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"Prangs for the Memories"

The Harry Clare Collection - Photos of Palestine and Syria, 1941.


"This Tommy is faulty Sarge, can I have another one?"
This aircraft is a 250 Squadron Tomahawk coded B.  This aircraft crashed into AK414, shown below -  coded "S".
- The date of the accident was 7th May 1941.  The accident took place at Aqir just before the move to Lydda.

Introduction: RAAF No.3 Squadron's Campaign against the Vichy French in Syria

In May 1941, No.3 Squadron was withdrawn from action in the Western Desert of Egypt and transferred to Lydda in Palestine.  (Now called Lod, Israel, located about 15km south-east of Tel Aviv.)  This move was in preparation for the planned British-Commonwealth and Free-French invasion of Syria. 

The Vichy-French Colony of "Syria" in those days incorporated both of the modern-day countries of Syria and Lebanon.  Syria had been occupied by the French under a League of Nations Mandate, taking over from the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.  (The British had taken over Palestine under similar arrangements.)  With the defeat of France by the Germans in mid-1940, the administration of Syria passed to the Vichy-French.  The British observed that the Syrian Administration were collaborating with German attempts to fan Arab unrest in the Middle East and threaten oil supplies from Iraq.   A British invasion of Syria was considered the best way to solve this problem! 

No.3 Squadron was expected to provide about 40% of the available Allied fighter-force.  They were issued with brand-new P-40 Tomahawks at Lydda in Palestine, to replace their battle-weary Hurricanes.  However, the conversion to the new aircraft did not go smoothly at all.  There were many "prangs" in training.  

"Desert Warriors" author Russell Brown researched the causes of these accidents and put them down to a combination of:

1. A complete lack of technical manuals for the new aircraft type; resulting in mistakenly-high landing speeds at first.
2. Use of desert-style "wheelie landings" on the hard concrete runway.  (Most of these pilots had not operated from concrete before.)
3. The fragile landing-gear in that early model of P-40C.
4. The inexperience of some newly-arrived replacement pilots. 

On June 3rd, 1941,  Air Marshall Tedder, the RAF Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, reported to London...

"The Australians are very unexpectedly making heavy weather over the Tomahawks, but I have applied a little ginger which, I hope, will have the necessary effect." 

Ready or not, Tedder sent 3 Squadron into action on June 8th for the initial surprise attack on Syrian airfields.  Fortunately, over the next five weeks of campaigning, the Squadron restored its reputation with a series of stunning victories that destroyed much of the French frontline airpower in Syria.  No.3 Squadron accounted for more than two-thirds of the aerial victories in the campaign, with 24 aerial claims, 20 claims of French aircraft destroyed in ground-strafing, and 35 damaged.  This establishment of Air Superiority greatly assisted the Allied ground forces to break through.  In return, only three Tomahawks were shot down by the French - and all three Australian pilots avoided French captivity.  

(However, a few more Tomahawks were "pranged" during the campaign, some after receiving battle damage.) 

Meanwhile, the war on the ground had included a high proportion of Australian forces.  For the second time in just over two decades, Australian troops fought their way along the "Road to Damascus".  While this campaign ended in victory, Australian Army losses were serious, with over 400 killed, as the French valiantly defended their territory. 

Harry Clare was a member of the 3 Squadron ground-crew during this campaign and he photographed some of the more spectacular Tomahawk bust-ups.  Luckily, only a minor proportion of these accidents resulted in personnel injuries, although two fatalities sadly did occur.  (One during training and another during the campaign.) 

Harry's collection of tiny "contact prints" survived a fire that burnt down  his tent (see below) - so we are lucky to still have them, to remind us of those days.

A few images from other sources have also been added...

The Harry Clare Collection


The "Australian Soldiers Club" on the beach at Tel Aviv.

 


The view from the Australian Soldiers' Club. 
(A sabotaged Jewish refugee ship makes a nice breakwater!  The refugees were not welcomed by the British Mandate in Palestine. 
However they wisely scuttled their own ship so that they had to be allowed to land.)

 


An early accident at Lydda.  On 26/5/41, Tomahawk AK365 (at right), was parked near the runway
It was
hit when Flying Officer Davidson ran off the side of the runway while delivering a brand-new Tomahawk (AK474, at left) from Egypt.

 


Another view of the damage to AK365.

