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PART 3a of Neil Smith's No.3 Squadron History
Early World War II: "The Desert Stakes"
(3 September 1939 to the last ditch at Alamein - October '42)
1939 - 1940
When war began, the RAAF were very aware that the Squadron would need to be considerably strengthened before it could participate in the coming conflict with Germany, because the Squadron’s strength at the time consisted of only nine operational crews and 12 serviceable aircraft.
(Left) 1940. Richmond, NSW. A parade of men of No. 3 Squadron, standing with Hawker Demon aircraft lined up in front of the hangars.
The first aircraft in line is A1-6. [AWM P02684.003]
(Right) Portrait of 2504 Corporal Vincent Charles MONTEROLA, C Flight, No.3 Squadron, beside Hawker Demon aircraft A1-39 at RAAF Richmond.
Vincent did not go overseas with 3SQN, but stayed behind for RAAF expansion duties. He was killed two weeks after 3SQN departed, in a No.22 Squadron crash at "Aeroplane Ridge" south of Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains, on 1 August 1940. He is buried in Richmond. [AWM 044902]
As the Squadron had been assigned primarily to perform Army reconnaissance, bombing practice, photography, map reading and cross country navigation exercises became a part of the Squadron’s new training schedule in conjunction with the A.I.F.
Off to War...
On the 24th of July, 1940, 3 Squadron’s 21 officers and 271 airmen of other ranks cleared Fremantle harbour on board the "Orontes". It was the first RAAF Squadron to leave for the front and it was under the command of Squadron Leader Ian D. McLachlan.
The Squadron arrived at Tewfik in the Middle East on the 23rd of August, 1940 about two months after Italy had joined Germany in the War.
They moved first to Ismailia then later to Helwan near Cairo. By mid-September, Headquarters RAF, Middle East (to whom the Squadron was attached) decided to equip the Squadron with two flights of Gloster Gladiators and one flight of Lysanders.
Lysanders over Cairo
Before long, the Lysanders proved to be inadequate for reconnaissance missions due mainly to a lack of speed, armour and armaments. The only really safe way to operate them was found to be with fighter escorts, or in areas free of enemy aircraft. So their use was limited, although they were better than nothing during those first two months before Hurricanes were made available to the Squadron. England, of course, had been fighting for her life since the Battle of Britain began on the 2nd of July and every Hurricane manufactured by the Hawker factory in Weybridge was dedicated to protecting the English skies.
Like it or not, the Gladiators were the only work-horses available.
Their work started in earnest on the 19th of November, 1940 when the two flights of Gladiators were attacked by the Italians and officially started the Squadron's fight in the Western Desert, thus resuming combat for the first time in 22 years (the Squadron's last bullet of WW1 had been fired at an enemy aircraft by a (now long-obsolete) RE8 on the 10th of November, 1918.) This time, however, the enemy took the form of nine Italian Fiat CR42s, who attacked a flight of Gladiators carrying out a tactical reconnaissance mission.
Italian CR42 biplane. This example was captured by 3 Squadron in the first Libyan advance, with the intent of shipping it back to the
AWM in Canberra, but it was lost when Rommel counter-attacked.
At the same time, their escort flight of Gladiators was attacked by another nine CR42s. No.3 Squadron lost its first WW2 air-combat casualty (Squadron Leader Peter Heath) during the dog-fight that followed, but claimed three enemy aircraft destroyed and another three probably downed. [Although in fact the Italians suffered no aircraft losses, only some damage. The Italians also over-claimed six Gladiators shot down and two probables!]
This first encounter showed that these young 3 Squadron pilots flying Gladiators could hold their own against a more experienced enemy flying faster aircraft.
Gladiators were the last and the best of the British biplane fighters; they were descendants of Sopwith Pups, Camels and SE5As, all of which had been developed to perform so effectively during the closing years of the Great War. The little, single-seat, all-metal biplane was robust and highly manoeuvrable and therefore ideal for aerobatics - which meant, in war time, that it was good at dodging the enemy in a dog-fight.
More importantly, it didn't have any handling faults once it had been correctly rigged. It was armed with four .303 machine guns ... two in the fuselage firing between the propeller blades by means of an interrupter gear and two in blisters under the wings. Its 840-horsepower Mercury 8A engine propelled it at a maximum speed of 250 miles per hour at 15,500 feet and it could climb to this height in six minutes before reaching its ceiling at 32,800 feet. It cruised at 210 miles per hour and could land at 59 miles per hour. In all, an aeroplane that, whilst lacking some of the performance qualities of the sleek, fast enemy aircraft being introduced into the Western Desert, was still a regular little terrier which had quite a lethal bite.
During the early days of December, the Squadron carried out strafing and dive-bombing attacks in the Sofafi area and continuous offensive patrols over Sidi Barrani and Halfaya. On the 14th of December, they moved to a forward landing ground at Sidi Barrani for nine days, before moving to a location near Sollum, on the Egyptian border.
Map showing the "Western Desert" of Egypt and the Cyrenaican (Eastern) section of Libya, as far as Rommel's repeatedly-used
"backstop" position at El Agheila, a distance of 400 miles over largely arid country.
Christmas and New Year meant a heavy workload providing reconnaissance reports for the 6th Division AIF. But there was still time to seek a good Christmas dinner.
1940-12-22. NEAR SOLLUM. TROOPS OF THE 2/1 FIELD COY ENGINEERS CLOSE AROUND A FALLEN
ENEMY PLANE BROUGHT DOWN BY ONE OF OUR GLADIATORS. (NEGATIVE BY FRANK HURLEY).
Between the 3rd and the 5th of January, 1941, the battle for Bardia raged and 3 Squadron helped the 13th Corps win this first big victory of British General Archibald Wavell’s Libyan campaign, by spotting for the Artillery and efficiently conducting its Army co-operation functions. Over 40,000 prisoners, 400 guns, 130 tanks and 700 motor trucks were captured during this campaign. The now-disorganised Italian Army was on the run, chased by the Allies, including 3 Squadron, who moved to Gambut, about 32 miles from Tobruk, on the 8th of that month. From there, many artillery reconnaissances of the Tobruk defences were made, during the build-up and the actual taking of Tobruk by the Allied forces on the 21st of January, 1941.
On this same day, the first of the Squadron's Hawker Hurricanes was released from a base maintenance depot to the Squadron's new advanced landing ground at Bir Hacheim. Flying Officer Gordon Steege (later Air Commodore, DSO, DFC, MiD) was one of the first to fly the Squadron's Hurricanes.
