3 Squadron STORIES
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3 Squadron pilot Frederic Felix Henriques Eggleston (1914-1995) was an outstanding man in many respects. Born in Melbourne in 1914 (into a noted political, legal and diplomatic family) Fred was educated at Caulfield Grammar School and Wesley College. He graduated from Melbourne University in 1937 as a Master of Science with First Class Honours in Physics. In 1938-39, he worked with the Imperial Smelting Corporation in England and Germany.
Upon the outbreak of war, he returned to Australia on the 'Orontes'. Fred joined the RAAF and trained at Point Cook on what turned out to be the last Cadet course prior to the commencement of the Empire Air Training Scheme. He was posted to 22 Squadron, based at Richmond NSW, and then to the Middle East where, after a short Operational Training course at Khartoum, Sudan, he joined 3 Squadron, in the Egyptian Western Desert, in September 1941.
As related in his story below "You've Got to be Lucky", Fred not only survived being shot down and imprisoned by the Italians and Germans, but was also one of those rare POWs who managed to escape to neutral Switzerland. In fact, Fred was doubly lucky; his romantic alpine bid for freedom led him to alpine romance of another kind - for it was in Switzerland that he met a local girl, Heidi Tagman, who was to become his wife!
Fred and Heidi were married in Arosa, Switzerland on 7 September 1944.
Fred's post-war career was with the CRA Mining Group and Comalco, where he made substantial contributions to Australia's development.
Sadly, Fred passed away in 1995, one year after celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary with Heidi, but he left behind his excellent memoir...
Frederic F. H. Eggleston;
3 Squadron Tomahawk Pilot, POW in Africa and Italy, and Escaper.
Part of the original map that Fred traced for crossing the high Alpine passes at the Swiss Border.
A modern map of the same terrain that they crossed.
PRE-WAR EXPERIENCE AND R.A.A.F. TRAINING
After graduating as a Master of Science in Natural Philosophy & Mathematics at Melbourne University in 1937, I had planned to apply for an "1851 Scholarship" to go to Cambridge University and study for a PhD degree. Had I done so, I probably would have been destined to continue in an academic calling as a lecturer or, possibly, a professor at some university.
My inclination was to take a more active role in the community and I joined the Zinc Corporation group which was a large nonferrous mining and smelting company in Australia, connected with the Imperial Smelting Corporation in England.
I spent most of 1938 and 1939 in England working in factories and learning about their processes and methods of organization.
During this time Hitler's Germany began to rear its ugly head.
When I first reached England early in 1938, I was inclined to be sympathetic to Germany which had suffered greatly as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and was trying to regain its self-respect and independence. However, I soon found myself isolated from the people I was meeting and had to do more research to discover that the Hitler regime was something which had to be stopped if our world were to retain what we believed to be civilised values.
During my childhood, I had been brought up to believe that war was something that must be avoided at all costs though my father always had maintained that, if one's country became involved in war, it was the duty of its citizens to be prepared to fight for it.
By mid-1939, it became obvious that war with Germany was inevitable. I used to listen to Hitler's speeches on a short wave radio and the roaring approval of the crowds sent cold shivers down my spine.
England was divided between those who wanted to avoid war and those who were convinced that war would come - like it or not.
In the course of my studies I spent six weeks touring around Germany starting on June 27th 1939, and it became obvious to me that war would commence very soon. The nightly movement of tanks and troops through the streets was frightening.
I remember flying up the Thames estuary on August 1st 1939, on my way back to England from Germany. I was relieved to see the barrage balloons and took comfort that, at last, England recognised that war was imminent.
I was passenger in a "Focke-Wolf Condor" of the German airline Lufthansa and I have no doubt that the German pilot noted and reported the positions of the defending barrage balloons.
Earlier that year, when I visited a factory near Liverpool in the north of England, a young engineer asked me, "What are you going to do when war breaks out?" I replied to the effect that I had not made up my mind. To which he replied: "We won't want you here!" This impressed me and I knew I would have to "do my bit" if and when war came.
Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939 and England, in consequence, declared war on Germany on September 3rd 1939. Within hours, Australia also was at war with Germany.
I was in London when we heard Prime Minister Chamberlain's announcement over the radio that England was at war with Germany. It was immediately followed by wailing air raid sirens. I had spent the previous two days pasting brown paper over the window panes to prevent flying glass splinters from bomb blasts. Fortunately, on this occasion, it was a false alarm, and the steady welcome note of the all clear sirens soon followed.
I did not wish to join up in England and decided to return to Australia as soon as possible with a view to joining there. This course of action appealed to my employers who felt responsible to return me to my home country before the war made this impossible.
I came back on the Orient liner Orontes which, to my surprise, was full of young people like myself, with similar objectives in mind. The ship left England on Saturday 23rd September and reached Melbourne on Sunday 29th October 1939.
Following reunion with my family, I made contact with my school and university friends and was astounded to discover that no one realized what I considered to be the great urgency of the situation.
I wanted to join the Air Force but was persuaded to join the Militia at first. I went into camp with 104 Howitzer Battery at Puckapunyal, Victoria, on 13th November 1939 and had a very interesting four weeks there as a gunner in the artillery.
I applied to join the R.A.A.F. on Monday 8th January 1940 and, by pulling a few strings, managed to expedite my call-up. I was ordered to report at No.3 Elementary Flying Training School at Essendon Victoria on Monday 4th March 1940. The course I joined was the last cadet course prior to the start of the Empire Air Training Scheme.
In the meantime, I had taken private flying lessons and got my private pilot's licence. The next 21 weeks were pure joy! We started flying on 5th March and flew without interruption except when the weather was unfavourable. I took to flying like a duck takes to water and was always keen to be in the air.
At the end of the course on 2nd August I had done 127 hours in the air and was classed "above average as a pupil pilot".
Essendon Training Class
With the other pilots on our course, I was posted to No.1 Service Flying Training School at Point Cook Victoria on Monday 5th August. We were in the air already by the next morning.
At Essendon, we had been flying DH 60 Gypsy Moths. The Gypsy Moth, predecessor to the Tiger Moth, was an ideal trainer, a biplane and excellent for aerobatics which I enjoyed more than anything else.
At Point Cook, we had Hawker Demons which were military aircraft. These were also biplanes, powered by a Rolls Royce Kestrel engine and superb machines for aerobatics. During our course, I dived one vertically from 18,000 to 8,000 feet and it behaved perfectly.
Our training at Point Cook included aerobatics, formation flying, night flying, cross country flying, air to air gunnery, air to ground gunnery, high level bombing, dive bombing and forced landing practice. I enjoyed every minute of it and, when the course finished, on 13th November 1940, I was classified exceptional as a pilot navigator, and above average in all other categories.
Since I was now 26 years old, there was always a risk that I might be posted to a bomber squadron and I had endeavoured to avoid this by showing my enthusiasm and dash whenever the opportunity arose. Some army friends were in camp at Werribee near Point Cook. Their unit being an anti-aircraft battery, we used to "dive-bomb" them when we passed their camp. One time I completed my "attack" with a complete loop from 100 feet above the ground. Unfortunately, a flying instructor saw me, followed me, and took my number. I was court-martialled and, after graduation, became a Sergeant Pilot whilst my comrades became Pilot Officers. My final report noted that I was, "inclined to be overconfident."
This, of course, suited me well with my ambition to be posted to a fighter squadron.
FLYING WITH THE R.A.A.F. IN AUSTRALIA
My first posting, after completion of No.31 Advanced Flying Training Course at Point Cook, was to No.22 City of Sydney Squadron R.A.A.F. based at Richmond N.S.W. near Sydney. This was a fighter-bomber squadron carrying out reconnaissance and coastal patrols in the Sydney area.
We were flying Wirraways, which were an Australian adaptation of the North American Harvard Trainer. Nominally, they were military aircraft but, actually, they were little better than a trainer. Nevertheless, they were fitted with machine guns and could carry two 2501b bombs and were first-class for training in air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery and for dive-bombing.
