420 Squadron North Africa Period
(331 Wing of 205 Group RAF)
May 25, 1943 to October 27, 1943
420 Squadron flew tropicalized Wellington Mark X's from western North Africa bases. The main changes for operation in the desert were sand filters in the carburetor intakes and larger 1,675 hp Bristol Hercules engines. These air cooled radial engines were much preferred over the liquid cooled Merlin engines, in Wellington II's and Halifaxes that were also used in this theatre, which would often overheat and were more affected by dusty conditions. The tropicalized Wellington Mark X were also slightly lighter than the Mark III with an empty weight of 26,325 lbs and when fully loaded was 31,200 lbs. Another quality of the Mark X was its improved performance over other marks to fly on one engine which aided many crews to return to base over the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean Theater:
Bombing operations in and from North Africa were very different from those conducted against "Fortress Europe". For most of the campaign the majority of the bombing missions were carried out by twin-engined bombers like the Wellington. Missions were often shorter because the targets were closer. The targets were often more precisely defined and therefore required more accurate bombing from lower levels, 10,000 feet or less. A technique of "illuminating" the target area with flares so the bomb aimers could see the aiming points was very successful. Many courageous pilots and crews would drop their bomb loads singly. Thus requiring ten or more bomb runs over a target. Often these crews would then fly low over the target so the gunners could strafe the targets. And, more regularly than in the European theater, the targets were in direct support of the ground troops. The massive area bombing armadas of many hundreds of aircraft used by Bomber Command in Europe did not occur in the North African campaign as there simply were not that many bombers in theatre at any given time. Defences such as search lights, flak and nighter fighters, were also usually fewer, compared to "hot" European targets, however the low number of bombers and their low bombing altitude meant the defences available could concentrate their efforts on individual bombers.
One of the most striking differences between the European and North African campaigns was that in North Africa, early in 1942, the squadrons were made mobile and operated from forward landing grounds rather than permanent bases as they did in England. This was necessitated by the often rapidly changing front lines resulting from the advances and retreats of the German and Allied armies in the African theatre. It made little sense for the construction of permanent bases, by either side, in the desert only to have the base regularly bombed out of existence or overrun by opposing forces. It was also of little value to have the bombers flying from permanent bases in Egypt, as they would not have enough range to deliver their bombs to strategic enemy targets. The use of forward refuelling stations eleviated some of this problem but added many logistical issues. Thus squadrons became mobile units, flying from landing grounds scraped out of the desert sand and mud. These temporary bases could be packed up and moved to another landing ground on very short notice.
By May 1943, when 420 Squadron set off for Algiers, the German army had been defeated in North Africa and the focus of strategic bombing efforts were on Sicily and Italy in preparations for the allied invasions.
In late June 1943, 420 Squadron became operational in North Africa as part of 331 Wing. The Wing consisted of 420 Squadron and two other Canadian Squadrons 424 and 425. All were flying Wellingtons. Initially 331 Wing was under direct control of the North African Strategic Air Force (NASAF). 331 Wing worked closely with 205 Group RAF during this period. By July 6 direct control of 331 Wing was shifted to 205 Group.
G/C Dunlap selected two sites for 331 Wing to operate. The Wing HQ, 420 Squadron and 425 Squadron were based on an airstrip (Kairoun:Zina) scraped out of a barren plain some 22 km sw of Kairouan. 424 Squadron was based at (Kairoun:Pavillier), a similarly rough airstrip scraped out of scrubby unused olive groves 15 kilometers away. HQ for 205 Group was at Kairoun.
Conditions were spartan for the airmen. All personnel were accommodated and messed in tents and the men had to often scrounge for all variety of life's "essentials" such as bed frames, cooking/heating stoves, latrine construction materials and the like. Meals were often supplemented by local produce, meats and even wild desert lilies. Flies, scorpions and snakes were in abundance and there was a good chance of contracting malaria, dysentry, jaundice (hepatitis?) and "gypy tummy". Temperatures ranged from below freezing to over 120 F. When it was dry, strong desert winds would blow down tents and cause zero visibility sand storms. Sand and dust would fill every crack and orifice and make breathing and eating difficult. Often rains turned the rudimentary landing strips and surrounding tent cities into a sea of sticky mud. Through all of this the bombers had to be maintained in the open. This was a ground crew's nightmare. But somehow the ground crews and aircrews were able to continue their jobs. In fact the serviceability of the aircraft was often extremely high considering there would be stretches of ops every night for more than a week straight. A testament to the quality and efforts of the ground crews.
Only a few of good references related to this period exist:
Shores, C. F. Mediterranean Air War Vol I and II. (I found these to be well illustrated books regarding the Mediterranean conflict however extremely dry.)
Chappell, F.R. 1992. Wellington Wings: An RAF Intelligence Officer in the Western Desert. Crecy Books Ltd.
Lihou, M. G. 2007. Out of the Italian Night: Wellington Bomber Operations 1944-45. Pen and Sword Aviation, Barnsley, England.
Please check the footnote below the Squadron Records to read a first hand account written by pilot Sgt George Fraser who served with the squadron from June to October 1943.
In the abridged (I have not included every day's activity or every mission the squadron was involved in.) squadron records below I have tried to summarize significant squadron events for the period. Entries summarized from the 420 Squadron Operational Record Books (ORB's) are in normal type. The actual bomb crew debriefings are indicated in brown bold italic. Information gleaned from the 331 Wing ORB's are indicated in red bold italic and those from 205 Group RAF ORB's are in black bold italic. Supplemental information from various sources and my comments are in green bold italic. Information related to the 420 Squadron planes that did not return are in italic.
I am indebted to R. O'Hara of Public Record Searches who provided me with page images of the Operational Records Books of 205 RAF Group and 331 Wing for the pertinent time periods.
