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Agnone, Sicily. 14 September 1943. Fitters and other mechanical specialists of No.3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, an all-Australian squadron who will form the advance party moving into Italy,
await transport to take them to Grottaglie, Italy. In the background, a line-up of C47 transport aircraft wait on the airfield. [Photo by Lawrie Le Guay. AWM MEA0602]
14 September 1943 was a very memorable day for No.3 Squadron RAAF. They became the first Allied squadron to operate from “Continental Europe” at the start of the Italian mainland campaign.
- This “air-mobile” movement had been a hasty improvisation, as the Allied Salerno invasion had been badly pinned-down and the Germans looked capable of driving the Allies back into the sea.
The Italian government had just changed sides, so 3 Squadron’s fighter-bombers were flown from Sicily to a large southern-Italian air base, Grottaglie. They were accompanied by transport planes carrying an advance party of skilled ground-crew plus basic fuel and ammunition. Within minutes of landing, everyone had pitched-in to get the fighters refuelled and loaded with bombs. That same day, the Kittyhawks surprised the German divisions besieging the Salerno beach-head! Thus, 3 Squadron played an important part in the eventual Allied victory south of Naples.
Official war photographer Lawrie Le Guay flew in with the first wave of 3SQN lads. Examples of his fascinating images are shown below, followed by the uplifting 1944-vintage essay: "On from Grottaglie"
Grottaglie, Italy. 14 September 1943. RAAF ground crew dismantle the long range tanks which they fitted to the Kittyhawk aircraft, of No.3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, to give them the extra range in transit from Sicily to Italy.
Grottaglie, Italy. 15 September 1943. RAAF Padre Squadron Leader John P. McNamara of Brunswick, Vic, conducts mass outdoors for Italian airmen, two days after the Allies arrived. Note the two Italians standing guard either side of the altar.
RAAF Fighter-Bombers: "On From Grottaglie"
A TRANSPORT aircraft touched down on an airfield in southern Italy and trundled to a standstill. It was quickly followed by another, then came half a dozen more. Out of each of them tumbled a dozen or so sun-bronzed, slouch-hatted Australian airmen, carrying rifles and tommy-guns, and wearing light-weight invasion packs. The place was Grottaglie aerodrome, some fifteen miles south-east of Taranto. The date: September 14, 1943.
- The occasion was the resumption, from Italian soil, of the great aerial invasion of Hitler's tottering European fortress.
Since that sunny mid-September day, hundreds of their fellow countrymen have followed that tiny vanguard of Australians into Italy. Many of them are doing grand work in Kittybombers; many are filling necessary but often irksome "stooge" jobs on the ground; some are making photographic reconnaissances, or carrying out fighter sweeps and patrols in Spitfires; still more are flying, in heavy, medium, or light bombers; others, again, are engaged in the highly important and responsible duty of flying transport or communication aircraft. But, whatever may be the nature of their task, and whether they be performing it in a fighter or a bomber, within the confines of a mobile cookhouse, or at an improvised work-bench in a maintenance section, they are making an important contribution towards the defeat of the enemy in Europe.
The arrival at Grottaglie of that first airborne party of Australians had a big effect upon the stemming and turning of the receding Allied tide on the beaches south of Naples. Our ground forces, who had landed in the Salerno area, were being hard-pressed by a desperate enemy, who was endeavouring to drive them into the sea. The nearest airfields from which our fighter-bombers were operating at that time were in Sicily. Our ground forces, therefore, were beyond the operational range of those aircraft which in past campaigns had eased a delicate situation by providing the Army with close support. A clever enemy was seizing every opportunity to turn this handicap to his advantage.
SALERNO, ITALY. 1943-09. THE FIRST BRITISH TROOPS TO ENTER THE TOWN LANDING AT THE DOCKS. [AWM 128546]
But a rude awakening was in store for the Hun, and one of the two Australian squadrons serving in the famous 239 Fighter-Bomber Wing of the Desert Air Force (which had chased the enemy from El Alamein to the Straits of Messina) was chosen to help administer that shock.
The Wing was standing by for its transfer to the Italian mainland, but to avoid the break in operational flying which would have occurred had the whole Wing been transported by sea, it was decided to send by air an advance party consisting of just sufficient key men to keep the aircraft of two squadrons flying until the complete units arrived. No.3 Squadron, R.A.A.F., and No.112 Squadron R.A.F. were chosen as this advance striking force.
