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"Lone Wolf"

This extract from Bobby Gibbes' book (pages 95 to 98) describes the emotions  that he experienced while single-handedly stalking fierce enemies over the Gazala front in Libya.

On Saturday, the 13th of December 1941, we spent most of the morning on standby without being given a job, but during the afternoon we carried out a patrol in the Martuba area, led by Ed Jackson.

We approached over Derna from the sea, below a layer of cloud at about 5,000 feet heading south.  As we crossed the coast we saw six 110s escorted by 109s, and we gave chase.  The enemy pilots saw us before we could close, and the 109s turned around to attack.  Due to the low cloud base, they were not able to make use of the superior performance of their aircraft and could not employ their pick and zoom tactics.  However, the cloud made it easier for them to take evasive action, and every aircraft which I attacked was able to pull up into the cloud.  We also were not loath to make use of the cloud ourselves, and whenever I was in any danger, I would climb up into it for shelter.

The squadron soon became split up and I found myself stooging around in company with a single Tomahawk and two 109s.  One of these 109s was at this point, engaged in attacking the Tomahawk, and as it took evasive action and the attacking 109 dived past and continued down, some couple of thousand feet or more below its level, I saw my chance and dived onto the second 109, carrying out a deflection shot at it from the port side, and following it around until my attack was from line astern.  The 109 flicked and spun, with a wisp of smoke trailing in its wake.  The Tomahawk was now on fire and going down, and its attacker started to climb up after me.  If I had tried to turn into its attack, I might not have been able to get around in time, and this would leave my body exposed to its fire.  If I did manage to turn in time, another head-on attack would result.  (These head-on attacks always frightened hell out of me, as I could never be sure of the enemy's method of passing.  It was strange that I never was hit in these attacks, as both aircraft presented non-deflection targets to each other.  When crouching low in the cockpit, watching the black smoke from the attacking aircraft guns spewing lead, and almost mesmerised by the ugly air intake of the 109 protruding from the port side of its sleek nose, I would feel the size of a house while waiting until the last second, before pushing the stick violently forward, bunting beneath it, and would breathe again, when the enemy passed close above.)

I decided that I could climb up into the cloud before it could get into range, and I pulled up steeply at high boost.  The cloud did not seem to be getting any closer; the climbing 109 was rapidly growing larger, but at last I made it just as the German pilot started to shoot.  I disappeared into its friendly concealing grayness with a shower of tracer going past me and I turned hard to port in case I was still being shot at.

I then settled onto instruments and circled within the cloud for a short period before poking my nose out below to survey the scene, fully expecting to see the fire of a burning 109 below - the aircraft I had attacked, which was still spinning when last seen - but I could only see one fire some distance away which must have been Tommy Trimble's aircraft.  The second 109 had disappeared.  I have since learnt that it was flown by Marseille, who had added Tommy's aircraft to his tally that day.

Being now alone, I decided to make inland, hoping to find some other targets and having the cloud cover just above my level, my morale was high.  I saw twelve Stukas, flying line abreast, coming towards me with their legs hanging down like eagles' reaching for their prey.  These were just made for me, and I sped towards them feeling jubilant, anticipating a number of easy victories, when I suddenly saw nine 109s stalking along in line abreast at the base of the clouds, behind and above the Stukas.  My plan was instantly abandoned, and I nosed up into the cloud, thinking that I hadn't been seen.  I did a slow 180-degree turn and when I calculated that the enemy aircraft would have passed below me, I dived down, hoping that I would now be just behind them, and with luck, would be able to bag a 109 or two before retreating back into the cloud.  

I emerged amidst a milling mass of twisting and turning fighter aircraft looking for me.  My guess had been wrong and I had been seen, and now, thoroughly frightened, I rapidly pulled back into the shelter of the cloud having decided to leave this little bunch well alone.

Having regained my composure, I again dived just below the cloud and with a wild weave, made sure that I was not in a position of any danger.  Directly in front of me, heading east, were three 109s, flying away with their tails towards me. This time, I was sure that I could not have been seen and climbing back into the cloud, I pursued them at full power.  When I judged that I must be in range, I eased out of cloud and had another look.  I was right behind them, but they were still out of range.  I re-entered the cloud and repeated the performance.  After three false attempts, and being very careful not to emerge ahead of them, I finally emerged and was in close range, but I suddenly saw that there were now only two aircraft.  In a panic, I turned violently to port and was only just in time.  The third aircraft was coming up at me from below and I scuttled back into cloud, almost blacking out under the high "G" force, just as he was about in range to start shooting.  With my heart beating overtime, I decided that I had had enough, and would return home.  


Marseille's Bf109F and a Tomahawk.  Artwork by Arkadiusz Wróbel.