May 16 to May 27: Arrived at Liverpool at 7:45. Started boarding S.S. Samaria immediately. All on board by 9:30. Quarters were assigned and equipment stowed. Sailed at 20:30 hours for the mouth of the Clyde River, Scotland. Arrived Clyde River at 12:00 hours on May 17 to join convoy. Remained at anchor until May 19 waiting for other ships of the convoy to assemble. On May 19 at 17:50 convoy began sailing to Algiers. Life on board was somewhat boring after the novelty wore off. Thankfully the seas remained relatively calm throughout the voyage. On the evening of May 25 the convoy passed through the channel with Tangier, Morocco to the right. On May 27 at 10:00 hours the ship arrived at the port of Algiers. The unloading of baggage proved unsatisfactory with many kits lost for some time.
Advance parties were detailed to proceed to Kairouran by road in preparation of the main company arriving by train.
Unit had forced march of 4 miles from Algiers port in scorching sun to transit camp at the Agricultural School. Departed Tunis at 21:00, May 27 by train to Bourfarik. Left Bourfarik for Tunis arriving at 8:00. Transport took the men the following morning to Pavillier, Kairouan area. The trip from the UK to Pavillier took 34 days.
At base tents were scattered over large area. All men allotted their quarters. Messes and latrines had to be prepared. Oil and gas stoves had to be constructed from anything that could be found in the dumps. The squadron had a number of cases of dysentery and abdominal cramps. Men are now taking daily salt rations. Aircraft dispersals were set up along with petrol and bomb dumps. "Rations are good-- but oh for a juicy steak." The Padre, F/L Ashford, has been finding grass mats and water jugs for the men. He will hold his services in the "Y" tent.
May 31 to June 3: Twenty Mark X (Tropicalized) Wellingtons left Middleton St. George on May 31, at 9:20 hours bound for Portreath. Accompanying the aircrews were some ground crew as passengers and to assist if required, including my father who flew with the Lewington crew. All were under the command of W/C McIntosh. The bombers left Portreath at 06:15, June 1, for North Africa. Over the Bay of Biscay German fighters spotted three of the Wellingtons and shot down two of them.The following is an excerpt from the book, Bloody Biscay by Chris Goss, which includes notes related to the shooting down of the two Wellingtons. The account states that three Wellingtons were seen on a routine fighter sweep. Wellington HE568 piloted by Sgt Sodero was shot down by F/O Hostmann at 08:05 and the second Wellington, HE961, flown by P/O McCullough, was shot down by Uffz-Unteroffizier Heinz Hommel fifteen minutes later. What follows is Hommel's account of the engagement with the second Wellington HE961: "On the 1st of June 1943, I was flying as Rottenflieger (wingman) to my Staffel Kapitan (squadron leader) Oblt (Flying Officer / 1st Lieutenant) Horstmann. After sighting the Wellington, my Rottenfuhrer (Tactical Leader-Horstmann) climbed over the enemy plane and attacked from the front and above. I had to break off my first attack because of the enemy plane's evasive actions and I had got into it's rear turret's field of fire and got a lot of machine gun fire. During this first action, my plane was hit by one bullet in the port wing. A short time after that, I was able to get into a favourable position and attacked head on from above, watching the cannon and machine gun hits in the enemy plane's starboard wing. From a distance of 100 meters, I saw a tongue of fire coming out from the starboard wing which became even larger. Soon the whole wing was ablaze and then broke off. The plane went into a spin and exploded on hitting the water. I saw the rear gunner bailing out but his parachute was also burning. No survivors were seen, only wreckage." (Thanks to J. Everitt for providing this information.) HE568: pilot Sgt AT Sodero, ba Sgt WR King, nav F/O GH Hubbell, gun F/Sgt JL Davis, wop Sgt RS Hollowell and passenger JF Mackenzie. HE961: pilot P/O McCullough, G.S. ba P/O Greig, P.J. nav Sgt KM Gillies, Sgt wop JR Nicol, gun Sgt GD McDougall and passengers electrician LaC AC Coates and fitter LaC JB Leitch.
The remaining eighteen Wellington's arrived at Ras el Ma airfield in Morocco at 15:00 hours. The planes left here at 13:00 hours on June 2 for Bleida where they arrived at 15:00 hours. Sgt Kennedy overshot the runway causing damage to the plane's tail. This resulted in Sgt Kennedy's plane remaining at Bleida until repairs could be completed. The remaining seventeen left for Telergma and arrived at 20:30. At 15:30 the following day the seventeen planes left for Kairouan to meet the rest of the squadron and prepare for active operations.From June 3 until June 26, 1943 the squadron established their base and began orientation and training flights to prepare for operations.
June 26: After a long lay off to get organized ops came through for five aircraft. The aircraft were bombed up and took off to attack landing ground at Sciacca, Sicily. The attack was successful with good bomb pictures taken. Bombing between 22:42 and 23:35. Visibility was good with slight haze over target. Four aircraft attacked this target. One aircraft had a hang up of 9 X 500 general purpose bombs. Flak over target fairly accurate with search lights working with night fighters. One aircraft bombed alternate target. 331 Wing was on ops for the first time in theater. 14 ac were sent to attack Sicilian airfields. 15 ac from 231 and 236 Wings were sent to attack the Naples Harbour and marshalling yards. The planes dropped 29 tons of bombs in the target area along with 180000 nickels. A warning was received from North African Strategic Air Force (NASAF) that enemy paratroopers may attack the aerodromes during the night of June 28.
