and severe sandstorms limited operations for a few days.
Wing Commander Darwin, commanding 244 Wing, decided to operate two squadrons together and 92 paired with No 1 SAAF while four pilots of 145 Squadron ‘played 109s’. It was a chance to practice stricter R/T procedures and formation flying at higher speeds than usual.
On January 7th, for the first time since Alamein, the Squadron met large formations of ME 109s who were willing to stay and fight, even though they were far from home. These were certainly not the demoralised pilots who moved out of Daba in November. The Squadron was ordered to move forward to Hamrat which was bombed three times during the day by those elusive customers, the 109 fighter bombers. On each occasion the Squadron had aircraft in the air and an engagement took place about lunch time in which the CO, Squadron Leader Morgan, shot down a 109 into the sea and Flying Officer Nomis destroyed another. Flight Sergeant Bromhall and Sergeant Paterson were shot down, though the latter returned safely.
Again on the 8th the Squadron flew to Hamrat to do readiness and standby but this time the 109 bombers did not succeed in reaching the aerodrome once. Twice they engaged ME 109s and Macchi 202s in force; in the morning Flight Lieutenant Chisholm, Flight Sergeant Sails and Flying Officer Duke DFC engaged the 202s and claimed two probables and in the evening Flying Officer Nomis shot an ME 109 down into the sea after a tough fight with several opponents. Unfortunately Geoff Rose failed to return. The Army reported seeing four Spitfires flying along when one turned back and took on eight ME 109s for fifteen minutes before spinning in. This sounded life Geoff, for his courage, skill and keenness were exemplary. He was a good hearted fellow and was missed by everyone.
The enemy had mined and ploughed up the aerodromes along the coast so thoroughly that on each move new landing strips had to be prepared. On January 10th the Squadron carried out an uneventful, but extremely cold sweep at twenty thousand feet, the only consolation being that the pilots could just see Tripoli in the distance.
The next day was another successful one for 92 Squadron; they destroyed two Macchi 202s and got a probable 109. The latter was encountered alone on the first sweep of the day, four or five pilots got in shots but it was awarded to Flight Sergeant Probert. After lunch an uneventful sweep was carried out, but in the evening the Squadron was scrambled after fighter bombers coming in over Tamet. Flying Officer Duke DFC celebrated his 21st birthday by destroying the two Macchi 202s, the pilots of which were a Wing Commander and a Squadron Leader. An unusual birthday present.
The enemy, after his burst of pugnacity in the air, now seemed to be losing the initiative again. Very few German aircraft were seen on our side of the line, due perhaps to the sandstorms which frequently grounded the Spitfires of 92 Squadron. In spite of these handicaps the Squadron escorted the ‘Kittyhawk’ bombers on their missions and carried out a series of ‘sweeps’ over the enemy lines. The situation on the ground was fairly quiet, with the Eighth Army reorganising and bringing up supplies in readiness for their assault on the next objective – Tripoli. This attack began on the 15th January and the Squadron spent a busy time escorting fighter bombers on their ‘softening up’ missions. These were usually uneventful but on the 16th by some misunderstanding the Kittyhawks strafed our troops instead of the enemy.
A few days later, so successful was the Eighth Army’s attack that long range fuel tanks had to be fitted to the Spitfires to enable them to contact the retreating enemy. On the 21st January, after moving to Wadi Surri, 92 Squadron had the honour of being the first squadron to carry out a daylight sweep over Tripoli and there was much speculation as to the day when the Eighth Army would take it. In the afternoon the Squadron, led by Wing Commander Darwin, met eight JU 87s engaged in bombing our forward troops. ‘Hawkeye’, as Flying Officer Neville Duke DFC was known, spotted them 15 miles away and in the combat he claimed one destroyed. Flight Lieutenant Samouelle and Flying Officer Joursey shot down one each in the Castel Benito area and Flying Officer Baker and Sergeant Paterson claimed a probable each. An Army signal, received within thirty minutes of the Squadron landing, confirmed the destruction of three Stukas in the Tarhunah area so the Squadron was able to obtain confirmation of the probables. This was ‘Sammy’s’ last operational trip and it was fitting that he should round off his tour by adding to his bag. Another Squadron veteran, Squadron Leader Morgan, had also reached the end of his tour. Both pilots were later awarded the DFC in recognition of their work on the Squadron. ‘Morgy’ as the boss used to be known and ‘Sammy’ were two of the original pilots who came overseas with the Squadron. The CO had a carefree, dare devil spirit, combined with sound common sense which made it a pleasure to serve under him on the ground and in the air. This spirit was infectious and under his leadership the Squadron fully maintained its reputation of being one of the most outstanding fighter squadrons. ‘Sammy’ had more than fulfilled expectations, having risen from Sergeant to Flight Commander within twelve months. His personal score amounted to seven destroyed, four probables and six damaged and was a tribute in itself to his aggressive spirit against the enemy. Squadron Leader Harper, who had been with the Squadron for the last few weeks, became the new Squadron Commander.