Western Desert, North Africa. c. 1941. Local labour being used to clear desert land with
Hurricane fighter aircraft parked in the background. [AWM 010906]
The taking of Tobruk was a milestone in the Western Desert war because of its strategic shipping value, so it was a cause of celebration for both infantry and airmen alike. But this was only a temporary relief, because the pace was quickly stepped up. The Squadron leapfrogged from one location to the next, covering Tmimi to Martuba while our forward troops were fighting in the Derna-Mechili areas of Cyrenaica.
The Australian 6th Division captured Derna on the 30th of January 1941 and that same day the recently-promoted Squadron C.O. (now Wing Commander) I. D. McLachlan, received a Distinguished Flying Cross ... the first of many decorations to be won by 3 Squadron's personnel during the war years.
By early February, a few of the long-awaited Hurricanes were operating and they helped to boost the morale of the pilots who were still making do with the existing outdated aircraft they were flying. Fortunately, the Italians were now in full retreat and the Squadron, like the infantry, had pursued them until, on the 7th of February, the fight reached Benghazi and the enemy there surrendered. The Squadron again moved forward, this time to Benina about 12 miles from Benghazi.
3 Squadron Hurricane in a roofless hangar at Benina, with the wing of a wrecked Italian plane in the background. 1941-02-26.
Sergeant M. Quinton of Windsor at propeller, Corporal R. Stephen of Sydney at engine, Cpl. H. Thomas of Sydney at cockpit.
Aircraftman I W. H. Heiler Sydney at machine-gun ammunition hatch. [Negative by Frank Hurley, AWM 006487]
Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey, who had won the 1935 award for most efficient Air Cadet, was appointed the new C.O. on the 13th of February 1941. The Squadron operated from Benina for a little over six weeks and during this time met the strength of the Luftwaffe for the first time. Flying Officer J. H. Saunders was the first in the Squadron to shoot down a German aircraft, a Junkers JU88, and he did it in his new Hurricane on the 15th of February.
A pre-dawn low-level air raid on the Squadron's aerodrome earlier that week by six JU88s had lasted over an hour. To the cheers of all being attacked, one of the German aircraft was brought down by ack-ack.
BENINA, LIBYA. 1941-12-27. A GERMAN BOMBER WHICH CRASHED BESIDE A WRECKED HANGAR ON THE AERODROME.
The raid highlighted a difference that was to become more and more noticeable between the attacking styles of the Germans and that of their Italian allies, both during air raids and in aerial combat. Whereas the Germans would come in at low level, the Italians generally worked from high-level during an air raid and, in combat, they'd dive at their target and then zoom away, using the speed of the dive to regain lost altitude after each firing pass. However the Germans would come in close and, whenever possible, stay in close.
The Hurricanes were up against a variety of enemy aircraft during the "Desert Stakes" (as the Australian participants called the fight in the Egyptian Western Desert and Cyrenaica). The main Italian fighter was the Fiat CR42 - a 1939-designed update of the 1933 CR32 which had been used in the 1936 Spanish Civil War. The CR42 was the best of a family of agile fighters that could fly at almost 300 miles per hour at 30,000 feet for over 450 miles. However, the German JU88 was a better aircraft, considered by many to have been the best light bomber the Luftwaffe had; comparable with the later-developed RAF Mosquito. The JU88 was a more dangerous opponent than the CR42 because it was faster and it possessed better armaments.
The notorious JU87 Stuka dive bombers were also active in the area. This single-engined aircraft with its screaming sirens (designed to terrify anyone it was attacking on the ground) dive-bombed very precisely. The pilot had a window in the floor so he could spot his target and lines were inscribed on the canopy from which he could gauge the angle of his dive. An experienced pilot could dive his Stuka vertically, using air-brakes to slow the dive, so he could very accurately aim his 500kg bomb load. (The bomb load was restricted to this maximum because of the Stuka's poor aerodynamic shape and its 232 mph maximum air speed. It was this slow speed that helped 3 Squadron bring down eight of the 12 Stukas they surprised on the 18th of February 1941, near Agedabia.)
Another of the German aircraft operating in the Western Desert was the Messerschmitt Bf110, with its twin 1,270 horsepower Daimler Benz liquid-cooled and inverted V12 engines. As a long-range fighter, its two 20mm cannon and four 7.9mm machine guns built into the nose, together with the single 7.9mm machine gun operated by the observer, made it a formidable opponent, capable of flying at a maximum 349 miles per hour, which was almost as fast as Britain’s fastest fighter, the Spitfire.
It was certainly faster than the 310 mph that the Hurricane was propelled at by its 1,030-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin II V12-engine. (Although its hand-operated booster allowed the Hurricane to fly at maximum engine power and higher speed but only for about a minute without seizing the engine). As a fighter, the strongly constructed, metal-framed Hurricane was excellent. It could out-climb even the Spitfire, zooming 1,500 feet upwards in well under a minute. It had a service ceiling of 34,000 feet and a 460 mile range. Armament comprised eight adjustable .303 Browning machine guns, which could converge 200 bullets a second into a target. (The guns were usually set for their fire to converge at a 250-yard range.)
The very first Hurricanes were manufactured in 1935 and they were used in the Battle of Britain with great success, so thankfully they were already proven performers well before 3 Squadron began using them for attacks and patrols during that triumphant February/March 1941 period (when the Allied armies had the enemy well and truly on the run). Had the Squadron not been equipped with reliable and fast fighters during the terrible months that were to follow, the Squadron's personnel losses would undoubtedly have been enormous. As it was, the fighting was to be fierce; unparalleled to anything the Squadron had experienced up to that time.
Rommel holds a staff meeting.
[Left to right] Oberst Leutnant Fritz BAYERLEIN; Oberst Leutnant Fredrick-Wilhelm VON MELLENTHIN, Rommel’s chief intelligence officer; General ROMMEL; and General Leutnant Walter NEHRING.
[Thanks to Alby Anderson in NZ for help with this image and caption.]
By the last days of March 1941, everything started to go wrong for the Allied forces in Cyrenaica and historians attribute this to three events. The first was the decision by the Allied Chiefs of Staff to withdraw 47,000 troops from what seemed (to them) to be a now-secured area, to fight in Greece. The second was an incorrect assumption, by General Wavell’s Intelligence Staff, that the enemy weren't in a position to mount any counter-attack or offensive in Cyrenaica before the middle of April, or even May. But the third element was probably the most critical - this had occurred on February the 15th when Hitler approved Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch's choice of a General to command the German troops in Libya. Von Brauchitsch's selected man was already a hero of the German people and was unquestionably a genius in planning and effecting battle tactics.