June 27: Op through for thirteen aircraft to bomb marshalling yards and ferries at San Giovanni, Italy. One returned early. Take off time was ~22:28. Bombing time ~1:15 from 7500 to 10000 feet. Good visibility. Flares used to light target aided crews in identifying target. Defences consisted of inaccurate flak, search lights and barrage of light flak. A dummy fire appeared to be set 3 miles southeast of the target. Attack considered successful. One aircraft, HE370, did not return. Target was San Giovanni for 60 ac from 231, 236, 330 and 331 Wings. 50 tons of bombs were dropped as well as knickels. A signal from RAF Headquarters Middle East that 330 and 331 Wings would be under contol of 205 Group while the group was ultimately under control of NASAF. (This was approved officially on July 6, 1943.) HE370 crew was P/O Collins, F/O Wilson, P/O tucker, P/O Leroux and P/O Foster).
June 28: Squadron stand down. Aircrew went to Sousse for a swim. 76 ac from 231, 236, 330 and 331 Wings were sent to Messina to attack the ferry and marshalling yards. 50 tons of bombs were dropped. An ac each from 104 and 70 Squadrons did not return.
July 1, 1943: Squadron stand down. Aircrew went for swim at Sousse. YMCA representative K. McAdam arranged for the daily transport of 30 ground crew to Sousse leaving at 9:00 returning at 19:00.Weather was hot and clear. A mobile bath arrived to provide hot showers to the men. It is rotated through the squadrons. Thirty men from each squadron were transported to Sousse for a swim. NASAF detailed 30 aircraft for Palermo and 20 aircraft for Cagliari. Aircraft from 231, 236, 330 and 331 Wings attacked Palermo with 40 tons of bombs. All the aircraft returned safely. A signal that parachutists may attack overnight heightened security around the landing zones.
July 3: Ops through for three aircraft to drop nickels over Rome and bomb Lido Di Roma. One aircraft returned to base safely. One crashed near Bizerta with no injuries to the crew. The other landed at 236 Wing. Another six aircraft were to attack the railway yards at Trapani. One returned early due to a loose petrol flap. Others were successful, with good visibility against ineffective light flak. Nickelling planes took off ~21:28 and proceeded to drop nickels at 00:50 from 5000 feet. Each plane dropped 76 packages. Coastal defences of light and heavy flak were encountered. The bombers took off ~21:00. HE259 flown by Sgt Mason had to return early. The other crews bombed the primary target ~22:33 from 4000 to 10000 feet. The visibility was good and flares enabled the crews to visually see the target. Defences were search lights and limited amount of poorly aimed heavy flak. A very hot windy day with temperatures in the shade of a Wellington reached 128 F and in the sun 152 F. NASAF asked for 35 ac to attack Trapani and 25 to attack Cagliari. Due to poor weather forecasts the ac to attack Cagliari were reassigned to attack Trapani. 43 tons of bombs were dropped with good effect on the target.
July 4: Squadron stand down. Swimming at Sousse. "Morale is high - only it is ruddy hot." Sickness has improved with just nine reported sick. Five new crews arrived. A 420 Wellington caught fire in dispersal just before midnight and was completely destroyed. An investigation as to the cause is being carried out. This night two groups of 30 bombers were to attack Catania and Marsala. Later the target was switched for all ac to attack the Catania harbour and Villacidro aerodrome. The raid on the aerodrome was to prevent attacks on allied convoys. Bombing at Catania was through 7/10's cloud. The attack on the aerodrome at Villacidro was not very successful due to darkness and haze. Only one crew reported identified the target.
July 5: Ops through for 10 aircraft to attack the Gerbini aerodrome in Sicily. One aircraft at dispersal caught fire for unknown reason. Planes took off ~01:20 loaded with a total of 170x250 lb bombs. Crews bombed from 7000 to 10000 feet between 3:17 to 4:08. Visibility reduced by haze and cloud. Augusta was located and used for DR run. Predicted heavy flak on coast and some in the target area. Attack likely not successful due to poor visibility. Raids of 40 ac on Marsala and 20 on Cagliari by NASAF were altered to an attack of 60 aircraft on Gerbini aerodromes. The attacks were to be spread over a four hour period. Due to bad weather over the target the number of sorties was reduced to 30. Crews were not able to identify targets. 14 tons of bombs were dropped but the damage nor accuracy could not be assessed. An aircraft from 40 Squadron was lost.
July 6: Ten aircraft detailed to attack Catania aerodrome in Sicily. Little opposition. Attack successful. 424 Squadron had three kites blow up. Take off time was ~21:00. Crews bombed shortly after 23:00 hours. Bombing height from 1000 to 8000 feet. Target visually identified with the aid of flares. Target had light flak but near Catinia was heavy flak and six searchlights. IFF was successfully used on search lights. Attack should be successful. A bombed up Wellington from 424 Squadron blew up in dispersal about 20:30 hours. The explosion set off many grass fires. A nearby Wellington also caught fire and was burned out. The remaining aircraft in the vicinity were taxied out of harm's way. All men turned out to put out the grass fires. All of this resulted in one man killed, two others mortally wounded and a number of others were injured. A large force of over 60 aircraft was sent to various targets. 331 Wing provided 16 aircraft. A warning was issued to Groups to prepare for paratroop attacks. A signal was received that 330 and 331 Wings were to come under the direct control of 205 Group.
July 7: In the early morning guards protecting the petrol dumps had a spot light turned on them from a passing train and were fired upon by automatic rifles. The three casualties from the aircraft explosions at 424 Squadron were buried with Padre Ashford presiding. The bodies had to be buried in blankets as no coffins were available. 331 Wing provided 27 planes for an attack on Catinia which was considered a success by the crews.
July 8: The Gerbini aerodrome was again attacked by seven aircraft from the squadron. Haze over target. Bombers encountered accurate flak of all types. Bombers took off from base at ~23:25. Crews bombed the target at ~23:25 from 4000 to 10000 feet. Broken cloud and hase were encountered over the target. Flares were used to identify the aiming point. Flak of all types was relatively accurate in the target area. Night fighters were also noted. Crews felt it was a good bombing raid. The mobile bath unit arrived at Wing and men HQ, 420 and 425 Squadrons had their "semi-monthly" hot water bath. Royal Engineers are building a permanent shower for the camp using an old Arab well. Gerbini was attacked by 30 planes, 26 from 331 Wing. Due to conditions only 21 crews attacked the estimated position of the target.