Tripoli was taken on January 23rd and the Squadron was required to cover the landing of Hudsons bringing up supplies. This meant that plenty of food as well as beer and spirits were available once more.
Squadron Leader Morgan flew to Tripoli on January 25th on his last trip on the Squadron; landing between the bomb craters, he became the first pilot to see the city.
February 1943 passed fairly quietly with routine patrols and scrambles and in the middle of the month Flight Lieutenant Duke received a well deserved Bar to his DFC. There were several severe storms which would rage throughout the night, flooding the tents and ‘bivvies’ and making it impossible to dry blankets as the rain would continue all day. To offset this discomfort lethal supplies of Tripoli beer and Chianti became available and the Squadron canteen had to issue its own ‘notes’ of 2d, 3d and 6d to overcome the lack of small change.
On the 25th the personnel of the forward parties at Hasbub were kept busy digging slit trenches in anticipation of enemy air activity. They were only 15 miles from the enemy lines and well within range of their aircraft and guns. Sure enough the first raid occurred at 1100 on the following day. Eight ME 109 fighter bombers made a determined attack from three thousand feet, dropping their H.E. (1) and A.P. (2) load well into the area. The time spared ‘digging in’ the day before was well spent as during this raid the Squadron’s only casualty was Corporal Whitehead who received head injuries.
High Explosive (2) Armour Piercing
The 1st March was a memorable day for the Squadron. Five Aircraft on dawn readiness were scrambled for a local interception patrol of the Hasub area, and were vectored on to three Macchi 202s. Flight Lieutenant Duke shot down two of them, thus being able to avoid the 13th score appearing on his aircraft. At five o’clock in the afternoon the enemy started to shell the landing ground from the hills in the South West and it was not long before they were able to get the range of the runways and dispersals. An order was received for all pilots to sit in the cockpit of their aircraft and just after six o’clock, when the sun was going down, all the aircraft were told to take off for landing grounds to the east. What a sight it was. The aircraft from the three squadrons taking off from two narrow runways missed each other by inches.
The ground personnel later received instructions to evacuate to Ben Gardan where they arrived on the 2nd to hear the tales of superb night landings made on the previous night with the air of emergency flare paths. They then got to work repairing the aircraft which were damaged whilst taxiing after those successful landings. Neville Duke added another to his score on the first show on March 3rd when three pilots from 92 gave independent top cover to aircraft of 145 Squadron ‘de-lousing’ in the Oudref area.
The 4th was the Duke’s day again. He was leading eight of the aircraft on a local interception patrol when they encountered two ME 109s escorting three or four ME 109 fighter bombers engaged in bombing the landing ground at Hasub. He destroyed both of them, bringing his total to seventeen confirmed – five in the last four days.
On the following day, 5 March, the Squadron suffered a sad loss. Four aircraft were providing independent top cover to No.1 SAAF Squadron when they were attacked out of the clouds by seven ME 109’s. A dog fight followed lasting for fifteen minutes but our pilots had no success. Flying Officer Bernard Lawrence McMahon from Ottawa, Ontario, flying Spitfire VB serial ER646 was shot down by the Luftwaffe’s ace Hauptman Heinz Bär. “Happy” McMahon did not return and a message was received later saying that he had crashed at Nuquat al Khams near Pisida in Libya and been killed. McMahon was Bär's 166th victim. He is buried in the Sfax war cemetery. Tunisia.