Interestingly, this 50-year-old General, named Erwin Rommel, had been decorated several times during the First War, consistently demonstrating his brave, untiring and decisive leadership beginning as a 24-year-old Leutnant. Before the First War was over, he'd won the Pour le Merite (which is the equivalent of the British Victoria Cross) and attained the rank of Hauptmann (or Captain). He remained a professional soldier after that war and, like most professional soldiers in the armies of both sides, didn’t belong to any political party. During his entire career, he studiously avoided the Nazi element in Germany.
On the 31st of March 1941, within two weeks of arriving in Africa with his specially-trained desert armoured division known as the Afrika Korps, Rommel launched a surprise attack on the Allied positions at El Agheila, ignoring advice from the German General Staff to refrain from making any attack.
At that time, 3 Squadron were still flying patrols from Benina, but when the (now) thin line of Allied troops could no longer hold against Rommel's fresh new forces, they withdrew to Got El Sultan. It was only a few hours before they were ordered to withdraw further back to Martuba. Aerial combat was hectic during the next weeks while the Squadron was protecting the retreating Allied army from heavy German air attack. Almost every day in early April, the ground crew was moving back by road while the Squadron's pilots were busy shooting down Stukas, which were continuously striking at the British ground forces in retreat.
On a single day, they brought down ten Stukas without loss to the Squadron. Unfortunately, twelve of the ground crew (among the last to leave Martuba when the Squadron was forced further back to Gazala East) were captured by the rapidly advancing enemy and some others were wounded - one fatally - by strafing Me110s.
3 Squadron flew missions constantly to provide air cover for the hard-pressed British forces, but sometimes the Hurricanes couldn't return to the airfield they'd left because the Squadron had retreated to another location while they were flying. Some moves were carried out during dust-storms, others at night.
Each move meant tremendous effort and danger for the ground crew, often under enemy fire. Besides the personnel casualties, many transport vehicles were damaged.
Anything that couldn't be packed and moved, or was still unserviceable at the time of departure, had to be destroyed. At one stage 48,000 rounds of .303 ammunition had to be sacrificed and only the skill of pilots like Pete Turnbull (who took off in a Hurricane with a bullet-holed tyre, stuffed with blankets and grass to harden it) saved valuable aeroplanes from being destroyed and abandoned.
The Squadron's personnel were outstanding during those unfortunate days and nights, which were spent fighting off the enemy whilst being forced to stay on the run. However they still managed to keep the Hurricanes flying in spite of many close shaves; fighting themselves out of so many tight corners that the AIF nicknamed them "The Phantom Squadron".
They actually occupied seven different airfields during six days in early April, before they settled at Sidi Heneish, which was about 50 miles inside the Egyptian border and within flying distance from the first airfields they had occupied nine months earlier, when they had started their 400-odd mile advance to the Benghazi area.
During those first weeks of April 1941, Rommel's Afrika Korps had driven most of the Allied forces right out of Cyrenaica back into Egypt, with the exception of the English and Australian forces left isolated in Tobruk. The Australian 9th Division and the remnants of a British armoured division had retreated there, forming a 23,000-strong garrison - but it was completely cut off from the rest of Wavell's army.
By then, General Wavell had realised he was no longer fighting a mediocre Italian army controlled by their chicken-hearted commander, General Graziani. He was fighting a determined and fresh new force, whose commander was dedicated to conquering the Mediterranean area, so that Germany could control the Suez Canal, Gibraltar and the seaports of Northern Africa.
On the 6th of April, General Wavell stopped the 7th Australian Division from embarking for Greece, and ordered them to sail for Tobruk instead. On the following day, he ordered the British 7th Armoured Division in Egypt to re-assemble. But these urgent new measures couldn't help the British forces who had already been driven back to Derna.
Meanwhile, Tobruk was fighting off the Axis assault and needed all the air support they could get, so on the 16th, four of 3 Squadron's Hurricanes landed inside the Tobruk perimeter and remained there to assist the besieged Australian troops defending the garrison.
TOBRUK, LIBYA. 1941. A HURRICANE FIGHTER AIRCRAFT BEING TAKEN OUT OF ONE OF THE
SECRET HANGARS ON THE EDGE OF EL GUBBI AERODROME. THE HANGARS WERE
CONSTRUCTED BY ENGINEERS OF THE 9TH AUSTRALIAN DIVISION, AIF. [AWM 020689]
About that time, I Gruppe of the German Jagdgeschwader 27, consisting of 3 Staffels of ex-Battle of Britain pilots, arrived at Am el Gazala with their single-seater Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighters.
One of those pilots was Oberfahnrich Hans-Joachim Marseille, a young man destined to become one of Germany's top fighter pilots. Many 3 Squadron pilots were to fight against him and his Gruppe during the next 17 months. He was later to claim over 150 victories in total.
Bf109Es over the Desert.
The Bf109E's, arriving in steady numbers, were considered superior to the Hurricanes in speed, rate of climb and armament. Their engines had fuel injection pumps instead of carburettors and therefore didn't cut out in 'negative-g' manoeuvres during critical moments of combat. But the limited range of the 109s was a disadvantage in the desert. Their glycol radiator and oil coolers were vulnerable to attack from beneath, so these became a favourite aiming-area for 3 Squadron pilots. Nevertheless, their Daimler-Benz inverted V12 engines gave them a 360 mph speed at 20,000 feet - at least 50 mph faster than the Hurricane. This was one of many reasons that influenced the Allied Command to recall 3 Squadron to Aqir, in Palestine on the 3rd of May for re-training and re-equipping with the relatively new American-produced Curtiss P40B, called the Tomahawk.
Powered by a 1,150-horsepower Allison engine, the Tomahawk's speed and performance was closer to that of the 109. Its two 0.5 inch Browning machine guns mounted above the engine, plus four wing-mounted .30s, gave the Squadron a better chance of matching the enemy's firepower. It was a fairly manoeuverable machine which performed well at low altitudes and eventually suited the Desert aerial warfare conditions quite well, after some early teething problems were overcome.
"Tomahawk" by Harold Herbet, 1941. Depicts a Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk fighter in the foreground with two British airplanes in the middle distance
at Rosh Pinna, Palestine (now in Israel). The Syrian Campaign involved Australian troops, mostly from the 7th Division, fighting alongside
allied troops against the Vichy French in Syria and Lebanon. The artist wrote: "...No 3 Squadron RAAF - advanced aerodrome at
Rosh Pinna ...the aerodrome is surrounded by eucalyptus saplings among which the personnel of the camp live under canvas. Arid hills are the setting."
According to Jewish Kabbalah tradition, this is the location where the Messiah will appear at the end of the world. [AWM copyright ART30054]
By the 8th of June 1941, 3 Squadron were ready to fly again, boosted by a brief few days of leave in Aboukir, along with their new brand-new aircraft and a couple of pieces of good news; a DFC had been awarded to the C.O., Squadron Leader Pete Jeffrey for, "courage, determination and devotion to duty" and Germany's 45,000 ton battleship, the "Bismarck", had been sunk 12 days before. [After having previously destroyed the mighty Hood.]