I was already flying on 20th November and, from then on, I was in the air whenever weather permitted. The first few weeks were occupied in familiarising ourselves with the new aircraft type; but my log book records two 2 ½ hour submarine searches off Sydney on 18th and 19th December. Foreign submarines had been sighted off the coast and we were ordered to attack them on sight. They were probably Japanese though Japan had not then entered the war.
On December 19th 1940, I and my observer Corporal B. G. Russell had a narrow escape when the engine failed during take-off for a second patrol on that day with two 250 lb. bombs. I turned back to the aerodrome and landed down-wind, having attempted to jettison the bombs on the river flats. We went through the fence at the east end of the aerodrome and collided with a concrete horse-trough which cut off half the starboard wing before we came to a halt.
We got out of the aircraft and were horrified to see the two bombs still hanging under the wings - the one on the starboard wing having missed the horse-trough by a few inches. In making certain that the bombs would drop unarmed and not explode when they hit the ground, I had failed to deactivate the safety switch and the bombs did not jettison when I pressed the button to drop them.
On 27th December, with Sergeant Keary as my observer, I took off for a coastal patrol to find that there was a fog up to 1000 feet stretching from the Blue Mountains to about fifty miles out to sea. Since there was no chance of landing again at Richmond, we decided to try to carry out our patrol, hoping that, when it was finished in about two hour’s time, the fog would have cleared. Alas, this was not to be, and when we returned to the coast the fog seemed to be as thick as ever. We cruised around for a few minutes, trying to determine our exact location when I spotted Macquarie Lighthouse through a break in the fog. I dived down through the break above Watson's Bay to find that the fog had lifted to about 100 feet above the water. We were running short of fuel so I did not hesitate to fly out through the heads and along the bottom of the cliffs until we reached Botany Bay and then Mascot airport where I managed to land without mishap although the airport was closed due to the fog.
The Commanding Officer of No.22 Sqdn at Richmond, S/L Griffith, was relieved when I telephoned to let him know we had landed safely.
By coincidence, my wife Heidi and I now live in a house we purchased in April 1964 which is within a stone's throw of where that break in the fog allowed me to dive down to sea level and escape to safety in December 1941.
At Richmond, we took turns in doing a "Met Flight" taking air temperatures up to 18,000 feet for the weather forecasters. It was my turn on February 17th 1941 with my observer L.A.C. Crowther. When we had finished taking our readings at 18,000 feet, I decided to try how the Wirraway compared with the Demon in a vertical dive. The result was a disaster! Half way down the engine seemed to explode and the windscreen was covered with black oil. On looking back, I could see the anxious face of my observer and a huge plume of black smoke behind the aircraft. The engine was turning over but had little power. However, I had made my dive close to the airfield and was able to land without the engine and taxi toward the "tarmac" where I was met by the Station Engineer Officer - who was not amused.
I was fortunate that my C.O. S/L Griffith vigorously defended my action and no charges were laid against me. The aircraft was a mess! The rear fuselage had been pushed in and the wheel discs bent out. The black smoke had resulted from the collapse of the blower bearing, allowing oil to be drawn through the engine and burned with the fuel.
As a result of my "diving test" the maximum allowable diving speed of the Wirraway was severely reduced, so my experiment had some useful result.
On May 29th 1941, with Sgt. B. G. Russell as my observer, I took-off for an interception exercise north-west of Richmond. This took us over the Blue Mountains towards Scone in the Hunter Valley. On retracing our route on the way home, we found that the cloud base had dropped enveloping the tops of the ranges. We were forced to turn back and to try to find a place to land. I remembered seeing a green patch a few minutes earlier which we soon found. It was a real "Shangri-La" in the midst of steep mountains; but I managed to spiral down and land safely to find that we were at Widden Stud owned by A. W. Thompson & Co. This is a famous stud - the champion horse Ajax having been one of its successes. The green patch where we had landed was a prepared airstrip. We were given a grand welcome by Frank Thompson and his wife Patricia and spent the night with them. There was relief at the Squadron when we telephoned to let them know we were safe.
The next morning we had some Aeroshell fuel sent up from Muswellbrook and took off to spiral up out of the valley and make our way safely back to Richmond Air Base.
After these episodes, it became obvious that there are many hazards to be overcome before a pilot meets the enemy and it was clear that I was blessed with good luck.
As later events have revealed, good luck has continued to be with me. This is why I have chosen the title: "YOU NEED TO BE LUCKY" for my autobiography.
During the first half of June 1941, we had air-to-air gunnery exercises at Evans Head. A drogue was towed behind another aircraft and we tried to fill it (the drogue!) with bullet holes.
On Friday 18th July 1941, my commission as pilot officer was gazetted (back-dated to July 1st) and I was able to join my friends in the officers' mess at Richmond. On Saturday 26th July, I received word that I had been "selected for posting overseas".
Our training in gunnery, bombing, air-combat and night-flying continued and, by August 15th 1941, I had completed 752 hours with the R.A.A.F. At that time, I was classed exceptional as a fighter-bomber pilot and above-the-average as a pilot-navigator and in bombing, and air-gunnery. In the meantime, I had been keeping fit running around the oval every morning.
On Sunday 17th August, I was invited to lunch at the Royal Sydney Golf Club, Rose Bay, by Mr Justice Nicholas and his wife and their daughter Alison Davis. It was a farewell party to my father Sir Frederic Eggleston who was on his way to Chungking as Australian Minister to China, we saw him off on the flying boat at Rose Bay that afternoon.
On Monday 25th August, I reported to No.2 Embarkation Depot at Bradfield Park, N.S.W. and completed formalities including preparation of my identification discs or "meat tickets" as they were called. We were required to write a short personal history which, I realised, was a notice to be inserted in the papers if we went missing. Accordingly, I made it a good one.
On the evening of Saturday 30th August, my aunt Gladys Lister and uncle Leo Lister gave me a farewell party at their lovely home in Wentworth Road Vaucluse. There were many from No.22 Squadron as well as Sydney friends and relatives. Gladys said she would hang out a sheet as a farewell sign when the ship sailed down the harbour.
ABOARD "QUEEN ELIZABETH" FOR MIDDLE EAST
The equipment issued to us at the embarkation depot included a large steel trunk (34"x 20"x 12") and a very heavy army type stretcher with a folding wooden frame. These were to move with us wherever we were posted - even up to our base in the Western Desert, North Africa.
We finally embarked on Monday 1st September 1941. Our ship, Queen Elizabeth was anchored mid-stream in Sydney Harbour. As we drew alongside we could see grotesquely shaven heads at the portholes and there were shouts of, "Come on Dubbo!" and, "You'll be sorry!" Our companion ship in the convoy, Queen Mary, already had departed and was waiting for us at Jervis Bay.
We sailed at 1630 hours on Tuesday 2nd September and I could pick out Gladys' farewell sign as we went down the harbour. We went direct to Jervis Bay to join Queen Mary and left with her at 1630 hours on Wednesday 3rd September.
Our ships could do more than 30 knots so we relied on our speed to avoid hostile naval interception.
There were about 5000 military and Air Force personnel on "Elizabeth" - mostly army types - with about 120 men of the R.A.A.F. Being an officer, I was allotted a first class cabin. Later in the war, when they were used as troopships across the Atlantic, the two Queens were to carry fifteen thousand men each. They were to use the "hot bed" system - the men taking turns to sleep in eight hour shifts.