A few days later No 92 Squadron made a record total of forty four operational sorties in one day with five enemy aircraft destroyed at no loss to themselves. Flight Lieutenant Duke DFC and Bar brought his personal score to nineteen destroyed and the Squadron bag now topped the 250 destroyed.
The ground crews did magnificent work keeping up the serviceability throughout the day and tribute must be paid to them in addition to the pilots for such a grand day’s performance. The other scorers were Flight Lieutenant Chisholm DFC and Bar – one destroyed, one probable and one damaged. Sergeant Askey – one destroyed. Flying Officer Sly – one probable and one damaged. Flight Sergeant Sails – one probable. Flying Officer Jowsey – on damaged and Flight Sergeant Paterson – two damaged.
On the following day, March 8th, Focke-Wulf 190s were encountered for the first time on this front, Flight Lieutenant Humphreys and Pilot Officer Wilson attacked them but their cannon jammed, as they were liable to, due to the frequent sand storms. The two Squadron pilots saw no results from their machine gun fire and with everything right forward and the ‘tit’ pressed they were unable to keep up with the enemy aircraft which pulled away from them easily at fourteen thousand feet.
On the same day the Squadron heard that Squadron Leader Don Kingaby DFM and two Bars who left on obtaining a commission in October 1941 had been awarded the DS0.
The Squadron moved back to Hasub L.G. just before mid-day on the 10th and heard a thrilling tale from five of the pilots who had been led by the Wing Commander in an escort to Hurricane ‘Tank busters’. The ‘L’ Force of the Free French had been attacked by the enemy and were saved by the work of the Hurricanes which destroyed the enemy’s armoured vehicles and MT as well as a couple of tanks. A message of congratulations was received from General Leclerc, the Officer Commanding ‘L’ Force.
On the 13th, two sorties were flown escorting the Kitty hawks and in a scrap with the enemy, Flying Officer Simpson destroyed an ME 109 while Flying Officers Savage and Baker damaged another. That evening the sergeants were being entertained by the pilots mess when Neville Duke who was leading the Squadron while Squadron Leader Harper was attending a course in Cairo, made an announcement. First, they congratulated Flight Lieutenant Bruce on his promotion and his taking command of ‘B’ flight in place of Flight Lieutenant Chisholm DFC and Bar who had completed a most successful tour; then Duke announced that the Squadron was shortly to be equipped with ‘Spitfire 1Xs from Algiers. This was an improved version with 1720 h.p. Merlin engine and flew at a maximum speed of 408 mph. This news was greeted by prolonged cheers. He went on to read a tribute to the late Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader J.H. Wedgewood DFC and Bar, by Richard Capell writing in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ of the 17th February. He said:
“I can mention some of its gallant leaders – Wedgewood, that crack Spitfire Commander so unmistakably a born leader of men and as authoritative as lion-hearted ...... Grievous to relate, Squadron Leader Wedgewood was killed flying back to England, his tour done”.
Films of the pilots who were making such notable history were taken by Pathe Gazette on the 16th March, including the now famous Flight Lieutenant Neville Duke DFC and Bar, though efforts since to obtain prints of these have proved unsuccessful, probably due to war damage to the firm’s photographic library.
On the following day Flight Lieutenants Bruce and Humphreys added a damaged ME 109 to their score. The Squadron with twelve aircraft encountered twelve ME 109 fighter bombers with a cover of six ME 109s and three Macchi 202s. Unfortunately a 202 got on Flying Officer Paul Brickhills’ tail, scored hits in his mainplane which exploded his ammunition and he was forced to bale out. A signal was received from the Army the following day which read ‘Friend says pilot safe but not on our side’, at that time it was not known whether that referred to Brickhill or another pilot in the Wing who baled out on the same day. Paul spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft III that became the setting of his book "The Great Escape," written in 1949.
A few days later some of the pilots bought some ducks which they kept in a pen near the mess. On March 20th a notice appeared in Detachment Routine Order which read: ‘The under mentioned officer has been appointed Poultry Officer w.e.f. 18th March 1943. All personnel interested in Big Game are to submit their names to the officer i/c Poultry forthwith – Flying Officer Sly P.K.U.’ Everyone’s main interest was when would they be fat enough to appear on the table.