Their operations re-commenced in Syria against the Vichy French Armee de l 'Air who flew older Morane fighters, some Glenn Martin bombers and the more popular Dewoitine D520 fighters, painted with the Vichy symbol which had a similarity to the British markings. The Dewoitines were small and lightly-powered and somewhat under-armed, with only a single 20mm cannon firing through the propeller hub and four light machine guns in the wings. No.3 Squadron's Tomahawks, flying from their temporary airfield at Jenin, brought down many of these nimble little French fighters during their patrols and during escort missions for Blenheim light bombers attacking enemy convoys on the Damascus-Beirut road.
3 Squadron's Jim Kinnear, after they had occupied Rayak airbase in Syria, standing with one of the French D520
fighters destroyed in 3 Squadron's earlier strafing attacks. [Jim Kinnear Collection]
After the Blenheims dropped their bombs, the Tomahawk pilots guided them out of the area before returning to strafe the road, which the French called "Nightmare Road" because of the intense, heavy low-flying strikes the Squadron made. By the 12th of July, the Vichy forces fighting in Syria had quit and their signing of a truce marked the end of the Squadron’s Syrian campaign, almost one year to the day since leaving Australia. The campaign had given the Squadron's pilots the opportunity of strengthening their teamwork while they were collectively destroying or damaging 31 enemy aircraft in that five-week period.
Experienced pilots like Jeffrey, Turnbull, Jackson, Rawlinson, Perrin, Saunders, Bothwell, Wilson and Fischer all worked together to achieve these scores but, at the same time, they were initiating into aerial combat, newly-arrived pilots like Flying Officer Bobby Gibbes, a 5 foot 4 inch, 25-year-old ex-salesman who'd joined the Squadron on the 14th of May 1941. He’d already brought down his first enemy aeroplane and was destined to become one of the most popular top-scoring Australian pilots in the two years that he served with 3 Squadron; the Squadron that he was eventually to command during two of its most active periods.
1941-06-06. LYDDA. GROUP OF AUSTRALIAN FIGHTER PILOTS OF NO 3 SQUADRON WITH ONE OF THE NEW AMERICAN FIGHTER PLANES
(TOMAHAWK) WITH WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN EQUIPPED IN READINESS FOR THE SYRIAN CAMPAIGN. THEY ARE,
(L to R), SQUADRON LEADER PETER JEFFREY DFC; FLT. LT. JOCK PERRIN DFC; FT. LT. ALAN RAWLINSON; P/O PETER TURNBULL AND P/O JACKMEN.
[AWM 008198, NEGATIVE BY DAMIEN PARER.]
On the 20th of July, the Squadron moved to Rayak and spent the next seven weeks flying defence patrols in the (now Allied-held) Beirut area. These lighter duties gave an opportunity for many of the personnel to take leave. Then, in early September, orders came through to move back to the old base at Sidi Heneish, to rejoin the desperate battle still raging in Egypt and Cyrenacia between Rommel's forces and Wavell's combined armies.
From the 13th of September until early November 1941, the Squadron used its twelve Tomahawks to patrol the Sidi Barrani - Mersa Matruh area and along the coast line as far as Tobruk. On one occasion, during a heavy dust-storm, one Tomahawk exploded when Flying Officer Stratten slammed into an unmanned aircraft that an RAF pilot had stupidly left on the edge of the strip. Stratten's life was saved by Corporal Whittington who soaked himself in fire-fighting foam and dragged the unconscious pilot from the flames. For this heroic act, Whittington was awarded the British Empire Medal.
4 March 1942. Head and shoulders portrait of Flight Sergeant Richard (Dick) Whittington, Fitter 2A, No 3 Sqdn RAAF,
by Sir William Dargie. [AWM copyright ART28399]
Replacement aircraft and newly-posted pilots were arriving, some of whom were Sergeant Pilots. In an unprecedented idea initiated by the C.O., Peter Jeffrey, the Sergeants were invited to merge their Sergeants' Mess with the Officers' Mess, so that all pilots, regardless of rank, could share a common, fraternal environment. Before long, most other Desert Air Force Squadrons followed 3 Squadron's lead, to the betterment of pilot morale generally.
Of course the pace of the fighting with constant moving from place to place meant protective cover wasn’t always readily available for simple day-to-day activities.
Many of these had to be carried out in the open, including church services which were held on a regular basis by the Desert Air Force Chaplains.
The Squadron was blessed with the spiritual guidance from three most remarkable men: Bob Davies, an Anglican who, years after the war, eventually became Bishop of Hobart; Fred McKay, Presbyterian (but later prominent in the Uniting Church), who was to become John Flynn’s successor at that marvellous Australian institution, The Australian Inland Mission’s Flying Doctor Service; and Johnny McNamara, a hard-working Catholic priest form Melbourne.
Known amusingly to all as "The Terrible Three", these unselfish men were an invaluable contribution to the smooth operation of the Squadron. Not only did they spread calmness that rubbed off on everyone, they became confidants to the men and the friendships that they made lasted lifetimes, well beyond the war years.
Worthy of note is how these three men blended together to blaze their spiritual trail through the unforgiving North African desert where men often made their temporary homes out of sand and sandbags and sometimes even out of old empty kerosene tins to shield themselves from both extreme weather conditions as well as enemy attacks.
In the early stages of the war they’d quickly made a decision together that, rather than each ministering only to those of their own religion, each would (as they criss-crossed the gigantic desert in their roles of itinerant padres) minister to anyone in need, regardless of the religion of the particular person.
They decided to split up the entire desert area into three sections and, with a driver and a truck each, deliver a common Christianity to everyone in each area without worrying about the finer points of which religion believed what doctrines. They’d interchange areas on a roster basis so that, over time, each RAAF serviceman would eventually meet a pastor from his own church. The system was an outstanding success and was responsible for both an interchange and understanding between men of all faiths.
In early November 1941, 3 Squadron and 112 Squadron, RAF, were paired up to form No.2 Wing, with Peter Jeffrey appointed as Acting Wing Commander and newly-promoted Acting Squadron Leader, Alan Rawlinson the replacement C.O. for 3 Squadron.
Peter Jeffery congratulates Al Rawlinson, handing over the Squadron.
Their first move westward was to Madelena and air combat in this new campaign commenced in mid-November, 1941. The fighting was intense and November 22nd became a "black day" in the Squadron's history, when five pilots were killed and two taken prisoner after their Tomahawks had been shot down over the Bir Gobi and Bir Hacheim regions.