Service transport aircraft were loaded with bombs, ammunition, fuel, oil, food and other urgent supplies. The selected fitters, riggers, armourers, cooks, and other strictly essential ground personnel clambered aboard. The D.C.3s climbed into the Sicilian sky, and escorted by Kittyhawks, headed north-west. And, as one Australian remarked, the invasion of Europe-proper was "Right On".
Reaching Grottaglie, there was work - real work - for that small party to do. The transports were unloaded and sent back to Sicily for new supplies. While this was going on, the Kittyhawks were being prepared to take to the air. Within half an hour, every one of No.3 Squadron's fighter-bombers had been checked over, re-armed, refuelled, and bombed up, and stood ready for the first take-off from Italian soil. It was a tremendous job; for everything, even fuel and bombs, had to be man-handled.
The men who did that job were to reap the reward of deep satisfaction the same evening, when our pilots returned from their bombing and strafing of German mechanized transport on roads leading down to the beaches near Salerno. The success of that show was summed up by Squadron-Leader Brian Eaton, who was at that time in command of the Squadron and later received the D.S.O. and D.F.C. When he returned from the mission he said that some 700 vehicles were bunched together into "beautiful targets".
It was obvious, he added, that the Hun had been caught by surprise, unaware that the fighter-bombers had moved from their base in Sicily.
A scoreboard hanging in the Squadron's operations room made most satisfying reading at the end of three days' flying. 25 mechanized vehicles completely destroyed, 18 set on fire, and 84 otherwise damaged, four motorcycles and their riders wiped out, one goods train shot up and brought to a standstill, numerous enemy troops killed, wounded, or thoroughly frightened. ...That was the formidable list of successes achieved in only four missions in three days.
ITALY. 1943-10. TROOPS OF A BRITISH REGIMENT ADVANCING IN THE SALERNO AREA, PAST
A WRECKED GERMAN PANZERKAMPFWAGEN IV AUSF H MEDIUM TANK WHICH WAS
PUT OUT OF ACTION DURING A PREVIOUS ATTACK. [AWM 128556]
Meanwhile, weight was added to the advance party's striking power by the arrival of the remainder of the fighter-bomber wing, including No.450 Squadron, R.A.A.F.
In the days that followed, the enemy was allowed no respite, although targets became increasingly difficult to find as the enemy realized the need to camouflage more cunningly and disperse more widely. As the two Australian squadrons moved from airfield to airfield in pursuit of the retreating Germans, life on those mobile units was often hard, but seldom dull. While they were operating from Grottaglie, for example, there were practically no Allied troops ahead of our men. Another interesting sidelight is that the anti-aircraft defence of the aerodrome was in the hands of Italian gunners, whose new-found adherence to the Allied cause so far had not been tested.
With the steady advance up the eastern coast of the Italian peninsula well under way, our squadrons were presented with an everchanging variety of targets. Smashing blows were dealt at fuel and stores dumps, concentrations of troops and tanks, shipping, gun positions, road and rail communications. But bombing and strafing attacks on road transport easily predominated, and some remarkable results were obtained.
Fuel Tankers Ho!
No.3 Squadron, for instance, had a real field-day early in October, when it broke its record for the number of vehicles destroyed in any one operation. Attacking a convoy which consisted apparently of well-filled petrol lorries, it returned to base with the grand strafing score of twenty-five "flamers", three "smokers" and twenty-five damaged, with three destroyed petrol dumps thrown in for good measure. In addition, the Squadron destroyed two motor vehicles with bombs, and also scored four direct hits on the road. The leader of the formation was Squadron Leader Murray Nash, (later D.F.C. and Bar, who at that time was an undecorated Flying-Officer). His score for the outing was three petrol dumps and four motor vehicles destroyed, as well as one vehicle damaged. Flying-Officer Jack Doyle (who has since been promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader and awarded the D.F.C. and Bar) bagged five "flamers" and one damaged on the same show. Every other pilot in the formation returned with something to his credit.
A day or two later the same squadron demonstrated how forcibly the fighter-bomber can affect the trend of battle when employed in close support of the Army. The Germans were known to be mounting a heavy counterattack in the Termoli area. No.3 Squadron was entrusted with the ticklish task of bombing German troops massing less than a mile from our own forces, and of striking also at road transport bringing enemy reinforcements and supplies into the area.