July 9: Ops through for twelve aircraft to attack Syracuse and Catania. P/O Ardis was assigned a 4000 lb cookie and to bomb the barracks and rail station at Syracuse from low altitude. His attack was accurate. Other bombers attacked the other targets successfully. An aircraft, HE965 flown by Sgt Wingham operated Mandrel to effectively jam the RDF Station on the Sicillian coast. The bombers going to Syracuse took off ~ 00:10. They bombed the primary target at 02:25 from 4000 to 9000 feet. Visibility was good. Crews saw three unknown aircraft in the target area. Defences were nil. Most seemed to be focussed on ships that were bombarding the shore area. Crews considered it a very accurate attack. The planes attacking Catania took off ~20:30 and bombed at ~23:00. Crews bombed from 4500 to 10000 feet. Some reasonably accurate heavy flak and light flak over target. Crews saw many barges and ships along the coast. Crews considered the attack was very successful. The movie "Invisible Agent" was loaned to Wing by the Americans as they have no projector. Ken McAdam will show the movie to the Americans in return. Two "Pye" radios have arrived and are being loaned out to the squadrons. At 20:30 hours 200 DC3's in formation flew overhead marking the start of the invasion of Sicily. Wellingtons of the Wing took part in attacks on Syracuse and Augusta. They were also involved in dusk to dawn jamming flights along the coast of Sicily to prevent Axis radar from picking up the invasion force. A total of 55 aircraft were requested by NASAF to attack Syracuse and a further 38 to attack Catania military installations and marshalling yards. Another 6 aircraft from 331 Wing were to operate Mandrel off the coast. Bostons were to also do a dummy paratroop drop in the Catania area. Two aircraft were lost in the operations.
July 10: Stand down. Many men went to Sousse for a swim. Movie in Y tent. Maj. Hunter of USAAF attached 330 Wing will show two movies weekly at 331 and 330 Wings. The first movie shown was Charley's Aunt. While the film was being shown a 424 Squadron Wellington blew up on take off killing the entire crew. The allies landed on the beaches of Sicily. Montgomery commanded the landing of the British 8th Army on the southeast side of the island while the US 7th Army under the direction of G. Patton landed on the south. About six weeks later Sicily was under Allied control. A continued threat of paratroopers was signalled to all wings. A maximum effort was required by NASAF to support the invasion. The operation was code named "Snowboots". Two attacks are scheduled against Augusta of 40 bombers in two waves to distract the defences away from airborne landings. Another attack against Catania of 62 was also planned again to act as a decoy to think the invasion was occurring there. A further attack of twenty bombers was planned against the Gerbini aerodromes and satellites was to be carried out by 331 Wing. At 18:55 Group was informed that "Snowboots" was postponed for 24 hours. The Gerbini attack by 331 Wing went ahead as scheduled and was considered successful although only 15 bombers were able to take off due to the accident at 424 Squadron.
July 21: Ops through for eleven to attack the aerodrome at Capodichino. The attack was not successful due to weather conditions. Flak was active at target. Nickels dropped over Naples. One aircraft reported as missing and another diverted to another base. Take off time was ~23:22. Crews bombed through broken cloud to overcast, cloud tops to 5000 feet, at ~02:50. The target area was visible intermittently through the clouds. Most crews bombed on inaccurate flares and flak positions and using DR runs. Defences included search lights cooperating with heavy flak. Nickel packages of "Foglio Volante" #3 were dropped over Naples. The aircraft missing over Naples was found to have ditched. Orders came through for another split attack. This time the targets were Salerno railway and Capodichino aerodrome. 24 bombers from 331 Wing and 8 from 330 Wing were assigned to the Capodichino raid. On take off a 420 bomber veered off the runway putting out the flare path so six bombers behind it could not take off. 23 bombers reached the target which was covered by 50% cloud making it difficult for the crews to identify the target area. 41 tons of bombs were dropped. Most of the crews bombed on dead reckoning. Only two claimed to have visually identified the target. A 420 Squadron crew piloted by F/O East has not been heard from since take off. The crew of HE334; pilot F/O RC East, F/O JA Melrose, F/O LH Walton, P/O EB McCutcheon, Sgt RC McLellan were all killed.
July 23: Ops through to attack San Giovanni for thirteen aircraft. One, HE259 flown by Sgt Mason returned early due to his illness. Flares were used to illuminate the target area for bombing. Effort good against light and heavy flak defences. One reported missing. Take off time ~20:30. The crews started bombing the primary target at 01:30 and continued bombing for 55 minutes. The attacks were from 5000 to 12000 feet in good visibility and with the aid of flares to identify the aiming points. HE476 flown by S/Ldr McCarthy acted as illuminator. Crews reported good concentration of bomb bursts near the aiming point and one large explosion and fire visible from 40 miles away on the return flight. Light flak was moderate. Crews speculate there was a flak train on a siding in the target area. Moderate heavy flak encountered working cooperation with search lights. A naval operation bombarding the shore area at Trapani was seen plus fires in the Palermo area. The starboard engine of a 425 Wellington caught fire due to a backfire. No extinguishers were nearby so the men tried to put the flames out with tarps. They almost succeeded when the dinghy popped out and knocked the men off the wing. The fire spread and destroyed the plane. The incident is to be investigated. NASAF ordered attacks on the Salerno rail junction again and the docks at San Giovanni. The raid on Salerno was to be mostly done with incendiaries due to intelligence reports of a number of tanker rail cars in the yards. 331 and 236 Wings were assigned to Salerno. The attack was considered successful by the crews and three large fires were reported. Over 250,000 nickels were released over the target as well. HE461 flown by F/O AS Bellingham and crew of F/O RF Coulson, Sgt RN Barlow, Sgt AS Hopping, Sgt S Harrison were all killed.