There had been several combats that day against Messerschmitt Bf109Fs, which were a much faster and slicker update of the older 109Es and, in some of these dog-fights, there were up to four 109F's to a single Tomahawk, with one particular combat lasting for a record one hour and five minutes. Only dusk forced the enemy to withdraw, leaving the weary 3 Squadron pilots to limp home with landing lights on, some force-landing short of the strip and others running out of petrol while taxiing in.
However, the score wasn't all the enemy's way, as six of their 109Fs were damaged, two destroyed and two probably destroyed.
By the end of November, however, the Squadron had taken their revenge for their losses by claiming 39 enemy aircraft destroying or damaged in just a few flying days. This brought the Squadron's total of enemy aircraft destroyed to 106.
That was good reason for a celebration but, due to shortages of supplies reaching their forward position, only a few bottles of whiskey could be found!
But it was nevertheless a celebration that every other squadron in the Desert Air Force heard about, because 3 Squadron had become the first of the Desert squadrons to destroy 100 enemy aircraft and the third or fourth Empire Squadron to reach their "century" in the entire war. And, in spite of that black day two weeks earlier, they had lost only 16 Tomahawks during the preceding three months.
During the time that the Squadron had been fighting in the Syrian campaign, the Afrika Korps had maintained a continuous siege against isolated Tobruk. In the Allied "Crusader" attack to relieve Tobruk, supremacy of the air was contested between 19 Allied Squadrons, each made up of twelve aeroplanes (mainly Hurricanes or Tomahawks and a few Beaufighters) against a combined force of 19 Italian Squadriglie, each flying a mixture of nine MC 200s and MC 202s, plus a force of nine German Staffeln each operating nine Bf 109Es or Fs plus some Bf 110s and Ju88s flying as well. In all, 228 Allied aircraft were fighting 258 Axis aeroplanes on the last day of November 1941.
On that same day, a 109 flown by Oberfeldwebel Otto Schulz, attached to Staffel 2, JG27, crippled Sergeant "Tiny" Cameron's Tomahawk and this forced him to land behind enemy lines. Within minutes, Pete Jeffrey had followed him down, picked him up and had taken off for home, sitting on the lap of the 6 foot 3 inch "Tiny". This unselfish, heroic and no doubt uncomfortable act helped the Wing Commander win yet another decoration, the Distinguished Service Order.
Incidentally, Tiny Cameron was the 'parent' of a very cute little monkey which he'd named "Buzz", who had quickly become the Squadron's beloved mascot when Tiny brought him back to the Squadron after a leave in Cairo. Buzz often (but unofficially!) flew with Tiny in his aircraft on non-operational flights.
Early December 1941; 3 Squadron had the honour of being the first in the Desert Air Force to be re-equipped with the new Curtis P40E Kittyhawk IA. Although they didn't fly that much faster than the Tomahawks, the lethal density of their six wing-mounted 0.5-inch machine guns certainly beat the Tomahawks' firepower. Like the Tomahawks, their robust construction was able to withstand a terrific amount of combat punishment and this factor alone made them ideal aeroplanes for Desert warfare, particularly with experienced ground crews that could continue an already extraordinary record of maintaining and modifying the Squadron's aircraft to minimise the heavy engine and mechanical wear that the harsh desert conditions caused.
(Left) "Taking off (Antelat, Libya Jan.1942)" and (Right) "Changing Engines, 3 Squadron" paintings by Frank Norton. [AWM Copyright ART29361 and ART21006.]
Dust and sand, of course, were ever-present trouble-makers often responsible for destroying engines even after relatively short use. In the air, the Kittyhawk Mark I (P40D/P40E) could cope well with most of the enemy aircraft they met, but their heaviness stopped them from being as fast in speed or climb as the Messerschmitt 109F-2s which were then appearing in the desert skies in increasing numbers. They could at least turn inside these Messerschmitts in combat, but generally only the more experienced Allied pilots could stay on top of the deadly 109F-2s.
December 1941 was also the month that Japan blasted the U.S.A. into the war. The Japanese made a surprise attack on the 94 ships moored at the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbour at 7.55 am on Sunday the 7th of December, using 360 aircraft, with fighter cover, from six carriers. By 10am the battle was over and seven of the eight U.S. battleships had either been sunk or damaged. Over 2,000 Americans were killed and almost another 2,000 wounded.
In the Philippines, where General Douglas MacArthur commanded the U.S. forces, further attacks by the Japanese Navy and Air Force also began at sunrise (the date was the 8th of December across the International Dateline). Japanese forces made co-ordinated invasion landings in the Philippines and Malaya. By the 20th of December, the remains of MacArthur’s Philippine USAAF squadrons had withdrawn to Darwin, Australia.
Disaster followed disaster for the Allies. Whilst Britain’s capital ships, the battleship Prince of Wales, and the battle-cruiser Repulse (which had accompanied HMS Hood to Australia in 1923) were steaming to attack the invaders in Northern Malaya, they were sunk by Japanese torpedo-bombers. Nearly 1,000 lives were lost. The strength and the obvious intentions of this new enemy caused Churchill to take prompt steps to, "reinforce Malaya with aircraft from Middle East," which thus helped to weaken the air forces fighting concurrently in Libya.
By then, many of No.3 Squadron's pilots were battle-seasoned, but there were always new arrivals, like Australian Rugby Union International, Flying Officer Nicky Barr, destined to eventually destroy more enemy aircraft than any other pilot in the Squadron and to lead it through desperate circumstances. He started his unique record just a few days after joining the Squadron when he brought down a Messerschmitt 110. On the very next day he followed up with a second 110 and a Ju88.
With the third Christmas approaching since the start of the war, the outlook for the Allies didn't look good at all - in England and Europe, the Middle East and now the Far Eastern theatres of war.
But there did appear to be one bright possibility which could help the Desert War...
Lodged 550 miles deep in Soviet territory, three separate German Army Groups had been quite successfully executing Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa", since the 22nd of June, attacking Russia’s huge armies (who since 1939 had been the Germans' allies). General von Bock’s Wehrmacht divisions had slowly been approaching Moscow since mid-October (following the footsteps, and eventually the mistakes, of Napoleon in 1812) and had already conquered many of the Russian cities on a 1,500-mile front, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, as they advanced eastward, capturing, killing and wounding an estimated six million inadequately-prepared Russians (for a preliminary loss of three-quarters of a million German troops).
However, the ruthless, freezing winter, which had just started, promised relief for the Russians and, it seemed, doom for the mostly summer-clad German troops - gradually being entrapped without any regular supplies or a chance to retreat. The Russians themselves remained tough and patriotic, despite their mounting losses.