The senior R.A.A.F. officer on "Elizabeth" was Squadron Leader I. F.. Rose, a permanent air force man who "knew the ropes". Although there were at least three station adjutants amongst the R.A.A.F. personnel, he decided he did not want to be, "buggered about by the experts," so he appointed me adjutant of the R.A.A.F. contingent. The last thing I wanted was such a responsibility but my protests were to no avail. Fortunately there was an R.A.A.F. warrant officer who seemed to know what was required and immediately set about preparing a nominal roll of the R.A.A.F. personnel on board. It had not occurred to me that an adjutant must have a list of the personnel for which he is responsible so I was grateful for his help. However, by the time we reached Fremantle on Monday 8th September, I was "bugger-up-finish" as they say in Pidgin English and I managed to persuade “If” Rose to appoint someone else.
We arrived at Fremantle at 0600 hours and left the following day at 2100 hours. During this brief period, shore leave was forbidden but Flying Officer Lou Spence, whose new bride was in Perth, managed to get ashore. He was the second one to get married prior to going overseas. The other was Flying Officer Andrew W. Barr who, with Lou Spence, had been on the same course with me.
I had mixed feelings about getting married before going on active service. Being single and not having found my own life's partner, I felt it wrong to marry when one's life span seemed strictly limited. Events proved me wrong! I was shot down early and became a prisoner of war. Lou Spence survived the war and became commander of a fighter squadron in Korea (where he was killed in action). Nicky Barr was to become a fighter ace and now lives with his dear wife Dorothy in Queensland. I will never forget Nick and Dot's Wedding in Sydney. We came down from Richmond and the reception was held in a house backing on to the golf course at Pymble. Since it was too late for me to return to Richmond, Nick and Dot invited me to sleep on the floor at the foot of their bed. I gladly accepted!
After leaving Fremantle on Tuesday 9th September, I felt like a new man, having got rid of my responsibilities as adjutant. One evening on deck, giving vent to my new found freedom, I startled everyone in the vicinity with a blood curdling screen. I learnt this dubious trick from Paul Flack who had been on my course at Point Cook and came skiing with me at Mount Hotham in September 1940. When the train stopped for refreshments at Seymour and we were walking along the platform to get a cup of coffee, Paul suddenly gave a deafening scream. In a wave travelling along the platform, I could see all the people leap into the air with fright. It tickled my fancy!
My scream on Queen Elizabeth was not well received and there was talk of a court martial but some friend in the army put in a good word for me and the matter was dropped.
No more than a day from Fremantle, the two-up schools started. Two-up was strictly forbidden but the army did not seem to be able to stop it. I am sure the soldiers who conducted the schools were professionals and had enlisted just for that purpose. The schools were conducted in daylight on the open deck in full view of everyone, including the officers. One evening on deck I heard one Lieutenant say, "you can't do anything about it for fear of being pushed over the side".
The ship's crew including the stewards were all English. Our steward in the dining room had a delightful cockney accent. One evening, when the service was a bit slow, he complained, "the bleeding queues in the galley are three deep!"
We arrived at Trincomalee on the north-east side of Ceylon at 0630 hours on Monday 15th September. I remember that fragrant smell when I awoke early as we approached land. It had been an uneventful trip from Fremantle with no sightings of enemy ships. Trincomalee was a naval base and no one was allowed ashore. We left at noon on the following day, sailing into the Indian Ocean towards the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
ARRIVAL AT 3 SQUADRON - No.71 O.T.U. KHARTOUM
The journey up the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea was uneventful and I took the opportunity to write some letters home. Our convoy reached the Straight of Guebael near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula at 0600 hours on Tuesday 23rd September and hove-to until evening when we sailed away only to return early the next morning. We finally left for Port Tewfik at 2030 hours arriving at 0600 hrs on Thursday 25th September, when we disembarked and went to the Transit Pool at Ismailiya in the afternoon.
After shopping and seeing the sights in Ismailiya and Cairo, we returned to the Transit Pool by road on Sunday 28th, entraining for 3 Squadron at 1730 hours that evening. We were not told where the squadron was located but reported to regimental transport officers at various stops en-route when we were directed to the next stage of our journey. We finally arrived at Sidi Haneish at 1700 hrs on Monday 29th September and were met by Squadron Leader Alan Rawlinson who took us to the squadron at L.G. 102 nearby.
Landing Ground 102, at Sidi Haneish is located in the Egyptian Desert near the Mediterranean coast, about half way between Alexandria and Tobruk. 3 Squadron returned to its base there on 9th September after its participation in the Syrian campaign against the Vichy French which commenced in June 1941.
I was proud to be posted to 3 Squadron R.A.A.F. which had a tradition of excellence as a fighter squadron dating back to the First World War. The squadron had been based at Richmond N.S.W. at the outbreak of WWII and embarked for the Middle East on the Orient liner Orontes on 12th July 1940.
It had participated in the highly successful Wavell offensive in November 1940. Flying Gloster Gladiator aircraft, it had immediate success against a superior force of Italian CR42 fighters during its first engagement on Tuesday 19th November.
Re-equipment with Hawker Hurricane fighters commenced during February 1941 and, during that month, the squadron claimed its first victory against the German Luftwaffe which had recently entered the campaign. The victim was a Ju88 bomber.
After the retreat from Benghazi in April 1941, the squadron moved back to Sidi Haneish and, by this time, its score of victories had reached 69 confirmed plus 14 probables. It had also become expert in making rapid transfer from one base to another, keeping up offensive flying in the process.
News was then received that the squadron was to be re-equipped with the American Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters which were fitted with two 0.5" Browning guns firing through the airscrew and four 0.3" Brownings in the wings.
The Tomahawk was a tough aircraft which could take a lot of punishment. Its performance was better than the Hurricane but not as good as the German Me109 or the Italian Macchi 202. Nevertheless, its toughness and manoeuvrability enabled it to be used with great success in the air battles of that time.
3 Squadron Tomahawk Pilots.
Sitting L-R; Wilf Arthur, Bob Gibbes, Tiny Cameron; Standing: Wally Jewell.
After flying Hurricanes, 3 Squadron pilots had some difficulty adapting to the Tomahawks, which had a different type of rudder control and foot brake. As many as 21 had "ground-looped" on landing; damaging the wings. The C.O., Squadron Leader Jeffrey, decided that the new pilots should go to 71 O.T.U. (No. 71 Operational Training Unit) at Khartoum to convert to Tomahawks.
Immediately after our arrival on Monday 29th September, Peter Jeffrey looked at our flying log books and talked to us about squadron operations. Awaiting our posting to Khartoum, we spent the next ten days learning the cockpit drill of the Tomahawk and familiarising ourselves with the squadron organisation, workshops, armament section etc. as well as assisting in chores such as censorship of letters home. On Thursday 2nd October we visited 451 Squadron R.A.A.F., an army cooperation squadron which was temporarily based at Sidi Haneish LG 102.
The experienced pilots at 3 Squadron talked to us about their operational encounters and checked our progress in learning about the Tomahawk. We read tactical reports of past air engagements and generally absorbed the atmosphere of an active squadron. On Tuesday 7th October, I had a game of handball with Dick Hickson who was equipment officer and who, with the medical officer "Doc" Laver, kept a close watch on all the pilots for signs of fatigue and grounded them if they seemed a bit shaky.
Two of our party - Alan Baster and Dick Taylor - left for Khartoum on Monday 6"' October and the remainder - Dick Hart, Lou Spence, Peter Giddy, Nicky Barr, Les Bradbury, Geoff Chinchen, Tom Briggs and I left on Friday 10th, travelling by train to the Middle East Pool, where we arrived at midnight.
We had several frustrating days waiting for transport to Khartoum but finally boarded the river steamer "LOTUS" on the Nile at Shellal and sailed at 1400 hours on Wednesday 15th October. The journey up the Nile was most interesting. We were fascinated by the primitive water lifts feeding the irrigation canals. They consisted of a pole with a bucket at one end and a large lump of dried mud as a counterweight at the other, supported by a rope hinge close to the counterweight and operated by one man with the greatest of ease. They had used this system since time immemorial.