July 24: Ops through but later cancelled. An ENSA show was planned for tonight but rains, high winds and a thunderstorm cancelled the show. "Very disappointed! Five lovely ladies, too!--and white!" Ops were cancelled because the aerodrome was u/s. The winds blew down the HQ Mess tent and other tents. A malaria case has been confirmed in 420 squadron. 205 was ordered to attack the marshalling yards at Naples. Heavy thunderstorms hit the area at 16:30 essentially making all the airstrips for the Group u/s.
July 28: Sheihk Amor Bouguerra Sheich du Sidi Amar Ben Haddjela Caidat Kairoaun and his nephew visited G/C Dunlap. The sheikh presented 9 live chickens, a sheep and seven dozen eggs to the G/C. A 424 Wellington crashed right after takeoff. The bombs exploded killing all the crew. NASAF ordered an attack on Capodichino and Monte Corvino aerodromes and a nickelling run over Naples. 18 bombers from 331 Wing were joined by 12 from 236 wing to attack Capocichino. Weather was forecast to be poor over the targets and a final decision to attack was not given until 22:45. Four planes were unable to take off from 424 Squadron after a bomber flown by P/O Heden blew up as it was taking off killing all the crew all blocking the runway. Weather conditions over the target were cloudy. Most crews dropped their bombs by dead reckoning using Vesuvious as the starting point. 31 tons of bombs were dropped by the 21 planes with likely not much success.
August 10: Ten aircraft were detailed for the attack. One returned early with engine trouble and crashed because the landing gear would not lock. The aircraft caught fire and was destroyed. The rest were successful with many fires seen. Bob Hope and his show performed at 15:00 at 236 Wing for the squadrons. It was a great success. The bombers were loaded with 6x500 plus 6X250. Take off time was about midnight. Crews bombed ~02:25 from 4000 to 7000 feet. Some crews dropped bombs in sticks of four requiring three bomb runs. Bomb bursts, explosions and fires were observed in the targeted area. Defences were minimal although a few night fighters were seen. Air Defences in Kairouan plotted unknown, possilby hostile, aircraft at 20000 feet twice this morning. A signal went out to ensure black out conditions were strictly enforced at all squadrons. The attacks on the beaches continued although obvious targets could not be found. 331 Wing contributed 30 of the 90 bombers requested for the targets. 85 bombers dropped 174 tons of bombs on landing craft on the beaches and vehicles along the coastal roads. The attacks were considered successful. Many fires were reported by the crews. All crews returned safely but one plane from 331 Wing crashed on landing and was destroyed. All the crew escaped unharmed.
August 12: Twelve aircraft were detailed to the area. One did not take off. Intense flak with search lights near Capa Peloro. Bombing was considered successful. Two crews missing. Bomb loads were 6x250 plus 6x500 or 6x(8x40). Take off time was around midnight. Crews attacked the target ~03:20 from 4800 to 6000 feet. Visibility was good and the target was identified visually. Some fires and bomb bursts amongst buildings were observed. Minimal flak and search light activity. A plane was seen going down in flames at 02:53 in the target area. Two crews were reported missing: An RAF regiment has been stationed here to act as guards. Two aircraft from 420 Squadron are missing. The mission was a repetition of the last few night's targets. 331 Wing was asked for 30 aircraft again. This night 86 crews attacked the beaches with 180 tons of bombs. Crews again saw bomb bursts on coastal roads and among barges just off shore. One crew reported seeing a direct hit on a bridge at S. Agata. Four bombers are missing including two from 420 squadron F/L Gourlie and F/Sgt Ludgater. NASAF complained to Group that the exclusion zone for aircraft was being violated and the gun defences were firing on the Wellingtons and Beaufighters were intercepting some bombers. NASAF signalled that after today's missions the number of sorties required would be reduced to 70 per night to reduce the strain on the aircrews and ground crews. HE520 flown by F/L RN Gourlie and HF459 failed to return. The crew of HF459; pilot Sgt AC Ludgater, nav Sgt J McAdam, ba F/O CA Tindall, wop/ag P/O Hotson, ag Sgt H Lilley were all killed.
August 13: Stand down after eleven consecutive days of ops. Ground crews efforts were greatly appreciated for keeping the service level of the squadron up. F/L Gourlie (aka "Do-Do") reported as missing yesterday arrived back at the squadron. One of the bomber's engines caught fire after take off and crash landed 40 miles away. Only the ba F/O Nodder was injured. The last month saw many good movies shown on base. Crew rest camps are working well. Black out conditions imposed due to enemy aircraft in the area. Weather is hot and dusty. Squadron in good health with sickness less the 1%. Three replacement crews from the UK reported to the Wing. Two were assigned to 420 Squadron and the other to 424 Squadron. NASAF signalled Group that the efforts against the beaches of Messina and area were successful and greatly appreciated by the ground forces. Beaches in the areas of San Giovanni, Palmi and Pizzo were the target for tonight. 331 Wing was to send 25 bombers to operate against the San Giovanni and Palmi beaches. The target was well lit in the moonlight and five, 2000 lb cookies, were dropped with good effect on the targets. NASAF requested an fly exclusion zone around Catania, Augusta and Syracuse.
