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The following passage is just one of many marvellous stories of 3 Squadron's people and their adventures from "YOU LIVE BUT ONCE",
the classic autobiography of Wing Commander R. H. (Bobby) Gibbes, DSO, DFC and Bar.
This incident happened on 21 December 1942, while Bobby Gibbes was leading six Kittyhawks to attack the Italian desert aerodrome at Hun,
in Central Libya, 150 miles south of Sirte (modern-day "Surt").
[Bobby Writes:] ...Sergeant "Stuka" Bee's aircraft was set on fire by the aerodrome defence gunfire. As Sergeant Bee had a lot of speed from his dive and was flaming badly, I advised him to climb up and bail out instead of trying to belly-land his aircraft at high speed. He mightn't have heard me, or perhaps was badly wounded or even dead, as his speed had not decreased when he hit the ground. His aircraft rolled up into a ball, an inferno of flames. He didn't have a chance.
I circled and watched the Italians, showing great courage, send out an ambulance in an attempt to save him, but the outcome was obvious. It was later confirmed that he had been killed.
At the same time, Pilot Officer Rex Bayly called up to say that his motor had been hit and that he was carrying out a forced landing. Rex crash-landed his aircraft nearly a mile from the aerodrome, and on coming to a stop, called up on his radio to say that he was O.K. His aircraft did not burn. I asked him what the area was like for a landing to pick him up, and ordered the other three aircraft to keep me covered and to stop any ground forces coming out after him. He told me that the area was impossible, and asked me to leave him, but I flew down to look for myself. I found a suitable area about 3 miles further out and advised Bayly that I was landing, and to get weaving out to me.
I was nervous about this landing, in case shrapnel might have damaged my tyres, as on my first run through the aerodrome, my initial burst set an aircraft on fire. I had then flown across the aerodrome and fired from low level and at close range at a Savoia 79. It must have been loaded with ammunition, as it blew up, hurling debris 500 feet into the air. I was too close to it to do anything about avoiding the blast and flew straight through the centre of the explosion at nought feet. On passing through, my aircraft dropped its nose, despite pulling my stick back, and for a terrifying moment, I thought that my tail plane had been blown off. On clearing the concussion area, I regained control, missing the ground by a matter of only a few feet. Quite a number of small holes had been punched right through my wings from below, but my aircraft appeared to be quite serviceable.
I touched down rather carefully in order to check that my tyres had not been punctured, and then taxied by a devious route for about a mile or more until I was stopped from getting closer to Bayly by a deep wadi. Realizing that I would have a long wait, and being in a state of sheer funk, I proceeded to take off my belly tank to lighten the aircraft. The weight of the partially full tank created great difficulty, and I needed all my strength in pulling it from below the aircraft and dragging it clear. I was not sure that I would be able to find my way back to the area where I had landed, so I stepped out the maximum run into wind from my present position. In all, I had just 300 yards before the ground dipped away into a wadi. I tied my handkerchief onto a small camel's thorn bush to mark the point of aim, and the limit of my available take off-run, and then returned to my aircraft, CV-V, and waited.
My Squadron's aircraft continued to circle overhead, carrying out an occasional dive towards the town in order to discourage any Italian attempt to pick us up. After what seemed like an age, sitting within gun range of Hun, Bayly at last appeared, puffing, and sweating profusely. He still managed a smile and a greeting.
I tossed away my parachute and Bayly climbed into the cockpit. I climbed in after him and using him as my seat, I proceeded to start my motor. It was with great relief that we heard the engine fire, and opening my throttle beyond all normal limits, I stood on the brakes until I had obtained full power, and then released them, and, as we surged forward, I extended a little flap. My handkerchief rushed up at an alarming rate, and we had not reached flying speed as we passed over it and down the slope of the wadi. Hauling the stick back a small fraction, I managed to ease the aircraft into the air, but we hit the other side of the wadi with a terrific thud. We were flung back into the air, still not really flying, and to my horror, I saw my port wheel rolling back below the trailing edge of the wing, in the dust stream. The next ridge loomed up and it looked as if it was to be curtains for us, as I could never clear it. I deliberately dropped my starboard wing to take the bounce on my remaining wheel, and eased the stick back just enough to avoid flicking. To my great relief we cleared the ridge and were flying.
A painting of the take-off, by Frank Harding.
Retracting my undercart and the small amount of take-off flap, we climbed up. I was shaking like a leaf and tried to talk to Bayly but noise would not permit. The remaining three aircraft formed up alongside me and we hared off for home, praying all the while that we would not be intercepted by enemy fighters, who should by now have been alerted. Luck remained with us, and we didn't see any enemy aircraft.
On nearing Marble Arch, I asked Squadron Leader Watt to fly beneath my aircraft to confirm that I had really lost a wheel and had not imagined it. He confirmed that my wheel had gone, but that the starboard wheel and undercart appeared to be intact. I then had to make up my mind as to whether to carry out a belly landing, thus damaging my aircraft further, or to try to attempt a one-wheel landing, which I thought I could do. We were at the time very short of aircraft and every machine counted.
The latter, of course, could be dangerous, so before making a final decision, I wrote a message on my map asking Bayly if he minded if I carried out a one-wheel landing. He read my message and nodded his agreement.
Calling up our ground control, I asked them to have an ambulance standing by, and told them that I intended coming in cross-wind with my port wing up-wind. Control queried my decision but accepted it.
I made a landing on my starboard wheel, keeping my wing up with aileron and, as I lost speed, I turned the aircraft slowly to the left, throwing the weight out. When I neared a complete wing stall, I kicked on hard port rudder and the aircraft turned further to port. Luck was with me and the aircraft remained balanced until it lost almost all speed. The port oleo leg suddenly touched the ground, and the machine completed a ground loop. The port flap was slightly damaged as was the wingtip. The propeller and the rest of the aircraft sustained no further damage. The port undercart was changed, the flap repaired, the holes patched up and the aircraft was flying again on the 27th of the month, only six days after Hun.
Every enemy aircraft on Hun was either destroyed or damaged. Six aircraft and one glider were burnt, and five other aircraft were badly damaged. The bag included two JU52s, two Savoia 79s, one JU88, one Messerschmitt 110, one CR42, one HS126 and two gliders. I was later to be awarded the DSO and this operation was mentioned as having a bearing on the award.
Editor's Note: Australia's first and only Air Force Victoria Cross in World War One was awarded for a similar desert rescue.
Rumour has it that Bobby Gibbes was also considered for a VC, but in the end was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
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