We arrived at Wadi Halfa in the Sudan, just across the border from Egypt, at 1730 hours on Friday 17th October and, since we had little to eat on the two day river journey, we set about laying-in stocks of tinned food. We boarded a train for Khartoum at 2000 hours, Nick, Lou and I sharing a first class compartment. Some of the food must have been "off' as we woke the next morning feeling "crook"- especially Nick who had got "stuck into" tins of bully beef and sausages. By 1630 hours that afternoon, when we reached Atbara, we were feeling much better.
Atbara proved to be an attractive town on the Nile. On its way down to Egypt, the river swings out in a great loop to the west at Atbara and rejoins the railway line at Wadi Halfa. The train was not to continue until 2030 hours, so we were able to explore the town. After the journey through the desert from Wadi Halfa, we were delighted to discover the Atbara Club on the banks of the Nile and, being commissioned officers, we were readily accepted as honorary members. Sudan Railways also had a rest house where we were able to have a bath and some supper.
We finally reached Khartoum at 0730 hours on Sunday 19th October and 71 O.T.U. Gordon's Tree, at 0905 hours. To our chagrin, Geoff, Jack, Tom and Brad, who had been in a different group, arrived by flying boat at 1600 hours. However, we drowned our sorrows at the Sudan Club in the evening. The Sudan Club was like an oasis in the drab and stiflingly hot city of Khartoum.
At 71 O.T.U. we attended lectures from 0600 hrs to 1100 hrs the next morning and on the following three mornings followed by an examination on the morning of Friday 24th October. At night, we slept in the open on stretchers under the stars. It was very pleasant after the heat of the day; but I was shocked one morning to find a scorpion in one of my shoes.
My first flight was on Saturday October 25th, in a Harvard two-seater trainer when I was checked out by Sgt Smith. After that, it was all solo in single seater aircraft - Hurricanes, Tomahawks and Mohawks. The Mohawk was a Tomahawk powered by a Wright Cyclone radial engine. It was produced for the French during the battle for Europe when aircraft were urgently needed and the in-line Allison engines of the Tomahawks were in short supply. It was hopeless for air combat and suffered engine failure if the aircraft was slow-rolled. We had several forced landings after aerobatics. Fortunately, it was hard desert country and it was possible to land safely anywhere.
I had a bad bout of sinus infection from the Sudan Club pool and was grounded for a few days. However, I managed to do a total of 40 hours and was classed above the average for the course when it concluded on 21st November 1941.
At the Sudan Club
Standing, Left to Right: Harry Baldwin, Peter Giddy, Dick Tayler, Tom Briggs.
Sitting: Lew Spence, Dick Hart, Nicky Barr, Les Bradbury, Jack Mitchell.
After frustrating delays, we set out by train and steamer for Cairo at 1645 hrs on Saturday 23rd and arrived Cairo on Wednesday 26th.
BACK AT 3 SQUADRON - EARLY OPERATIONS
At 0815 hours on Thursday 27th November 1941, we reported to Cairo Headquarters and were greeted by Flight Lieutenant Sewell with the words, "The squadron needs you! They have lost nine pilots in the last two days!"
We were suitably impressed with this piece of news!
F/Lt Sewell told us to report to the 267 Squadron hangar at Heliopolos air base at 0800 hours the following morning. Our transport, a Lockheed Lodestar, took off from Heliopolos at 0815 and arrived at Bagush, near Sidi Haneish, at 1000 and we reached LG 102 in time for lunch. 3 Squadron had been at an advanced base – Landing Ground 122 near Fort Madalena on the western border of Egypt - since 13th November. Alan Rawlinson, Wally Jewell, Sgt Baillie and Sgt Simes flew down from LG 122 to LG 102 in the evening.
Landing Ground 122 - Madalena near the Libyan border.
The second combined offensive, "Operation Crusader", commenced on November 18th following intense air activity with widespread strafing of enemy road traffic and aerodromes, which started on November 14th. A.O.C. Air Headquarters Western Desert was Air Vice-Marshal Coningham R.A.F. The Squadrons involved in the offensive had been paired to fly together as wings and No 3 Squadron had been paired with No 112 Squadron R.A.F, to form No 2 Wing. Wing Commander Peter Jeffrey took command of No 2 Wing and Squadron Leader Alan Rawlinson became C.O. of 3 Squadron.
Prior to Operation Crusader, the "Axis" forces had by-passed Tobruk and crossed the eastern border of Libya into Egypt along the coast to Bardia, Salum and also to Sidi Omar.
Crucial Air Battles, vital to the success of the campaign, took place on 22nd, 25th and 30th November against odds of three or four to one. The intensity of these fighter combats ensured a gruelling experience for those who took part. I missed the first two but participated in the third - my first operation.
Al Rawlinson and I made the flight from LG 102 to LG 122 in formation on Friday 28th November - landing at 1600 hrs after an hour's flight.
3 Squadron was out on two patrols on Saturday 29th November but I missed out on both of them, much to my disgust. Enemy aircraft were not encountered but the experience would have been welcome.
My first operational patrol took place on Sunday 30th November and was a levelling experience for one who felt himself destined to be a fighter ace.
We took off at 0800 hours from LG 122 on an offensive sweep over E1 Adem just south of Tobruk. My position was "Lester 4" paired behind Woof Arthur. We were at 11,000 feet when we saw about 18 Stukas over Bir El Gubi. They dropped their bombs from about 4,000 feet and dived westward - nine in tight formation and six above and behind them. Woof went down in a vertical dive and I followed him down through the Stukas, having a "squirt" at one on the way. I lost Woof and found myself in a melee with Me109s, Macchi 200s, Fiat G50s and Ju87s (Stukas). I had long range shots at a Macchi 200, a Stuka and a Me109 without any apparent effect and, since I was a number 2 without a Leader, I decided to pair off with one of our fellows who was pumping bullets into a Stuka. Before I could get over to him, a Me109 came up behind him and shot him down.
Our fellow proved to be Tiny Cameron who crash-landed, quickly got out of his aircraft, and ran to some bushes nearby. I circled overhead at about 2,000 feet to try to protect him; but the Me109 strafed his aircraft and showed its contempt for my efforts by looping off the deck and strafing his aircraft again. Fortunately, the German pilot evidently had not seen Tiny leave his crashed aircraft. After his second strafing attack, the Me109 went off towards the west and, a few minutes later W/C Peter Jeffrey landed on the desert near Tiny's aircraft and picked him up. They took-off safely and flew back to our base - Tiny sitting on Pete's knees, in the single seater cockpit.
It was a great day for the Squadron, with eleven victories and eighteen damaged. The total now was 106 victories and we celebrated our first century that evening. Woof Arthur was at first missing but turned up later in a borrowed Hurricane, having made a forced landing at Tobruk. He had shot down two Ju87s and two G50s.
No 3 Squadron became the first squadron in the Desert to score one hundred enemy aircraft confirmed.
30th November 1941 -
celebrating 3 Squadron’s “Century” - 100 Victories!
(L to R, Back Row: ) Bob Gibbes, Wal Mailey, Fred Eggleston,
(Front:) Tom Trimble, Al Rawlinson, Rex Wilson (killed in action nine days later), Lou Spence (K.I.A. Korea).
The A.O.C., Air Vice-Marshal Coningham, sent the following message:
"Personal: From A.O.C. to W/Cmdr. Jeffrey and the squadron.
Congratulations on the squadron's splendid fight which has contributed so much to our present overwhelming air superiority. I regret your casualties but they have cost the enemy dearly. The squadron has been selected for re-equipment with the first Kittyhawks. Good luck."
The casualties since 22nd November included P/O Lane, F/Lt Saunders, F/O Watson, F/Lt Knowles, F/O Roberts, F/O Kloster, P/O Lees, Sgt Simes, F/O Evans and F/O Bothwell.
Roberts and Kloster became prisoners of war; but the others were killed. Simes got back after having been shot down; but was killed a few weeks later. Sammy Lees was a school friend of mine whom I had not seen since leaving Wesley College, Melbourne, at the end of 1932.