August 14: On this night ops came through for fourteen aircraft were detailed to areas around Pizzo and Lamezia. One did not take off. Eleven bombers successfully attacked villages, railways, beaches and small boats in good visibility. Crews observed many fires. Two aircraft were not heard from again. Bomb loads for the attack were 6x250 plus 6x500 or 6SBC (8x40). One aircraft detailed to Larmezia carried a 4000 lb cookie. Take off times varied from 19:03 to 20:14. Attacks appeared to be successful with fires and explosions observed. Opposition was minimal. One crew over Pizzo reported what appeared to be plane crash. One crew was reported missing but were reported safe in Sicily after crashing their plane. 70 bombers were required to attack the beaches from Messina to Acqualadrone. These orders were cancelled and the beaches from San Giovanni to Palmi and the area of Pizzo were targeted instead. 25 crews from 331 Wing were detailed to attack the Pizzo target. Nineteen bombers succeeded in attacking the area with 32 tons of bombs. Fires were started in the towns and on the beaches. A barge was sunk with a direct hit. Two crews from 420 Squadron were reported missing. A signal was sent from Group asking night fighters to avoid target areas.HE524 with crew of; Pilot P/O AB Long, nav F/O E/I Fairweather, ba F/O A Brown, wop F/O CW Dickinson, ag Sgt WH Garbutt; and LN431 with Pilot Sgt JM Parr, nav Sgt DJ Nettle, ba Sgt WCH Dadge, wop Sgt ESR Norgrove, ag Sgt DD Boyd did not return. All were killed.
August 17: Ops through for eleven aircraft to bomb the beaches of Briatico/Capo Suvero/Pizzo area. HF458 returned early with a malfunctioning intercom. Nine bombed the primary target and returned safely to base. Crews observed no enemy activity or barge concentrations on or near the beaches. Bombs appeared to hit fuel storage as large fires were started. One aircraft reported as missing. Bomb loads for this attack were 6x250 plus 6x500 or 6SBC (8x40) and two carried 4000 lb cookies. Take off time was~20:06. The crews started bombing ~22:35 and bombed for almost 50 minutes. Bombing altitudes ranged from 4500 to 6500 feeet. Visibility over the target was good with some haze. Many crews saw bomb bursts and fires. No defences were noted. This was the last crew lost by the squadron in North Africa. Only 50 aircraft were requested this night to cover the area between Cape Suvero and Briatico. The crews were to attack throughout the night looking for barge and railway targets. 331 Wing contributed 30 bombers to this mission. 88 tons of bombs were dropped on small craft, rail lines and towns in the target area by 47 bombers throughout the night. A single crew from 420 Squadron was reported missing. The invasion of Sicily ended as ground troops entered and subdued the last resistance in Messina. The liberation of Sicily took 30 days. DF686 flown by P/O AW Freeman with crew members, ba P/O HJ Dowds, Nav P/O EH Douglas, wop Sgt WF Hill, and ag Sgt TH Lasenby were all killed.
Roman ruins at El Djem:
September 9: Stand down. Men were confined to camp for medical check ups. Squadron informed it would be off operations on September 18 and to be prepared for a move to an unknown destination shortly thereafter. Even though Italy had surrendered hostile the German forces were still present in the country. NASAF continued the bombing of rail lines by sending 50 bomers to Grosseto's marshalling yards. Nickel drops were also ordered over Rome, Viterbo, Orvieto, Bologna, Modena, Parma, Leghorn, Spezia, Geno and Turi. 51 bombers dropped 87 tons of bombs on the Groseeto yards causing several fires. The success of the raid was confirmed by examination of bomber crew photographs. On crew had to ditch in the sea but were rescued the following day.
September 28: Ops cancelled due to heavy rains. Preparations for move. Rains, for the first time since July 24, have made the camp a sea of mud and airstrips u/s. Formia was targeted but bad weather and rainstorms at the bases cancelled the ops again.
September 30: Move continued all day and by 19:00 tents were up and cook stoves were being put up. Move to Hani East completed. As the camp was abandoned hordes of Arabs swarmed over the site at Kairouan Zina taking rags and sacking and going through the garbage left behind. 331 Wing was stood down so they could move to their new base. Formia roads were again the target for tonight. 51 bombers were requested. Due to terrible weather on route to the target 12 crews abandoned the mission. Five more were early returns. One crew had engine failure on the way to the target. All baled out except for the pilot who was killed when he baled out too low. 37 crews managed to make it to the target to find it clear and dropped 62 tons of bombs on the target. Bombing was somewhat scattered but still effective when photographs were studied.
October 5: Eight aircraft were on ops for an attack on planes dispersed at the Grossetto airfield. One returned early due to engine trouble. The rest of the planes successfully attacked the primary target. Many bombs were seen to kit the enemy aircraft as well as an oil dump and some buildings. No opposition. Bomb loads were made up of 14x250 plus 2SBC(8x40). Take off time ~16:20. HE640, flown by F/O McCoy was the illuminator for this raid. Crews dropped their bombs ~20:04 from 5700 to 6100 feet. Crews saw many fires started from the bombing. Some light flak was encountered over the target area. Intel reported about 40 aircraft dispersed at Grosseto air field. NASAF requested 50 bombers to attack the airfield. 51 bombers attacked the target with 82 tons of bombs. Good weather and illumination resulted in many fires being started. These fires were believed to be burning aircraft. ME323's and Ju52's were some of the aircraft seen by the crews on the airfield. Buildings and hangars also received direct hits. The runways were cratered. The attack was considered successful.
This was the last date 331 Canadian Wing was on operations with 205 Group. While flying with 205 Group the three squadrons (420, 424, 425) flew 2127 sorties and dropped just over 3745 tons of bombs. Their planes also dropped about 10,000,000 leaflet nickels.
October 8: Off operations. Squadron is being shipped back to England. The return trip will be from Hani East to Tunis then Algiers will begin at 6:15 on October 17. Rumours finally confirmed that the Squadrons making up the Wing are to return to the UK.
October 9: Rolls were completed and sent to 205 Group HQ. Personal attached to squadron from other units left. All aircraft and supplies are to be sent to other squadrons. Barrack equipment to be left behind. Tents etc are to be returned to stores.