While ever that situation continued, it had the effect of diverting Germany’s supplies away from the Middle East and, consequently, was giving the Allied forces time to regroup and re-equip, particularly now that the Americans were manufacturing more and more aircraft, a lot of which were gradually finding their way to North Africa.
By Christmas Day 1941 in North Africa, the Squadron had split into two groups, with the main base stationed at Gazala and an advance party in Msus. Happily, pre-Christmas dinners were real morale-boosters, after the cooks at the main base shot a giant wild boar near an airfield at El Adem, which the Squadron had just vacated. Roasted and garnished with German canned sauerkraut and Italian green peas, they served it with captured Italian Chianti, while, in Msus, the advance party cooked up 24 plump roosters "found" in a crate that had "obviously" been dislodged from a passing truck on the Tmimi road...
So, in all, the Squadron ate well that Christmas...
...and finished 1941 united again in Msus, with Squadron Leader 'Dixie' Chapman as their new C.O.
The early weeks of January 1942 saw a grand start for the year, with 12 enemy aircraft being shot down, another seven probably destroyed and six more damaged in the first eight days. Nicky Barr's personal score continued to rise and on the 11th he shot down a G50 and two Me109F's before his Kittyhawk was hit and crash-landed behind enemy lines. Disregarding a wounded leg, he spent the next three days disguised as a desert nomad and riding a camel past German motorised units, all the while going out of his way to get vital information about enemy disposition whilst he was limping back to base. After he'd reported his observations, he was immediately awarded the D.F.C. for his incredible feat and his Intelligence contributions.
By mid-January, the weather had turned sour, making flying and even living difficult with camp and runways flooded by heavy rain and blinded by piercing sandstorms.
Rommel had commenced a strong counter-attack by January 23rd and the Squadron's advance party, which had moved to Belandah to set up a refuelling and servicing airfield, was almost caught when they awoke to find a semi-circle of Panzer tanks firing at them from only 300 yards away. Corporal Lee, the NCO in charge of the party, ran to a truck 50 yards away, hurriedly started it and raced south, collecting his men on the way, as the Panzer's 75mm guns blew up a nearby petrol tanker. Ground fog then hid the escaping truck and by jettisoning everything not screwed down, to gain speed, they survived.
Within the next month, 3 Squadron and another Kittyhawk RAAF Squadron, No.450 (these two Aussie squadrons were to share many outstanding moments, right up until the end of the war) retreated further eastwards to Gambut and continued to fly aggressive fighting patrols in conjunction with No.112 "Shark" Squadron, RAF, giving the enemy a constant hammering, but not without their own losses. Leutnant Hans-Joachim Marseille brought down two of 3 Squadron's Kittyhawks on the 15th of February, killing Sergeant Reid. (Who had, the day before, destroyed 1½ aircraft and damaged another, a fair contribution to the Squadron's day-total of 8½ destroyed and six damaged.)
Bobby Gibbes, promoted to Squadron Leader, became C.O. on the 26th of February 1942 and arranged the Squadron's first escort assignment for some recently-arrived Douglas Boston light bombers, which commenced bombing the enemy at Martuba on March the 14th.
February 1942 was also the month that, back home in Australia, Darwin suffered its first air attack when on the 19th, 242 Japanese aircraft bombed this far northern shipping port, sinking ten ships and damaging two dozen others, shooting down an American fighter squadron, smashing the town and inflicting 300 deaths.
By the time No.3 Squadron was given 14 days' stand-down, effective from the 25th of March, they'd claimed 68½ enemy aircraft destroyed, 59 damaged and been credited with 16 probables in a little over six months - their "2nd Libyan Campaign".
Many of the Squadron's personnel spent their leave on the nearby coastal beaches and they enjoyed relaxing in different ways. Swimming was a popular way to brush away the cobwebs of war and so too was fishing; with some of the swimmers using a very scientific way of catching fish, evolved no doubt in consultation with the armourers. They simply threw hand-grenades into the water and then scooped up the dead fish!
On the 7th of April, the Squadron began three weeks of intensive training to prepare for a new campaign in which they'd been ear-marked to fly their Kittyhawks as fighter-bombers. This meant learning the techniques of dive-bombing - to counter the ever-increasing numbers of enemy in the desert who were already experts at dive-bombing.
Although the Luftwaffe's total air strength had been seriously diluted by their involvement on too many operational fronts at the same time, it didn't help the Allied situation in North Africa when Marshal Herman Göring took the risk of withdrawing much-needed aeroplanes from the Russian front to double his force fighting in the Mediterranean areas. As well, an increase in enemy shipping activity, which had been suffering heavy losses from both air and sea attack, heralded Rommel’s major new attack, soon to become known as the 'Battle of Gazala'.
The massed clashes of armour of the Gazala battles and the brave resistance of the Free French on the Allied flank at Bir Hachiem were
not enough to stop Rommel, nick-named "The Desert Fox". The Allies tried to bottle-up Rommel's panzers in "The Cauldron" and
reduce them by aerial attack, but he was able to re-supply his forces and break out. His attack outflanked the expensively-constructed
Allied Gazala Line and resulted in a steady Allied retreat all the way back to El Alamein in Egypt, under the cover of an
RAF aerial umbrella. 3 Squadron was intensively involved in all of this action.
Rommel commenced it on the night of the 25th of May 1942 with intensive night bombing and strafing of the Allied forward landing grounds. His objective was to take Tobruk, consolidate at the Egyptian frontier (while Malta was invaded), then over-run Egypt, reach Cairo, and capture the Suez Canal.
Rommel likened desert warfare to sea battles, where there were no trenches, no front line; just a sea of open desert, upon which both (ever-mobile) sides sought to destroy the troops and equipment of the other. Only the capture of a worthwhile strategic target decided a winner. His land-assault started in earnest the next morning. With four Italian Divisions, plus the crack German 15th and 21st Panzers and 90th Light Divisions, he attacked the Allied line from Gazala south to Bir Hacheim and so commenced one of the most difficult engagements the Squadron ever encountered. During the next weeks, every pilot flew at least two, and sometimes up to six, sorties per day from their Gambut airfield (itself regularly bombed by the Luftwaffe). No.3's duties mainly involved bombing and strafing the advancing enemy tanks, troops and every close Luftwaffe airfield.
Nicky Barr became C.O., on the 28th of May, replacing a hospitalised Bobby Gibbes who'd broken his leg and ankle after he'd bailed out from his blazing Kittyhawk. One unique blessing that Gibby had organised before his hospitalisation was the setting-up of a camp eight miles away on the Mediterranean coast, where pilots who were not rostered for flying until the next morning, could sleep at the beach camp after a cooling swim in the Med, followed by a meat and veggie stew served by an attending cook, and, when available, a bottle of beer sent up from Alexandria. This god-sent camp rejuvenated the weary-eyed, dusty and grim airmen returning from operations; and without doubt helped pilots avoid fatigue-induced flying errors common to many of the over-stressed Desert Air Force pilots.