On the same day the Eight Army began their attack on the Mareth Line. The New Zealand Corps which were outflanking this strong position were about to be counter attacked by the Afrika Korps whose armour was concentrated for that purpose. The Squadron provided escorts for the Kittyhawks, detailed to bomb this concentration and for tank bursting Hurricanes, whose 40 mm cannon inflicted heavy damage on the enemy’s tanks, armoured cars and supply transports. The operation was a success and the ‘kiwis’ took fifteen hundred prisoners.
Before the dawn on the 23rd Duke, Jowsey, Wilson and Probert flew to Algiers to collect four Spitfire 1Xs for the Squadron. They arrived back delighted with the performance of the new aircraft – before dinner. Thirty six sorties were carried out by the Squadron that day, but although on one operation several pilots fired, no claims were made. There was an amusing incident over the Hun landing ground at Gabes when Flying Officer Savage was on the tail of a Hun about to land there. The Hun, apparently thinking our pilot intended to land with his wheels up, fired a verey light at him. Later that day the windscreens on Flight Lieutenant’s Humphreys and Warrant Officer Fry’s aircraft iced up when diving to deck level from twenty thousand feet, they attacked a F/W 190 and an ME 109 respectively and they were unable to observe the results of their fire.
Soon after dawn on the 27th a telephone call came through to Flight Lieutenant Duke at Dispersal from the AOC with the grand news that an award of the DSO had been made to him. A well earned ‘gong’ in the Squadron’s opinion. During the first week of the month, while acting Squadron Commander during Squadron Leader Harper’s absence, Neville destroyed seven enemy aircraft bringing his total bag to nineteen destroyed, four probables and three damaged.
Later that day, they suffered a sad loss when a ME 109 flew straight down through one of the sections and Flight Sergeant Sails was seen to go into a spin – probably hit – over the enemy lines.
Morale rose again when, for the first time since the Squadron was at Castle Benito there was a supply of half a pint of beer for the airmen. The pilots mess drew lots for eight bottles which was its quota. To quote the official Squadron diary, ‘it was difficult to understand why the NAAFI had not made an effort to get supplies to the forward Wings more regularly’.
On March 29th the Mareth line was broken and Gabez was reported to be in the Eighth Army’s hands already. Neville Duke added to his bag bringing his total to twenty destroyed, Flying Officer Savage brought down a 109 and in all forty sorties was flown over the Sfax area. At the end of the day the Squadron scoreboard showed a full total of 498 ½ and everyone hoped to reach the 500 mark the next day.
Those hopes were realised just after noon on the 30th when three more ME 109s were added to it. Later in the day they spotted twelve ME 210s escorted by eighteen ME 109s and went into the attack, forcing the enemy bombers to drop their bombs in their own territory near Cekhira.
All records for the number of sorties flown in any one day were broken by the Wing led by Wing Commander Gleed DSO on April 6th. Two hundred and forty seven sorties were flown from early morning till dusk and during one, Squadron Leader Harper got a ‘squirt’ at a ME 109. The enemy dived vertically, apparently out of control, but no one saw it crash so no claim was made. On the following day the Squadron made reconnaissance flights over the retreating Afrika Korps and brought back sufficient information to keep the fighter bombers very active.
The Squadron advanced to Bou Goubrine on April 15th and started operating in style on the 16th. Three of the Spitfire 1Xs gave top cover to 145 Squadron on a sweep to Cape Bon. They spotted a formation of eighteen Savoia Marchetti SM 82s, large three engine troop carriers with which the enemy was desperately trying to evacuate some of its forces and equipment, flying low over the sea escorted by ME 109s and Foke Wulfe F190s. The Spitfires skillfully evaded the escort and shot down five of the SM 82s without loss to themselves. Two were claimed by Duke who led the attack while Flying Officer Savage got another two ‘Flamers’ and Pilot Officer Wilson added the fifth. Flight Lieutenant Duke was attacked by six plus 190s and six plus ME 109s, but by brilliant evasive action got home without one hole in his aircraft.