October 12: The move involves the entire 331 Wing in two parts. 331 HQ, 420 Squadron and 296 Squadron are to be transported to Tunis in trucks. At Tunis it will board a special train to Algiers. The following day 424 Squadron and 425 Squadron will be moved. Motor Transport section has been busy transporting moving items of the squadron that are to be left behind.
October 13: Many of the men have come down with jaundice and the hospital tent is full. The squadron has been split into seven flights for the move.
October 15: Squadron is restricted to camp. Sten guns and rifles were taken from the men and sent to 205 Group.
October 16: Transport column of 50 vehicles arrived today. Men were assigned to a truck and articles not required for daily used loaded. Communal tents were dismantled.
October 17: At 3:00 the camp was called and breakfast served. Tents were dismantled and garbage burned. At 5:00 the men marched to their assigned vehicles and at 5:55 the column left Hani East. Column reached Le Bardo Kassel Said at 13:00. The train arrived at 22:00 and left at 23:00. The train consisted of 33 wagon and three coaches. Each wagon accommodated 25 men and kit.
October 18 to 21, 1943: The train engine broke down 25 miles from Tunis. The train was 6 hours late by the time it arrived. The train stopped periodically for rations to be distributed. One wagon was used as a medical center and it was almost always full due to jaundice, which had infected 25% of the men. The train finally arrived at Maison Carree where the men were loaded on to transport trucks to be driven to No 1 BPD at Fort De L'Eau some four miles away where a good meal was provided.
October 22 to 26: At Fort De L'Eau the squadron rested waiting to board the ship. Some men went to visit Algiers. Embarkation was set for October 26. The loading of the airmen on to SS Samaria was handled very smoothly and only to three hours.
October 27: The food on board was greatly appreciated. Comments of "Hot rolls and real butter!" "All you can eat!" and "No flies and sand!" were heard. Troops from many regiments and services continued to be loaded on to the ship all day.
October 28 to 31: Men are getting used to routine of the ship and the various emergency drills practiced.
November 1 to 5, 1943: In the Atlantic somewhere aboard SS Samaria returning to England. Destroyers began dropping depth charges at a possible target. So far the voyage has been uneventful. The ship is crowded but the men are relatively comfortable. The squadron is supplying watch details. Entered Mersey River on November 5.
November 6 and 7: SS Samaria docked at Liverpool at 9:30. We were met by the RCAF band and Air Vice-Marshall Brookes in the company of others came on board to bring greetings to Group Captain Dunlap and the Wing. We started unloading about 12:15. Within 45 minutes the squadron was aboard a train at Riverside Station. The train left for Topcliffe at 13:15, arriving at 18:00. Met by W/C's Sparling and Holmes, officers in command of Dalton. The squadron was transported to Dalton airbase by bus where it was fed and sleeping quarters provided. W/C Holmes complimented the men behaviour. Extra kit and equipment arrived and was distributed. Discipline among the airmen was very good considering they had essentially been without beer during their time in N. Africa.
The following account was written by George R. Fraser (Hamiota, MB) who along with his crew; nav Art Oliver (Vancouver, BC), wop Norman Hart (St. Catharines, ON), ba Ross Saunders (Weyburn, SK), rgun Howard Davison (Phillipsville, ON); served with 420 Squadron in North Africa from June to Oct 1943. Thanks to N. Fraser for supplying this account.
We were at Ras El Ma for twelve days having to recover from “Jippy Tummy” - acute diarrhea caused by us not knowing enough to cover ourselves at night to offset the dramatic drop in temperature. Our new Wellington also had to have a minor oil leak fixed in the constant speed unit on the port side. At Ras El Ma we were shown an oasis – a rock outcrop out of which poured crystal clear water into a shallow lake of about one-half acre in size. A few palm trees on one edge. We swam and enjoyed the refreshing coolness – thanks to the Senegalese guards who had shown us this delightful spot.
On July 9 we were advised that headquarters still had no precise idea where the Canadian Squadrons had set up and we were urged just to fly east till we found an airfield that had Wellingtons parked. We found after nearly seven hours, a field with several Wellingtons and to our chagrin it turned out to be an English Squadron with old Wimpys. The Officer in charge informed us that the R.A.F. had an agreement with the R.C.A.F. that every third aircraft sent down to Africa would be surrendered to them.
We had become quite fond of our Wimpy but being only Sergeants we had to stand and watch as our personal property was unloaded. The Officer very kindly offered to take us over to where the three Canadian Squadrons had set up shop. We also discovered that we had arrived in Tunisia, a few miles north of the city of Kairouan - a dusty truck ride.
By this time of course, the enemy had been kicked out of Africa but were still in Sicily and Italy. We had noticed that late afternoon on our truck ride that the air was alive with fighter planes, bombers and transport planes towing gliders. This was the force on its way to Sicily, to start the long and costly war which would cost so many Canadian and American lives
We reported to the Commanding Officer next morning in his tent. Wing Commander Danny McIntosh of Regina gave us a warm welcome and concurred that the arrangement with the R.A.F. was valid if a somewhat sore point.
The decision that required us to carry lead ammunition issued with our Smith & Wesson side arms was roundly condemned by him as even we knew this was against all rules of international warfare. This information was relayed to the Group Captain in charge of the three R.C.A.F. units but we never were advised if there were any repercussions.
Two nights later, I was given a third “Dickie” trip with the C.O. over Enna, on the slopes of Mount Etna.
From that point on our crew were on our own. After twenty-seven more raids over Sicily and Italy and till the squadron ceased operation in Africa we had not lost one aircraft. During that period I had finished my tour of ‘Ops,’ amassed a number of hours on raids and in test flights following repairs to aircraft. My tour involved 35 trips over enemy territory and 217 hours in the two squadrons.