The dice of war were rolling closer!
On Monday 1st December 1941, Sgts. Rex Wilson and Frank Reid "scrambled" early in the morning to intercept a Ju88 which had been coming over the airfield each morning at high altitude on reconnaissance. Rex hit the port engine and the aircraft caught fire. Two Germans baled out. In revenge for an earlier incident, when one of our pilots, Sgt Parker, had been shot and killed while parachuting from his burning aircraft over Tobruk, Sgt Reid tried to shoot the parachuting Germans on the way down and strafed them on the ground. I am sure that Frank Reid and the rest of us were relieved to hear later that the two Germans had survived unhurt and had become prisoners of war.
On that afternoon, 3 Squadron was "released for reorganisation" and we returned to base at LG 102 flying in formation.
On Tuesday, Pete Jeffrey and Al Rawlinson went down to Cairo to find out about the Kittyhawks. Most of the other pilots went on 36 hours leave to Alexandria. It was raining all day Tuesday and Wednesday and there was no flying. I spent the two days reorganising my own kit and helping to sort out the kits of some of our pilots who had been reported missing. I also had a letter from my brother Egan, in Melbourne.
On the Wednesday 2nd December, I had a letter from my sister Jean in Melbourne and also one from Pamela Bushell - a Sydney friend whom I had met skiing at Mount Hotham and with whom I had spent many happy hours at Princes Night Club in Sydney during my days at Richmond in 22 Squadron. Pamela had come over as a V.A.D. and was presently in Palestine.
On the following day, we had two squadron formation flights - practising squadron attacks. Al Rawlinson and Pete Jeffrey came back from Cairo - Pete bringing back the first Kittyhawk.
The Kittyhawk was very similar to the Tomahawk but a bit more powerful and had three 0.5" guns in each wing (instead of the two 0.5" guns firing through the airscrew and the two 0.3" guns in each wing of the Tomahawk). The Kittyhawk IA had a top speed of 354 miles per hour at 15,000 feet and a service ceiling of 29,000 feet. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 F2 Trop. (armed with one 20mm canon, firing through the airscrew boss, and one 12.7 mm machine gun in each wing) had a top speed of 373 miles per hour at 19,700 feet and a service ceiling of 37,700 feet.
I did not ever fly a Kittyhawk. I was shot down and became a prisoner of war before the squadron was fully equipped with them. However, the Tomahawk was very much liked, if not preferred, by many of the old hands in the Desert.
THE LAST DOGFIGHT - CAPTURE BY THE ENEMY
On Friday 5th December 1941, there was no flying - a dust storm being in full swing. We were joined by a batch of new pilots who had spent the night in the desert on the way up. Among them were Dave Rutter and Don Knight who had been with me throughout our training and in 22 Squadron. Dave's father was a great friend of my father. Dave was one of nature's gentlemen with a great deal of pluck and an overwhelming desire to "do his bit". His eyesight was impaired by blurred vision in one eye but, somehow, he had managed to conceal this during his pre-posting medical examination. Don Knight was several years younger than I with a shock of wavy blond hair, smiling blue eyes and bright white teeth. He was a first class pilot and full of dash and enthusiasm - the ideal fighter pilot! The others in the new batch were Harry Schaeffer, Robin Gray, Eric Bradbury, Graham Pace, Lance Threlkeld, Butch Furniss, Joe Lyons, Mac McIntosh and Reg Pfeiffer. During the day, I received the rest of my flying kit - except for my emergency ration, these being in short supply.
We flew with a 0.32" revolver in a holster at our waist and a water bottle slung over our shoulders - the emergency ration, in a sealed tin, was carried beneath the water battle.
There was no flying on Saturday 6th, which I spent reorganising my flying kit and packing unwanted heavy gear into my tin trunk for return to store. Whilst in Germany, I had acquired a Hoehner accordion and brought this with me to the squadron. I was not good at it but Nicky Barr played it reasonably well and kept us all cheerful with his playing and singing. The Hoehner was a source of much fun during subsequent months.
On Sunday 7th, we had formation practice with the new pilots and then packed our gear to send to LG 122.
On Monday 8th, we flew up to LG 122 by Lodestar - the party including Nick, me, Dave, Don, Ron Simes, Robin Gray and Harry Schaeffer. That afternoon, five Me 110's attacked a DH 86 air ambulance coming in to land at LG 122 and shot it down. Two of the Me110s were shot down by ack-ack from the ground!
Western Desert, Egypt. 1941. Black smoke rises from a De Havilland DH86 aircraft of No. 1 Air Ambulance Unit RAAF and piloted by 251431 Flight Lieutenant Duffield of Abbotsford, Vic,
which was shot down in flames by Nazi aircraft in the Western Desert. No patients were on board and the crew of three survived, although one was injured. [AWM MED2111]
In the evening, we heard that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbour and that America was in the war.
On Tuesday 9th December, we flew on a wing offensive sweep over El Adem when we were "jumped" by Me109s. One of ours went down in flames. Nick, Geoff and a 112 Squadron Tomahawk went up after five Me109s, while the rest of us formed a defensive circle, each following another's tail, thereby, supposedly, protecting him. I was not comfortable in this manoeuvre because it seemed too easy for the Messerschmitts high above to dive and pick us off one by one. After five minutes we broke the circle and I followed Wally Jewell home. Pete Jeffrey, Dave Rutter, Rex Wilson and Tiny Cameron were missing, and three fires were seen on the ground.
Rex Wilson and Dave Rutter were killed, Pete Jeffrey force-landed at Tobruk and returned that evening. Tiny Cameron force landed and returned two days later. Rex Wilson had been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Medal, having previously had 8 victories. The DFM was awarded posthumously. Sgt Mailey got two Me109F's and Pete Jeffrey one. It was Dave Rutter's first operation!
In the evening, after his return from Tobruk, Pete Jeffrey had a post-mortem with us on the day's engagement. I remembered feeling quite vulnerable in that defensive circle with the Messerschmitts circling above and waiting to pounce. I asked Pete, "why didn't someone lead us out of that defensive circle?"
"Why didn't you!" growled Pete! I got the message and kept my mouth shut for the rest of the meeting! Pete then turned on Bobby Gibbes with "where did you get to?"
Bob replied, "Oh! I came home! I wasn't going to stooge around in that circle of death!" In fact, Bob had dived down when we were jumped, his idea being to zoom up and to climb above the Messerschmitts to attack them but when he got up there, he could not find them. I did not know this at the time but I admired Bob's courage in speaking up. Later, he was to command the squadron.
On Wednesday 10th, we had a wing offensive sweep south west of Tobruk but saw no enemy aircraft. On Thursday 11th, we did two 2½ hour protective patrols over Tobruk and again saw no enemy aircraft. Tiny Cameron got back to the squadron on that day, after his force-landing on 9th December. He had walked back and collected lots of loot including a German field service cap and jackets as well as luger pistols, swords etc.
On Friday 12th December 1941, we did a morning protective patrol over Tobruk and landed at E1 Adem, having seen no enemy aircraft. El Adem had just been liberated and there was a crashed Me109 at the edge of the landing ground. We were interested to have a closer look. I noticed that the cockpit instruments seemed quite adequate. We had been told that the Germans were running short of instruments.
After lunch when our aircraft had been refuelled, we gathered around headquarters to hear what the afternoon had in store for us. "We are going to strafe the Derna Road!" said Les Bradbury and rambled on until I told him to shut up as he was making us all nervous.
We took-off from El Adem at 1530 hours. I was leading blue flight with Robin Gray on my left and Nick Barr on my right. Woof Arthur was leading the squadron. I was flying Tomahawk AN335 which was in excellent condition though we had some trouble with the 0.5" guns in the cockpit which were inclined to jam, due to the desert dust ingested during taxiing.