There were so many promotions around this period and many postings ‘in’ and ‘out’ that have not been recorded so it may be well to give a list of how the Squadron stood on 17th April 1943. The Squadron Commander was Squadron Leader W.J. Harper and the Flight Commanders were Flight Lieutenant N.F. Duke DSO DFC & Bar and Flight Lieutenant P.H. Humphreys. The following pilots were operational: Flying Officer E. Sly Flying Officer B.D. Baker, Flying Officer T. Savage, Flying Officer M. Jowsey, Pilot Officer Wilson, Pilot Officer H. Paterson, Warrant Officer S. Fry, Flight Sergeant L. Mackay, Flight Sergeant P. Inchcombe, Flight Sergeant M. Askey and Sergeant P.. E. Brister in ‘A; Flight and flying Officer D. Turvey, Flying Officer K. Simpson, Flight Lieutenant M. Jackson, Flying Officer Bradley-Smith, Pilot Officer W. Bruckshaw, Pilot Officer R Macfarlane, Pilot Officer Probert, Lieutenant A Sachs, flight Sergeant F, Symes, Flight Sergeant W. Ives, Flight Sergeant K. Warren, Flight Sergeant M. Macnamara, Sergeant G. Buchan and Flight Sergeant H.G. Johnson in ‘B’ Flight. The Adjutant was Flight Lieutenant L.M. Page and the other ‘Penguins’ were Flight Lieutenant C.G. Woolgrove (Doc), Flying Officer J. Rawes (Engineering Officer), Flying Officer G. J. Cornish (Intelligence Officer) and Pilot Officer Allen (Equipment Officer). This was the team who with No 1 Squadron SAAF and 145 Squadron were soon to see Tunis in Allied hands.
An outstanding action in which the Squadron played an important role took place on 18th April 1943. Late in the afternoon the Squadron was providing top cover for four Kittyhawk Squadrons of No 7 SAAF Wing on a sweep over the Cape Bon Peninsular when they spotted a very large formation of enemy transport aircraft with a close escort of fighters, near Raso-El Ahmar. To quote the Squadron’s diary:
“The Kittyhawks waded in to the enemy aircraft while we covered them. The only enemy aircraft seen above the Kittyhawks was one ME 109 which Flight Lieutenant Duke chased out to sea until his cannons jammed, and a Macchi 202, which Flying Officer Jowsey shot down into the sea. The Kittyhawks got the amazing score of fifty eight JU 52, fourteen ME 109s and two ME 110s destroyed, a JU 52 and a ME 109 probably destroyed and eleven JU 52s, six ME 109s and a ME 110 damaged. Their leader thanked our Squadron for the successful cover we gave them and said that it was due to the knowledge that they would not be attacked from above that they were able to amass a grand score”.
During the battle for Enfidaville, the Squadron was again very active maintaining patrols over the battle area and escorting the SAAF Kittyhawks and tank busting hurricanes. On the 19th it was announced that during the past twenty four hours a total of ninety six enemy planes were destroyed on this front.
On the 20th the Squadron destroyed another eight Macchi 202s and damaged a further four. There was so much celebrating and the beer flowed so freely that by the 22nd all supplies of beer, spirits and cigarettes had run out. Once again everyone hoped that the NAAFI would come to their aid before long.
In the following mornings post there was a letter addressed to ‘Doc’ Woolgrove from the grand old ‘Adj’ McGowan. Everyone was glad to hear from Mac who was then in Scotland and ‘missed the boys from 92’.
Two cuttings from English newspapers also arrived referring to the award of the DSO to Flight Lieutenant Duke. One from the ‘Sunday Express’ dated 27th March 1943 said:
“Half plane off record – gets DSO – An RAF pilot who is half a plane short of the record ‘bag’ for the Middle East, has just been awarded the DSO – he is now operating against the Japanese in the Pacific!” The other cutting from the ‘Tonbridge Courier’ dated 2nd April 1943 read:
“Ace Triumphs again. Readers will learn with pride and interest that Flight Lieutenant Neville Duke of Tonbridge, had now been awarded the DSO his third distinction in less than eighteen months. With his latest award this intrepid officer had now brought his score up to nineteen and a half, the final plane being ‘shared’ with another pilot.”