A portrait by William Dargie of Squadron Leader Nicky Barr in 1942,
dozing in the desert sun in his flying gear, between missions. ["Nicky" by Sir William Dargie. AWM Copyright ART27514]
On one occasion No.3 Squadron mistakenly attacked an Indian Army unit, in the dust and confusion of the desert retreat,
and Nicky then landed beside them to apologise.
By June the 17th, Rommel’s forces had knocked out 230 Allied tanks and caused the Allied forces, including the entire 239 Wing (which was then made up of No.3 and 450 RAAF Squadrons and RAF No.112, 250 and 260 Squadrons) to retreat.
The entire Wing had to leap-frog through five landing grounds eastward to Amiriya from their Gambut base, returningonce again almost to the Squadron's first landing point in North Africa eighteen months earlier.
Not all pilots could fly back; that day Sergeant John Hobson Hooke was seen to go down near El Adem and the worst was expected, but "Hookie" turned up later on foot after a long walk. Sergeant "Donc" Bray also went down on that day and belly-landed in what turned out to be a minefield. As his Kitty skidded to a halt, he heard a loud explosion and when he looked around, he found that a mine had exploded and blown the tail off the aircraft.
Retreat provided one good moment for both 3 and 450 Squadrons when, at Sidi Omar, a departing Army Supply Unit, who couldn't move out their food and beer stocks fast enough, turned a blind eye to a party of scroungers from both squadrons who just happened to be passing by with a few "suddenly-empty" trucks on their journey back east, making the Squadron's arrival at Amirya considerably happier.
The Australian 9th Division and their British comrades had successfully held Tobruk in 1941, but a hastily-organised garrison of South African Army troops were now rapidly compelled to surrender when Rommel stormed Tobruk with his superior Panzer Divisions, on the 21st of June, 1942. The news of Tobruk's fall spread despondency throughout every Allied nation. By this time, the Afrika Korps had driven the Desert Air Force further east, to airfields that were out of flying range of Tobruk, so air cover for the last desperate days of the Tobruk battle became impossible.
Once Tobruk had fallen, Rommel immediately decided to press on eastward without waiting for the planned Axis invasion of Malta. (Which, fortunately, never occurred. Had Malta fallen too, the outcome of the Mediterranean campaign would have been vastly different, because Malta later proved to be the key to Allied control of the entire Central Mediterranean zone.)
Convoy through Sollum, 1942, by NZ artist Peter McIntyre.
However, by the 26th of June 1942, the Allies had rallied and pressed Rommel back a little, enabling both 450 and 3 Squadrons to advance to Sidi Haneish and allowing the Army more time to construct their defence line at El Alamein. This was also the day that the C.O., Squadron Leader Nicky Barr, DFC, had to parachute from 4,000 feet, escaping his burning Kittyhawk but landing in enemy hands, to become a Prisoner of War. When he went down, he was flying his 84th sortie, with 119 operational hours since he had joined the Squadron as a junior Flying Officer six months earlier. During this time he'd claimed a record 12 enemy aircraft destroyed, making him 3 Squadron's top ace. In September 1943, after three unsuccessful escape attempts (including one that got him all the way to the Swiss border wire) Nicky eventually escaped from a POW train and linked up with Special Forces and Partisans in Northern Italy. He was subsequently awarded a Military Cross for his assistance to Allied escapees behind the German lines and participation in partisan attacks.
After Nicky Barr was lost, Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes, with his broken leg still encased in plaster, immediately resumed command of 3 Squadron. However, at 2100 hours that same night, the Squadron started yet another retreat from the (once again) advancing enemy forces. No.3 reached the safety of Amiyra, behind the El Alamein Line, two days later.
From there, 3 Squadron, with the other 239 Wing squadrons, concentrated on supporting the Eighth Army, including Australia's 9th Division, who had arrived from Syria. Rommel, now a Field Marshal, faced them with his aggressive tanks of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions and air protection by German Bf109s from II Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 27 and III Gruppe, Jagdgescwader 27 and Italian MC202s from 4 Stormo.
The German assault was strong and, for a while, the outcome didn't look good for the Allies. The Italians felt so confident of victory that their still-powerful dictator, Benito Mussolini, actually travelled to Derna in eager anticipation of a triumphal Italian march into Cairo after the British forces had been over-run. (Mussolini soon found out that this wasn't to be!) For the next few critical weeks, the fight to hold off the enemy advance on El Alamein became a trying touch-and-go time for all Allied forces and particularly for 3 Squadron. They flew their Kittyhawks on continuous operations escorting Boston light bombers from the South African Air Force's No.12 and 24 Squadrons and Baltimores from No.223 and 55 RAF Squadrons, to their targets (on Rommel's front-line, also his supporting airfields and supply routes). After the bombers had dropped their loads, the Kittyhawks would then dive-bomb and strafe the targets before escorting their charges home.
On the 22nd July, 1942, after drawing lots for the honour of being the pilot to drop No.3 squadron's 1,000th bomb since the German Gazala offensive started, Sergeant Keith Kildey dropped it with exact precision onto an enemy truck. By so doing, he established 3 Squadron as the Middle East Kittyhawk squadron with the highest bomb-tally during the nine-week campaign. This bomb went down at the crescendo of the "First Battle of Alamein", which effectively stopped Rommel.
During the preceding nine weeks, Tobruk had fallen and the entire Desert Air Force had been forced back almost 400 miles. The amount of sheer back-breaking work and organisation involved in retreating was enormous for, by now, there were at least 28 RAF Squadrons, seven South African Squadrons and the two RAAF Squadrons, 3 and 450, operating a very diverse range of aircraft from a variety of makeshift landing grounds. Seven of these squadrons flew Kittyhawks, eleven Hurricanes, three had newly-arrived Spitfires, one flew Beaufighters and another Tomahawks, whilst to bomb enemy positions there were five Halifax night-bomber squadrons, four Wellington bomber squadrons, plus two squadrons of Bostons and two more flying Baltimores with another couple of squadrons making do with a mixture of aircraft, including some Fleet Air Arm Albacores and Martlets.
Against the Allied "Desert Air Force", the Luftwaffe flew the equivalent of about ten fighter squadrons of Bf109F with some Bf109G, plus Bf110s and about the same number of Stuka Ju87 dive bombing squadrons, plus the equivalent of another seven or eight squadrons made up of Ju88 fighter-bombers, He111 bombers, and Ju52 transports with some transport gliders.