We were climbing into the Sun at 10,000 feet, near the Gulf of Bomba, when we saw a number of Me109s taking off from the German base at Tmimi directly beneath us. There was a lot of chatter on the intercom. Suddenly, I felt my aircraft lurch and looked round to see Robin Gray's aircraft had drifted towards mine and his airscrew was chewing off my port wingtip. With the extra drag from the damaged wing tip, I couldn't keep up with the squadron and dropped away.
I soon found that the aircraft responded reasonably well to the controls and, seeing three Tomahawks of 112 Squadron chasing up after five Me109s climbing after 3 Squadron, I decided to join the attack.
With my height advantage, I was able to dive down and come up to make a quarter attack from below. I was the first to open fire and, though the range was a bit long, I succeeded in breaking up the Messerschmitt formation.
The Messerschmitts turned to join battle and a good old fashioned dog-fight ensued. There seemed to be Me109s and Tomahawks everywhere! I made two further quarter attacks from below at Me109s circling to attack. I could see glycol streaming behind each of them but could not claim to have shot them down. I managed to get close behind a third Me109 but, due to the absence of one wing tip, my aircraft flicked on its back just before I pressed the trigger. Meanwhile, I was having continual trouble clearing my 0.5" guns which were jamming!
I got close behind another Messerschmitt and put a long burst into him. I was surprised to see tracer streaming from my wings towards him. I didn't think we had tracer! Suddenly I realised there was another Messerschmitt close behind me and pumping bullets at me. I flicked into a steep turn and got away from him unscathed but, by this time, I had lost a lot of height and the friendly Tomahawks had vanished.
I was at 1500 feet and could see three Messerschmitts circling above me waiting for the kill. There were no clouds and I was at least 60 miles into enemy territory, so I decided to make the best of the situation and try to get at least one of them. One made a head-on attack at me and I pulled up toward him staring at the yawning hole in his airscrew boss through which his canon was pointing at me. My 0.5" guns jammed again but he too seemed to be having trouble with his guns as he did not open fire. I tipped the joystick slightly forward and went under him with what seemed inches to spare.
The net result was that I lost further height and found myself at 1000 feet with my Messerschmitt friends still above me. I could see two of them and was clearing my 0.5" guns saying to myself, "I'll get at least one of you bastards," when I heard a dull "plop" near my feet.
The third Messerschmitt had come up behind me and lobbed an explosive shell into the oil cooler beneath my engine.
I flicked into a steep turn and shook him off but the damage was done and my aircraft was on fire. I was now flying east with a thick trail of black smoke behind me and the Me109 in close pursuit. I opened the cockpit canopy to get a better look but flames and smoke came up around me and I quickly closed it again. This was it! I had to get out fast! I undid my safety belt and disconnected my oxygen line but forgot about my intercom cord.
I flung open the canopy, eased the stick forward - and floated up out of the cockpit into the slip-stream, which swept me back against the tail fin. My intercom cord came adrift and luckily it was my parachute pack which took the brunt of the blow from the tail fin. I found myself spinning like a top but threw out my arms and legs in a spread-eagled position which had the immediate effect of stopping the spin. I was facing down with my arms and legs stretched out and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see my aircraft with its smoke trail fading into the distance with the Me109 close behind.
The land below stretched out like a coloured map and I could see the Gulf of Bomba to the north. I reached for the rip cord with my right hand but remembering Sgt Parker's fate over Tobruk, decided to make a delayed drop, even though I had baled-out at only 1000 feet. I clutched the handle of the rip cord whilst falling freely toward the land below. It was quite exhilarating, and I was fascinated with the view but, all of a sudden, I could see stones and tufts of grass and I realised I was getting very close to the ground.
I yanked at the rip cord and the parachute opened immediately.
I was relieved to feel the support of the shroud lines. I floated for about ten seconds and noted that there was a strong drift toward the east. The terrain was undulating with rock outcrops but, fortunately, I was drifting towards a flat grassy patch. Fortunately also, I was facing the direction I was drifting. In textbook style, I pulled hard on the shroud lines just before my feet touched the ground. Although this helped to cushion my landing, my feet hit the ground with a jar and I turned several somersaults, finally being dragged along on my head by my still inflated parachute. I was glad at the time that my flying helmet was well padded, otherwise I would have sustained severe head injuries.
After a struggle, I finally managed to release my parachute harness and halt my undignified progress across the ground. With no weight on the shroud lines, the parachute collapsed and lay on the ground near me. I stood up to take stock of the position. By a miracle, I was unwounded and seemed to be uninjured by the fall. A couple of weeks later, I suffered acute back pains, but felt nothing when shot down.
I looked around, and immediately saw the Me109 returning at low altitude from the east. He saw my parachute and then saw me and went into a steep left hand turn with the obvious intention of strafing me. I sprinted a hundred yards in eight seconds to take cover behind some rocks just as the Messerschmitt began its dive. He didn't open fire as my cover was good and, as soon as he passed over, I ran to some bushes a few yards away where I had better all-round cover. He did not come back and I assumed that he and his companions had landed at Tmimi, their base nearby, and that a search party might soon come out to find me. It was 1630 hrs and there were several hours of daylight left. I drew my pistol determined to defend myself.
I was completely transformed! A few minutes ago, in the air, where I had been trained to fight, I had faced certain death with detached calm. I was now on the ground with the chance of survival and was completely scared. I realised I would have no chance of resisting a search party and I dared not move before nightfall for fear of being spotted.
The adrenaline was coursing through my system and my heart was pumping like a steam engine. To the north, behind undulating landscape, I could hear aircraft landing and taxiing at Tmimi. To the south, behind a low ridge, I could hear motorised transports travelling along an east west road which I judged to be Trig Capuzzo. I had a good map and was able to pinpoint my position fairly accurately. I was about 60 miles West-North-West of El Adem and at least 50 miles into enemy territory. I had a field service water bottle full of water but no emergency ration. However, I had a couple of dozen tablets of malted milk in my pocket to make up in a small way for this deficiency. I also had a neck stud magnetic compass which proved to be invaluable for travel by night. I was wearing battle dress over khaki shorts and shirt with long socks and a battered pair of desert boots.
I was left alone for the rest of the day and set out toward the east an hour after nightfall. I decided to keep away from made roads and tracks for fear of being spotted by passing traffic. The surface was undulating, hard and stony with wadis criss-crossing here and there. I fell flat on my face a couple of times when, in the faint moonlight, I failed to notice that the ground dropped away in front of me. The moon was in its last quarter and set toward midnight. After that, I had to rely on the light of the stars to pick my way. At 2200 hrs, I saw a motor cycle headlight, north of my position, bobbing along towards the east. I judged it must have been on a made track as it would not have been possible for a wheeled vehicle to travel across the terrain I was traversing. It seemed quite close but I could hear no sound so it must have been at least two miles away.
I maintained my walking direction by using the luminous dial of the compass to pick a star in the direction I wanted to go and walking toward that star. In the early hours, when it was very dark, I found myself within a couple of yards of a camel. I seriously contemplated shooting it for food but thought better of it.
Towards dawn, I found the terrain had changed to stony desert country somewhat like inland Australia. By this time, I had found it necessary to rest after an hour's walk and lay down on the ground until wakened by the cold an hour later. Before daylight, I took cover in some low bushes and did not move for the rest of the day. Every couple of hours, I would suck a malted milk tablet and moisten my lips with water. I refrained from urinating or defecating, with the idea of deriving the maximum benefit from the food and fluid in my body. My nerves were shattered and I was scared every time I heard gunfire from aircraft dog-fighting overhead.
I set off again an hour after dark - following the same routine of one hour walking and one hour rest. The going was easier than on the first night with a much flatter surface. After a couple of hours walking, I came on a fairly wide east-west track and, since there seemed to be no traffic, I decided to walk along it for a while. At midnight, I heard a man's voice quite close to me and immediately dropped to the ground to see several human figures silhouetted against the starry sky. My desert boots with their crepe rubber soles were completely silent and I had not been seen or heard. I crawled away into the darkness and made my escape. My impression was that it had been an Italian army unit, camped for the night. I decided that I had better stick to my original plan and avoid all tracks as I continued in a south easterly direction.