 


Lydda had been a commercial airport previously; in 1941 it was still being visited by KLM DC-3 airliners which serviced an impressively long air-route all the way to the Netherlands East Indies (modern-day Indonesia).  
This
particular aircraft (PK-ALW) went on to have an amazing flying career.  When the Japanese attacked the NEI in 1942, PK-ALW was evacuated to Australia, and operated for the rest of the war with the RAAF,
including some flights transporting General Douglas MacArthur.  After the war it passed into airline service in Australia and
still survives in a museum in Queensland today.  
(For the full story see
http://www.qam.com.au/aircraft/dc-3/vh-anr.htm.  On one occasion, PK-ALW even flew under the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of a formation of Dutch planes!   - See  http://home.st.net.au/~dunn/shbdutch.htm
)

 


A crashed Tomahawk standing on its starboard landing leg only; possibly AK410.  On 20/5/41 the port undercarriage failed to lock down and collapsed on landing at Lydda with Flight Lieutenant Blake Pelly at the controls.

 


An aircraft of 250 Squadron RAF, Tomahawk "J". 
(In comparison, identification letters do not appear to have been painted onto 3 Squadron Tomahawks at this stage in 1941.) 

 


AK414

 


 This scene of desolation in an orange grove was the site of the only fatal accident for 3 Squadron in Palestine On 5/6/41, Tomahawk AK408 spiralled  into the ground 2.5 miles east of Jaffa, killing its relatively inexperienced pilot, Sgt. Norman Evans.  Evans had been on a training flight and it is suspected that may have blacked out during aerobatics.  

 


At the Squadron's advanced landing ground at Rosh Pina in Northern Palestine, 3 Squadron personnel were able to pitch their tents in a grove of eucalyptus trees, which gave a very enjoyable home-like atmosphere.  However, the disconsolate men in this photo are Harry Clare's mates, viewing the ashes of their formerly-comfortable tent after it had been accidentally burnt to the ground!   Some of the photos in Harry's collection are charred from this fire.

 


A belly-landing in Syria.  This Tomahawk, serial AK436, had shot down two Vichy French bombers during the course of the Syrian campaign.  On the 11th of July 1941 it was damaged by anti-aircraft fire while strafing French motor transport and gun positions.  The pilot, Flying Officer Knowles, regained the Allied lines and force-landed on a stony plain 10 miles NNW of Damascus.  This action occurred on the last day of hostilities in Syria.  A truce was called by the Vichy French on that evening and an Armistice was signed two days later.

http://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/010159.JPG
1941-10. WESTERN DESERT.  AN INFORMAL PORTRAIT OF FLYING OFFICER FRANK FISCHER, DRESSED IN ARAB COSTUME,
WHO HAD TO MAKE A FORCED LANDING ABOUT  100 MILES BEHIND THE FRONT LINE ON THE LAST DAY OF THE SYRIAN CAMPAIGN. 
HE RETURNED TO ALLIED LINES WITH THE HELP OF ARABS.  [AWM 010159]
 



Prisoners of War from the French Foreign Legion.

 


Rayak Airbase, Lebanon.  The wreck of one of the dangerous Vichy-French Dewoitine D520 fighters, burnt-out on the ground.

 


Under new ownership.  A 3 Squadron Tomahawk is visited by a refuelling truck at the former Vichy-French airbase at Rayak.

 


A group of Vichy French pilots at Rayak after the Allied occupation.  The Armistice in Syria freed all Vichy French military who agreed to transfer to the Free French - these men probably came under those arrangements. 
[Photo supplied by Peter Pritchard from the collection of his Uncle L/Cpl. Paul Purtell, VX38118, Middle East GHQ, 6 Aust. Div.]

 


A lucky escape...  After the end of the Syrian campaign, 3 Squadron enjoyed a period of relative peace based at Rayak.  However, there was still the odd "prang".  The aircraft on jacks in this picture is Tomahawk AM386, named 'Sweet FA' and usually flown by Flight Lieutenant Al Rawlinson.  (During the campaign, Flying Officer Peter Turnbull had used this aircraft to shoot down two Dewoitine D520 fighters.)  More than a month after hostilities had ceased, on the 22nd of August, Al Rawlinson had been practicing aerobatics when he heard a loud "crack" and saw to his horror that he had bent his vertical tail-surface over at a right-angle.  His starboard tailplane had also been ripped off completely (as can  be seen in this photo). 

Rawlinson found that the aircraft would became uncontrollable if he slowed down to the speed normally used for landing.  Nonetheless he bravely decided to attempt a high-speed touchdown back at Rayak to save his aircraft.  He succeeded in getting down safely, but just before he came to a halt he ran off the end of the runway and the Tomahawk tipped up on its nose into a ditch.  (All of this damage proved repairable.)

 


Our photographer Harry Clare serving in the Pacific Theatre later in the War, behind the waist-gun of a B-24 Liberator. 

[Editor's Note: Thanks to our reader "Buz" for correcting some of the captions above.]

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