Remaining in the cloud layer, I turned onto a westerly heading.  After a couple of confused minutes trying to orientate myself, I calmed down sufficiently to realize my mistake and turned back, flying east.

The cloud started to break up a little and I suddenly emerged from cloud, into a large bubble of clear air, surrounded by cloud above, below and all around, and flying sedately in this strange world, just ahead of me, was a lovely little 109. The pilot unfortunately saw me, and started climbing in a bid to escape as I closed on him and started firing, with about a 45-degree deflection, following around into a close line astern, giving him quite a hammering as he made the cloud above, and disappeared from view.  I continued to spray the cloud area where he had disappeared, then I circled below waiting for him to come spinning down, but to no avail.  I was sure that he must have been destroyed, so I dived below the cloud looking for his funeral pyre of black smoke, but there was no smoke.  Terribly disappointed, I again turned for home remaining in cloud.

Suddenly, I remembered the twelve Stukas, and wondered where they had been bound.  It had to be near Gazala, as that was the area of our front line.  I knew that I could not return home knowing about this attack, so I made towards the area.  The cloud was thinning and breaking up as I approached, and on arrival, I was flying under a clear sky.

Four Stukas were circling above the Indian troops, and about 3,000 feet above were three 109s circling.  I weighed up my chances of not being seen by the three fighters, and when the Stukas started into their dive, surrounded by a dense array of black puffs from exploding shells from the Bofor guns, I dived down to attack, looking up to make sure that I had not been seen by their escort.  When I started to close on the Stukas, the Indians must have preferred my aircraft as their target and it seemed that every gun focussed their fire on me.   Perhaps this put me off as my first attack was too steep and my speed too high for accurate shooting, and my attack was abortive.  I turned away, and as the three top cover aircraft were not taking any notice, I carried out a further attack on two Stukas, which had by now formed up after dropping their bombs, and I attempted to take them from abeam.  As I drew into range, both aircraft turned away and their rear gunners started shooting.


Formation of Stukas.  Artwork by
Shigeo Koike.

I carried out two or three attacks, but on each occasion the pilots turned their tails to me and I knew that I wouldn't be able to get the pilots, who were well protected by heavy armour plate behind their seats.  I saw the rear gun of one aircraft, suddenly swing up during an attack and I knew that I must have wounded or killed the gunner, but when I attacked again, the gunner in the other Stuka managed to hit my armour plate glass.  There suddenly appeared a vicious looking little inner circle with spider web cracks radiating out from it, and small particles of glass came into the cockpit half blinding me.  I pulled away shaking, and relieved that the glass had stopped the bullet which had been coming straight for my face.  If it had been two inches to the left, there was no protective glass, and it would have been curtains for me.

After I calmed down a little, I dived down again in search of my Stukas, but they had disappeared.  I looked above and saw that the three 109s were now only little dots, heading west, out towards the Martuba aerodromes.  I dived low across the front lines of our troops knowing that they must have appreciated my intervention, and I then returned to El Aden with my petrol tanks nearly empty and my ammunition almost expended.  I hadn't achieved much, and all I could claim were three aircraft damaged.  Others in the squadron, without having spent the hectic period that I had, had achieved better results.  Tiny Cameron got one 109F confirmed and shared a second with Tommy Briggs and Nicky Barr got two, a 109 and a Ju88.

Tommy Trimble arrived back a couple of days later, badly burnt about the face and hands.  He had been shot down in flames and had crash-landed near Martuba.  Luckily, he was able to get away from his aircraft without being captured and eventually given help by a Bedouin who fed him and tended his burns with native herbs.  At night, he slept in the chief's tent, and much to Tommy's amusement, he would be put over on one side of the tent, and the Arab's wife would be installed on the other side.  The old chieftain would lie down in the middle of the tent with a rifle.  Tommy said that he was not tempted to seduce the wife who was not very attractive and whose lack of hygiene acted as a deterrent to a 20-year-old, badly burned, young man.  He was in quite a mess, and was packed off to hospital with a posting back to Australia as soon as he was fit to travel.  As one of the original pilots, he had more than earned his release from the war, even if it was to be for a short break only.

022585
FLYING OFFICER T. TRIMBLE (RIGHT) OF NO.3 SQUADRON, RAAF, TELLING F/O J.C. MCLEOD OF HIS EXPERIENCES
AFTER HE HAD BEEN SHOT DOWN IN THE WESTERN DESERT.  BADLY BURNED ON THE FACE HE WAS BEFRIENDED BY ARABS.
  [AWM 022585]

I had hoped that he would have been able to confirm my 109 for me, but he had not even been aware that I had gone down to help him.  

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