At 0100 hrs, I began to see Verey Lights rising slowly into the sky ahead of me. My only means of judging how far they were away was the slowness with which they rose up. This indicated to me that they might be as much as ten miles away. I judged them to mark enemy strong posts, and altered course when one rose ahead of me, only to find that I was walking toward another strong post when a Verey Light rose ahead of me a few minutes later. By the early hours, I was becoming confused - there seemed to be strong posts strung out right across my path and, to add to my disquiet, there were tank tracks criss-crossing the desert around me.
I decided I should try to find a good hiding place for the coming day as it seemed likely I might find myself in middle of a tank battle. I was in luck! Just before first light, I found a shallow hole about six feet long, two feet wide, and eighteen inches deep in the middle of a flat area. I lay down in it, determined to stay there for the day. By lying on my back, I could conceal myself below the surrounding surface.
Shortly after dawn, I heard a truck whirring close-by to the north west of my hide-out. Soon after that, I heard a loud whirring further away to the south east. I lay perfectly still, not daring to put my head up to have a look. I just had to wait developments without revealing my presence. I had not long to wait. Bullets began to zip in bursts right over my hole. I could hear them zipping just before the noise of the distant machine gun reached me. After the firing had been going on for a minute or two, I heard a cry from the truck to the North West, and then complete silence for a few minutes. There was a further whirring sound to the south east which slowly faded into the distance.
All this time, I had been petrified with fear and, to add to my horror, a desert rat had crawled into my hole and was sniffing around my feet - no doubt thinking I was a corpse. At least, I thought, the rat would be edible, so I carefully aimed my pistol at the rodent just six inches from my foot. I fired, and missed! The rat beat a hasty retreat and I took comfort that, at least, I had not shot myself in the foot.
I stayed in my hole for the rest of the day, without moving. After dark I got up and walked toward the truck to the North West. It was an open military lorry and there were two dead Italians lying beside it. They had been the targets of the zipping bullets! One had an aluminium pannikin attached to his belt. There was a piece of parmesan cheese in it but, although I was weak with hunger, I did not feel like eating it.
I found I was fairly close to a road and decided it would be too risky to continue in the direction I had been walking for fear of blundering into a mine field. The area in which I found myself had obviously been closely fought-over and it would have been foolish to remain there. I was weak and demoralised from lack of food and even wondered if I should give myself up.
Eventually, I made up my mind to try to retrace my steps for a few miles and then turn south, in an attempt to reach the front line at a place where the opposing forces were more dispersed and there would be less risk of walking into a minefield.
I set off toward the west, filled with doubts as to whether I could last the extra couple of days which I would need to reach the front line by the route I had now chosen. After walking for a little more than an hour, I heard a voice challenge me from near-by. Since I could not see my challenger and, since it seemed he could see me, I put up my hands, called "kamerad" and waited to be captured. It was an Italian anti-tank battery and I was promptly disarmed, two Italian soldiers struggling with each other to souvenir my pistol.
More about my prisoner of war experiences later. Meanwhile there is a sequel to the story of my demise as a fighter pilot.
Two years ago, I borrowed from Clive Caldwell a book titled "Fighters over the Desert - The Air Battles in the Western Desert June 1940 to December 1942". The authors of this book are Christopher Shores (an Englishman) and Hans Ring (a German). They had access to the records of the Allied and the Axis Air Forces. It makes fascinating reading to anyone who was involved because it gives a day-by-day account of the air battles which took place.
I was able to deduce from their account that the German pilot who shot me down was a fighter ace - Erbo Graf von Kageneck of Number 3 Gruppe in Jagdgeschwader 27 (III/JG 27). He shot down two Tomahawks over Tmimi on 12 December 1941. These were the first victories of III/JG 27, which was the fourth Gruppe of Me Bf 109s to arrive in the Desert, completing the strength of Jagdgeschwader 27. Their aircraft carried a white shield with a black cross of the old Prussian knightly order. Number III Gruppe was one of the oldest in the Luftwaffe being first formed in April 1937, serving in the Battle of Britain (54 victories) and Russia (220 victories).
Gruppen Kommandeur was Hpt. Erhardt Braune and the Staffel Kapitaene were: 7 Staffel - Oblt. Erich Gerlitz, 8 Staffel - Oblt. Hans Lass, 9 Staffel - Oblt. Erbo Graf von Kageneck. Erbo Graf von Kageneck was then the top-scoring pilot of the whole Geschwader and one of the highest scorers in the Luftwaffe with 67 victories on arrival in Africa. He was a holder of the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves.
Erbo Graf von Kageneck
Erbo Graf von Kageneck's luck was to run out just twelve days later! On 24th December 1941, he was hit and wounded in the stomach by a Hurricane of 94 Squadron breaking out of a defensive circle south east of Agedabia. Kageneck managed to struggle back to base but died of his wounds in a hospital in Naples on 12th January 1942. At the time of his death, I was a prisoner of war in Capua, just a few kilometres from Naples.
During the morning of 12th December, the day I was shot down, ground crews of III/JG27 left Tmimi for Maturba. This explains my good fortune in not having to face a search party when I was hiding that evening in the bushes close to Tmimi.
EARLY DAYS AS A PRISONER OF WAR
I was captured during the night of Sunday December 14th 1941, having walked about twenty miles during the three nights I was on the move. My point of capture was about five miles south-west of Gazala.
I had absolutely no knowledge of the Italian language and had to use my schoolboy French to make myself understood. My captors seemed to accept my story that I was an Australian fighter pilot and were kind though preoccupied - no doubt wondering what to do with me should they come under attack.
The night was cold and I was sat in the cabin of a lorry, beside the C.O. of the unit, to await dawn. After a lot of brain searching, I managed to say the words, "J'aimerai de quoi mange." After I had repeated this several times, my Italian friend got the message and gave me a stale lump of wholemeal bread which was very welcome.
Soon after dawn, a young German liaison officer drove up in a jeep - or the German equivalent of a jeep. The Italians were keen to be rid of me and persuaded him to take me with him. I was able to communicate with him reasonably well, having learnt some German before the war. However, we did not have much to say to each other. I knew he would not be inclined to tell me where he was taking me and he knew that I would not be inclined to tell him anything about our air force dispositions.
Being weak and demoralised, and having wandered free for three nights ending up in capture, it never occurred to me to make a bid to escape. My hands were not tied and it could have been possible to give the driver a karate chop had I known how; but I am sure it would have been beyond my strength.
Toward midday we arrived at the town of Barce, and my German friend delivered me to an Italian prisoner of war compound near the town. I was led to a hut containing other prisoners and remained there for the rest of the day.
In the evening a Roman Catholic priest came to visit me. He could speak perfect English and questioned me about my story. I was given a Red Cross card to fill in with my name and rank.
Later on, some more prisoners were brought in. One of them was an Englishman, Captain "Dusty" Millar who had been in charge of a bren carrier. When we compared notes, it turned out that it was his gunner who had killed the two Italians near my hideout the day before. Dusty and his crew were captured soon after that event, having penetrated too far into enemy territory.
After we had bedded down for the night, I was shocked to hear guttural voices coming from bunks on the other side of the hut. They sounded like Germans! I learned later that they were South Africans speaking Afrikaans.
Next morning we were brought ersatz coffee and a piece of bread for breakfast. We were then called to parade by a diminutive Italian officer. While we were lining up, one of Dusty Millar's English crew told me the Italians had searched him and taken all his family photographs and letters. I was angry to hear this and approached the officer in front of the parade. His response was to scream at me and I retired defeated.