- So effectively did the pilots do their jobs that the Army sent the squadron a message stating that, largely due to its intervention, the counter-attack had been completely stopped. Eaton (by this time Wing-Commander) led the show. His bag consisted of one Tiger Tank set afire, one armoured car and two motor vehicles destroyed. A fortnight earlier he had fractured a bone in his left hand. But, with the cockpit of his Kittyhawk modified to his own specifications to suit this disability, and with his hand and forearm encased in plaster, he continued to fly.
Meanwhile No. 450 Squadron was fully living up to the high reputation that it had earned in past campaigns for its skill in harassing the Hun. One October afternoon it had a highly profitable outing in the Pescara area. First it bombed and strafed two motor transports, leaving one on fire and the other smoking. Then eight more mechanized vehicles, partly concealed beneath some trees, were bombed and machine-gunned, five of them being set on fire and the remainder damaged. Next, a petrol dump in the same locality was set ablaze. Then, to round off the afternoon's work, our pilots strafed two stationary motor buses, damaging both of them.
That single mission typifies the Desert Harassers' determination to seek out the enemy in his hiding-places, and exact heavy toll of him whenever and wherever he is found.
Then there was the destructive blow which 450 Squadron dealt to the enemy shipping at Manfredonia, a picturesque little shipping port tucked into the Adriatic shore. The Germans were using the place as a supply point for their forces in the Foggia region. When two merchant ships - one of about 6,000 tons and the other of about 4,000 tons - steamed into the port, No.450 was sent to attack them. The squadron made two trips; one as evening fell, the other next morning. In the first attack the 4,000-tonner was set alight, and on the second sixteen of the twenty bombs dropped by the Kittyhawks landed square on the ship or on the adjacent wharf. Squadron-Leader J. Bartle, D.F.C., led his squadron on these two shows. When the port fell to our troops some three weeks later, he and his pilots had the satisfaction of clambering aboard the burnt-out hulks and making a detailed examination of the damage they had wrought.
Manfredonia, Italy, 1943. Pilots of the Desert Harassers No.450 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF in Italy, are given the opportunity of viewing Manfredonia Harbour
with its many enemy wrecked ships. This RAAF squadron played a big part in Allied raids on this harbour. [AWM MEA0807]
With organized resistance to the Nazi occupiers of Yugoslavia steadily mounting, the two Australian fighter-bomber squadrons, still operating from airfields in Italy, flew several times in support of Marshal Tito and his partisans. Then, when the severe Italian winter set in, and our front-line became more or less static, they were diverted to attack enemy shipping plying along the Dalmatian coast. The pilots quickly adapted their bombing technique to give a high degree of accuracy in this comparatively new type of work.
No.450 Squadron sank or damaged about 50,000 tons of shipping during that busy period. In three successive days in January it had this imposing list of successes to its credit:
- One 5000-ton armed merchantman sunk;
- One ship nearing 4,000 tons and one 3,000-ton vessel left burning.
- Then, before the month ended, a naval vessel of 4,000 tons was sunk.
- The squadron capped its remarkable run of successes in mid-February, when four salvos of bombs sent a 7,000-ton motor vessel to the bottom.
- Hand-in-hand with these attacks on large ships, harassing forays were made on launches, barges, E-boats, and Siebel ferries. Many were sunk or damaged.
While its companion unit was inflicting these damaging losses upon the enemy, No.3 Squadron was far from idle. During the corresponding period it:
- Sank three vessels ranging in size from 2,000 to 5,000 tons, and damaged an equal number.
- In addition, it sank four schooners and damaged six more, and sent five Siebel ferries, three barges, one motor torpedo boat and one E-boat to the bottom of the Adriatic.
Flight-Lieutenant Ken Richards, was primarily responsible for the destruction of two of the three large ships. It was he, too, who later scored a direct hit on the Pescara Dam, smashing the sluice gate. Richards left the squadron at the close of the battle for Rome with a well-earned D.F.C.
Italy. C. 1944-05. Group portrait of three of the pilots who took part in the "dam-busting" operations against the Pescara Dam.
Left to right: Flight Lieutenant Ken Richards of Warragul, Vic; Colonel Laurie Wilmot DFC of South Africa; Flight Sergeant A. J. Duguid of Dyce near Aberdeen, Scotland.
That the courage and skill of individual pilots was officially recognized is shown by the awards made to members of these squadrons between the time of their arrival in Italy and the end of July 1944. - In addition to those already mentioned as having been won by No.3 Squadron, Flight-Lieutenant R. Susans, a former flight-commander, received a D.F.C., and Flight-Sergeant E. Hankey a D.F.M.