The Italian airforce added the equal of at least another ten squadrons of mainly Macchi MC202s, with some CR42 and Ju87 Squadriglia actively operating as well. In total, the number of squadrons on each side seemed to be quite evenly matched at this stage.
These were the opposing air forces which would be supporting their respective ground forces in a fight that would go down in history as being the great decisive battle of the African campaign, the outcome of which was to be a significant turning point of the entire war. It was to be become known as the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.
The build-up of forces at Alamein continued with Rommel lamenting his long and vulnerable supply-chain, stretching all the way through Tobruk and across the Mediterranean. Despite General Claude Auchinleck's recent success in the First Battle of Alamein [where Allied code-breaking had played a crucial but secret part], his earlier Western Desert retreat had suffered some disorganisation and his counter-attack against Rommel had run out of momentum. As a consequence, "Auch" fell from favour and was replaced as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces.
Effective from the 15th of August, 1942, the British War Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (who was far from happy with the way things were generally developing in mid-1942) appointed General Sir Harold Alexander as the new Commander of the Middle East Forces.
Earlier in August, on the 7th, the very experienced Lieutenant-General "Strafer" Gott had been appointed to command the British Eighth Army. However, in one of those twists of fate that air-power can produce, he was killed on his way to take up his new position.
A Bombay transport aircraft, in which Gott was travelling from Burg el Arab to Cairo with 17 other passengers, was forced down by two Messerschmitts from II Gruppe, JG27. Unteroffizier Schneider flew one of the Bfl09s. Although Gott at first escaped the damaged and grounded passenger plane, he chose to return to help others trapped inside. Whilst he was doing so, the aircraft blew up during a further attack by the enemy aircraft and all those still on board were killed instantly.
Gott's death provided an unexpected opportunity for Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery to become the new Eighth Army Commander. In retrospect, this proved to be a turning point for the entire war in the Middle East, due to Montgomery’s outstanding energetic leadership in the months that followed.
By the time 3 Squadron personnel resumed the fight on the 20th of August, they'd been refreshed by a welcome 3-week stand-down, which allowed many of the men to take a leave break in either Palestine or Alexandria before starting a ten-day intensive training program which included practice in formation flying and in precision bombing and firing.
The atmosphere in Cairo at around this particular time bordered on panic, because there was a clear expectation that the advancing and newly-strengthened enemy might break through the El Alamein defences and perhaps capture the city.
C.O. Bobby Gibbes' broken leg no longer prevented him from flying, so he led the Squadron back into action performing armed reconnaissance and bombing sorties within the El Alamein area. (The caricature below shows Gibbes (seated) with his outstanding flight-leaders, Keith Kildey and Danny Boardman.)
"Picking the Team" a caricature drawn in 1942 by 3SQN Replacement Pilot and peacetime cartoonist Jack Lusby, featuring 3SQN's Leaders: (from left) Kildey, Gibbes and Boardman.
Around that time, General Montgomery had made it perfectly clear to all Allied forces that there would be no more retreating. His orders were that everyone, to the last man, would hold their positions and keep on fighting until they dropped.
The enemy’s next attack on the El Alamein line began at dusk on the 30th of August 1942, employing a greater number of troops than those of the Allied forces; strong divisions of Panzers were comforted with the promise of on-going supplies of petrol and other vital equipment and stores. Guarantee to maintain these supply lines were made by General Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South and Rommel’s direct superior, and they boosted the Afrika Korps’ morale and encouraged the commencement of their offensive.
Rommel’s objective was to secure the Alam-el-Halfa Ridge before advancing north to the sea and capturing El Alamein but, within a few days, serious problems started to occur, not the least of which was Rommel’s own illness from a bad nose infection and a swelling of his liver which prevented him from even walking. His illness was to eventually cause his hospitalisation back to Germany during the critical weeks ahead.
The unsuccessful Axis thrusts at Alam Halfa Ridge (El Alamein). Rommel's plan was revealed by code-breaking,
allowing Montgomery sufficient time to position his defences.
His attacking guns and armour were no better than those used by the quite well-prepared Allied defence and, by then, the Desert Air Force clearly held "air superiority", with the arrival of new aircraft and squadrons including the 57th Fighter Group of the USAAF, who'd arrived with their own Curtiss P40s (called Warhawks by the Americans) which were basically the same as the Kittyhawk IIs being issued to 3 Squadron.
[3 Squadron was accorded the honour of being the only unit under RAF control that received a long-term supply of Rolls Royce-engined Kittyhawk IIs. Other squadrons had to put up with the less-powerful Allison-engined Kittyhawk III.]
Mitchell B25 medium bombers had also arrived with the US Air Force and this increased air-power allowed 3 Squadron to resume straight-out fighter work. Days like the 8th of September were field days for the Squadron: three enemy aircraft destroyed, two probables and five damaged ...and all for the loss of a single Kittyhawk (the pilot of which was only slightly injured).
That was the day Sergeant Garth Neill earned his Distinguished Flying Medal by shooting down firstly a Stuka, then an Mel09, probably destroying another and finally chasing a third 109 over the tents of a German camp at ground level before it crash landed near the camp.
A little light diversion helped brighten the men during early September when several parties of female nurses and V.A.D.s (Voluntary Aids) from 7th Australian General Hospital visited, followed by the girls from the South African "Ballyhoo" concert party. The girls' visits must have had some stimulating effect on the pilots at least, because the records show that, on the 13th of September, at one particular take-off, all aircraft were airborne within a record three minutes of call!
On the 14th, seven of the Squadron's sergeant pilots were commissioned to the rank of Pilot Officer but the day after was a bad day for the Desert Air Force as a whole, when eleven aircraft were lost during some intensive aerial combats. The German ace, Marseille claimed seven of these in the eleven minutes between 1751 and 1802 hours.
3 Squadron lost two Kittyhawks that day and two more were badly damaged. One of the pilots who went down was Flying Officer Jackie Donald who became a Prisoner-of-War (parachuting onto the top of an Italian mess-tent!) but the other was Sergeant Scribner who was killed in action.
For the next five weeks, the fighting continued with losses chalked up on both sides including that of Hauptmann Hans-Joachim Marseille and two fellow aces from his unit. Rommel's illness had removed him from the fighting and General Stumme had been given command by the Fuhrer.
On the 20th of October, 1942, Air Vice-Marshal Coningham, the Air Officer Commanding the Desert Air Force, notified all squadrons that General Montgomery’s ground forces would shortly be attacking the enemy. 3 Squadron's first task in the new attack was to provide close cover to Mitchell and Baltimore bombers, which would be bombing the enemy airfields at El Daba.
Click here to proceed to Part 3b: ALAMEIN TO VICTORY