All prisoners were loaded into lorries and we set out towards the west. They were noisy diesel lorries reminding me of machine gun fire. This did not help my shattered nerves. We soon reached the town of Benghazi, driving straight to the docks where we were unloaded and put on board an Italian destroyer.
We sailed that evening, reaching the port of Tripoli on the Libyan coast next morning, Wednesday 17th December 1941. After disembarkation, we were marched through the town to a field surrounded by high stone walls. I thought: “This is it! Now comes the firing squad!" (Throughout the days following capture, I had been conscious what a nuisance prisoners are to their captors and I was half-expecting to be summarily disposed of.)
About mid afternoon we were loaded into trucks and set off in a south easterly direction, arriving at the prisoner of war camp at Tarhuna after two hours on the road. Tarhuna had the look of a permanent camp - probably a former army barracks. Prisoners were housed in stone huts in compounds surrounded by high walls. There were double bunks - one above the other - with straw mattresses and a couple of grey army blankets. The wash facilities were primitive and the latrines horrifying. The W.C. consisted of a porcelain saucer three feet in diameter with two foot supports near the middle. This was reasonable in principle because one could squat down without coming into contact with the fixture. The trouble was that the water supply had failed and the saucers were piled high with faeces and crawling with flies.
We were a scruffy lot spending the days huddled in our bunks, brooding on our shameful fate and trying in vain to keep warm, fully clothed in our battle dress under the blankets. An army captain from some proud regiment sat on his bunk in the corner for hours without saying a word - obviously ashamed that he had not died fighting rather than be captured. The food consisted of ersatz coffee and bread for breakfast with a piece of hard cheese. For lunch we had watery black soup with some bits of camel meat floating in it. For dinner we had nothing.
On Thursday 18th , the day after we arrived at Tarhuna, I was still very hungry. When my midday soup arrived, I was glad to see a large black lump of meat floating in it. I gobbled it up greedily. By evening, I had violent diarrhoea and nausea which continued over the next three days. I was unable to eat during this period but saved my daily bread and cheese ration in case I should need them later on.
On Monday 22nd we were moved to another compound and I was very pleased to find another 3 Squadron pilot, Flying Officer Hal ("Robbie") Roberts, who had been shot down on 22nd November 1941, the day that my school friend Sammy Lees was killed.
Hal Roberts was in his 21st year, seven years younger than I, and was hungry and frustrated after a month "in the bag". As a gesture, I put my saved-up rations on the bed and divided them between us. This was really no great sacrifice because my appetite had not returned after my bout of dysentery. To Hal Roberts however, it was almost a miracle as he was literally starving. We stayed together after that, until we jumped out of a train on the way to Germany nearly two years later and Robbie used to give me his meagre bread ration each morning saying, "Eggie! Keep this for me 'til you eat a bit of yours, otherwise I will eat it all now and I will have to watch you eating with nothing to eat myself!" I was most flattered by this gesture of trust.
In one of his more mischievous moods later on, Robbie gave me the nickname Fuck Fart and Hurry which I did not deserve but my initials F.F.H. were no doubt tempting. Other nicknames I had to endure during my air force years were Stones, courtesy of John Piper, and Scrotum Pole, bestowed by Nicky Barr.
There were two other airmen in the compound with Hal Roberts. They were pilots of Swordfish Torpedo Bombers who had been shot down over the Mediterranean. They were Englishmen and good lads but were posted to different P.O.W. camps and we never caught up with them again. They had been discussing rumours that we were to be transferred to Italy by ship. They were adamant that the torpedo bombers never missed their targets and that our ship would certainly be sunk.
It was the next day that we were loaded in to lorries, taken to Tripoli and loaded onto a large cargo ship. We were lodged in the holds but free to move around restricted areas of the deck whilst at sea. This was essential as the latrines consisted of W.C. seats mounted on wooden frames projecting outward from the deck over the Mediterranean. We were issued with rations for the trip consisting of a tin of Italian "bully beef' and two army biscuits. The bully beef was soft and wet and the army biscuits - made of white flour - were so hard it was necessary to wet them before we could get our teeth into them. Nevertheless, they were very welcome!
We sailed that evening and were off the island of Pantelleria early next morning. It was sunny but the sea was choppy and there was a strong wind blowing from the South. Later that morning, we passed the western tip of Sicily and headed for Naples which we reached the following morning, Christmas Day, 25th December 1941, after an uneventful voyage.
The word must have got out that a shipload of prisoners of war was due and there were quite a lot of people on the dock to greet us or, rather, to satisfy their curiosity as to what the dreaded enemy looked like.
We were disembarked without delay and transported to a camp at Capua, about 35 kilometres north of Naples.
Campo Concentramento per Prigioneri di Guerra Numero 66, Posta Militare 3400, was a large prisoner of war camp with a number of compounds separated by barbed wire fences. Armed guards in elevated pill boxes were scattered throughout the area and around the perimeter.
Hal Roberts and I were assigned to the officers' compound where we met prisoners who had been in the bag for as much as two months and had settled down to some sort of routine. There were Englishmen, South Africans and Australians from the Air Force, Army and Navy with some senior officers among them.
One of these was Lieutenant Commander Palmer, an Australian in the Royal Navy who had been running the blockade to Tobruk in a vessel named Maria Giovanni. One day, the engine failed and the ship drifted ashore. Skipper Palmer and his crew became "guests of Mussolini" for the next two years.
Alf Palmer was an inspiration to us all. He strutted around in his duffle coat just as if he were on the deck of his own ship and refused to be downhearted even though things were not going well for the allies at that time.
Things were certainly not going well! After the United States Fleet had been mauled on December 7th at Pearl Harbour, the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers off the coast of Malaya on December 10th. Singapore, a southern bastion of the British Empire fell on 15th February 1942. As can be imagined, the Italian press made great capital of this and boasted that the Japanese would soon take Perth and Darwin in Australia.
Throughout all this period Skipper Palmer kept our spirits up - he was a tower of strength. Two years later he was to jump out of a train in a tunnel and was wounded in the arm by machine gun fire. He lost the arm and was repatriated. He now lives with his dear wife Jane in Florida U.S.A.
THE EVOLUTION OF A "PROFESSIONAL" P.O.W.
Campo P.G. No.66, P.M. 3400, at Capua was a transit camp and had few of the facilities available in permanent camps - some of which had libraries, recreational areas etc. There were about 150 officers in our compound with ranks ranging from Sub-Lieut to Lt Colonel - half British and half South African including five Australians and three New Zealanders.
We were in two groups - one occupying a couple of wooden huts while Robbie and I were in a group living in a long low narrow building (formerly the camp hospital) with 35 beds down either side of a single dormitory and a lavatory at one end. We had good beds, including sheets, and were very comfortable. Meals were served in a large tent with half the inmates per sitting.
Domestic matters were dealt with by a committee and food was supplied by a civilian contractor - the amount being limited to that allowed to a non-working civilian. Exercise was walking up and down the "wire" with some physical jerks in the morning.
We were allowed a good hot shower once a week. We were issued with camp money at a level depending on our rank. At my level, the amount was barely sufficient to cover messing, leaving little to cover a few essential luxuries such as sweets etc. Soap, toothpaste etc were unobtainable, so we had to wait for these in parcels sent by relatives.
My feelings of guilt were subsiding, but I was urged by a strong desire to let everyone know I was still alive. Life, after all, was still sweet! At Capua we could write cards and letters - one of each per week. Since it was a long way to Australia, my best chance of getting my message out was through contacts in England. One of these was a cousin "Kim" - R. W. G. Mackay, a lawyer who eventually entered Parliament as a socialist candidate for the electorate of Hull in the east of England. Another was my chief, W. S. Robinson, Managing Director of Imperial Smelting Corporation Ltd, based in London. I wrote to both of these - the letter to W.S.R. being as follows:
Click here for the concluding part of Fred's story - "Escape over the Alps to Freedom"
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