Squadron Leader K. Sands (then commanding officer of No. 450 Squadron) and his two flight-commanders (R. Hudson and C. Robertson) in one week each received the D.F.C. for anti-shipping strikes in the Adriatic. Sands had a bar added later. Distinguished Flying Crosses also went to Squadron-Leader Bartle, Flight Lieutenant D. Davidson, Flight Lieutenant R. Goldberg, Flying Officer H. Hannaford and Pilot-Officer R. Rowe, and to two "Kiwis" in the squadron Pilot-Officer T. Fourneau and Warrant Officer Gillard (since reported missing). Nor were the ground staff overlooked, for Warrant Officer W. Walker and Sergeant R. Archer were Mentioned in Dispatches for the splendid work they had done.
Breakout from Cassino
During the three weeks' battle which began at Cassino and ended at the gates of Rome, our fighter-bomber squadrons experienced possibly their busiest operational period since El Alamein. Daily our pilots ranged over enemy territory, blasting his gun positions, smashing his bridges, cratering his roads, dislocating his rail communications, destroying his mechanized transport. The first faint streaks of dawn found pilots strapped in their cockpits, ready for a first-light take-off. Night had almost closed in before the last of the Kitties had taxied back to its dispersal point. And from well before dawn until long after dark, armourers, fitters, riggers, stores assistants, cooks, stewards, clerks, ground officers and those scores of others whose efforts are seldom headlined, worked at pressure to keep the aircraft flying.
The losses in men and machines suffered by our fighter-bomber squadrons in the Italian campaign have been remarkably small, compared with the results achieved, and many of the pilots forced to crash-land, or bale out over enemy territory, managed to walk back, some to relate stories as enthralling as any to be found in books of adventure fiction.
Apart from our two fighter-bomber squadrons, the largest concentrated force of Australians now serving in Italy is gathered together in a Wellington bomber group which constitutes the most important R.A.F. section of the Strategic Air Force in the Mediterranean area. Every unit in this group has Australians serving in it, and almost nightly they take to the air to smash at factories, ports, shipbuilding yards, lines of rail and road communications, oil refineries and other targets in what Hitler once regarded as his European stronghold. Switching from target to target to suit the strategic demands of the moment, and ranging far afield when the occasion required, the 'Wimpies' in which these Australians fly have kept up a relentless pounding and harassing of the enemy.
Italy. c. 1944. Pilots and navigators of an RAF Wellington squadron based in Italy being briefed for an operation at dusk.
RAAF members in this bomber squadron are playing a big part in the day and night bombing missions over German held Europe.
Note the aircrew standing beside their Vickers Wellington aircraft. [AWM MEA1526]
Bomber crews have also done grand work in smashing at targets much nearer home. Back in February, for instance, they were called to the aid of the ground forces battling on the hard-held strip of beach at Anzio. That assignment was the most intensive one handed to the Wimpies since El Alamein. In one week they flew 400 separate sorties, and scores of Australians went out on each operation, some of them carrying out two missions on the one night. Night after night the work went on; and all through the night: road and rail junctions; concentrations of troops and transport; tents and huts; towns and villages in which the Germans were living - all were fair game for the night-prowling Wimpies.
Towards the end of June, an Australian captain of one of these Wellingtons showed airmanship, courage and endurance of an outstandingly high degree. The pilot, who was reported missing shortly afterwards, was Warrant Officer G. Custance. With ten and a half feet sliced off the end of his port wing when he collided with another aircraft during a night attack on oil refineries at Budapest, Custance nursed his crippled Wimpy back to base, to make a perfect landing. He modestly disclaimed all personal credit for that remarkable flight of some 500 miles. "It would not have been possible," he said, "but for the assistance given by my second dickie, and by the other chaps in my crew."
Operating in close co-operation with the Wellingtons are Halifaxes and Liberators in which other Australians are serving. The arrival of the heavies in Italy marked one more step in the offensive being carried out on Hitler's fortress from bases in the under-belly of Europe, and they form the night counterpart of the smashing daylight attacks being made by Fortresses and Liberators of the U.S.A.A.F. on targets in Germany and the Balkans. Since their first operational assignment from Italian soil - the bombing of the big railway yards at Genoa - the "Hallies" and "Libs" have continued to hammer at vital links in the Germans' chain of communications in Italy and the Balkans, and important manufacturing centres also have been attacked.
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