A word or two about Kairouan and Africa. We saw very little of it. Our camp was in central Tunisia and the northern edge of the Sahara was a scant few minutes south of us.
Our crew had no tent of our own for over a week so we used the Sergeant’s Mess floor for a bed. Conditions were very primitive but I can remember little grumbling or whining.
When the squadron first set up someone asked about food and then it was discovered that no cooks had been assigned to go along. Two young English lads who had been taken down as laborers in the armament section were told to be cooks and they did their best with virtually no training but only with their imagination and resourcefulness did a good job. These cooks found many ways to offer hot dogs (50% sawdust, I’m sure) bully beef from Australia, and not much else for variety. I can remember watching these cooks open an airtight five gallon can of hard tack distinctly labelled “packed in 1916.” These biscuits were unchewable and good only for dunking. The cook’s stove was a sheet metal slab propped up on four corners with clay bricks, a Spitfire wing tank for oil, and a copper pipe to drip oil from the tank to the sand under the metal slab. When lit, one could see the black pyre for a mile whenever it was mealtime. It seemed we even smelled fuel oil with every bit of food.
The camp at Kairouan where we landed had provided a quart of water per day per man. We were given six bottles of beer for our five man crew and one quart of Red Label Scotch per crew per week. The beer had to be cooled in stone bottles and was half evaporated in a few hours. The Scotch was too rough by itself and when the chlorinated water was added, we got half an inch of precipitate in the glass. The Americans a few miles away discovered our liquor ration and we traded a bottle of Scotch for a gallon of fruit juice and we considered we got the better of the deal because for months we never saw fruit, fresh or canned.
In four months our crew, like everyone else had the pleasure twice of a swim in the Mediterranean at Sousse and twice toward the end of our stay we had a one minute shower from a water truck which seemed to be an afterthought from someone or other concerned about our body odours. I don’t think we ever got really clean during our sojourn in Tunisia. Our Sousse trips to the coast got us clean but we had to endure about forty or so miles return over dusty roads so very little was gained.
Oddly we had virtually no illness in the squadron except for jaundice to which everyone fell prey. This was a debilitating problem and forced us quickly to a condition of fatigue and listlessness. Before we reached England we all carried a sickly tan - yellow color.
Most of our Ops over Sicily and Italy were uneventful and free of much opposition, Naples was a very hot spot and we raided the airport, the oil refinery and railyards four times. This target was easy to locate as we could see Vesuvius and its smoke miles ahead of us.
Taranto navy base, tucked into the heel of Italy, was a very successful raid judging by the fires we left behind.
On Sept 8th, 1943 my crew and I were sent on a lone mission to Bastia, Corsica. We needed overload fuel tanks because it was a long trip almost to the coast of France. We carried no bombs, only propaganda sheets (“nickels”) in the loosely tied bundles in the aircraft body, not in the bomb bay. The 250,000 sheets were thrown out the hatch as we circled upwind of the city. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes over Bastia but were puzzled by all the flak, which was firing away from us as we circled. After completing the task assigned, we took a picture of the city and the port and an hour later flying home, we heard on the radio that Italy had surrendered. No wonder the flak was aimed away from us. Obviously, the flak guns were now in friendly Italian hands and we hastily convinced ourselves that our raid had single handedly knocked Italy out of the war!
Our pictures over Bastia that night revealed a German troop vessel and that prompted an immediate search by the British but the ship was not apprehended.
On Sept 17/1943, we were designated as the crew who would be “Lady Of The Lamp” to light up the Cervetari airport. Our job was to precede the others, locate the target and drop the first flares. Having no bombs of any weight, flares only, we were able to circle the target more easily and at a carefully timed interval to allow bombing more accurately. We had no sophisticated electronic equipment as did the Pathfinders in England and had to rely on other means. We considered it an honour to be so selected and we were determined to let no one down. On arrival at the southwest coastal area of Italy, we could see that there were three similar bays and at one of them a furious fire was blazing. As it was a fair moon, we could faintly see the area and the navigator, bomb aimer and I were certain that we had picked the right target, not the one ablaze. However, it was by now only one minute till target time and it was imperative to release the first flare. Immediately the flare was lit, we could see a long line of aircraft, hangars and buildings, all fully exposed. The first bombs hit the target area immediately and the damage we caused at that airport was extreme. For some reason there was no response of any kind as we kept replenishing the flares as they were fading out. Our last view as we left for home was a huge explosion from the pyrotechnics store. Every colour of the rainbow was there. It was reminiscent of a July 1 holiday! We were highly commended the next day by our Commanding Officer who advised us that the British had bombed the wrong area and had been severely censured. Italy of course, as mentioned earlier was out of the war by that time and not about to retaliate.
On another difficult night over Naples with windy conditions – two unsuccessful runs over the target and an order from the tail gunner to the bomb aimer: “Drop those bombs this time Sandy, or you’re going with them next time around!”
On one occasion we had a very “ropy” Wellington which only managed to climb to 5000 feet and while over the target an explosion blew it upright in a nose up position. Both engines quit. Remarkably the wimpy came nose down and both engines started to run out of control. We lost a thousand feet before we gor out of the mess. While going the rounds on the crew to see if anyone was hurt, I asked Davie in the rear turret if he was oaky and the answer came back – “Skipper, if blood is yellow, I’m bleeding to death.”
In October 420 squadron closed operations in Africa. Within days we were taken to Tunis where we boarded a train to Algiers. Three beautiful days were spent outside on top of the coal cars in the sun. There were green hills, cooler air and farms, none of which we had seen for four months. We were served sandwiches and tea for our meals for the entire journey. There were numerous delays as a rail crew had to explore ahead to ensure the rails were intact as the natives were not very accommodating.
We started from Tunis with an old and leaky locomotive and then after a day, attached to an American locomotive run by the American army. Someone discovered an easy way to make tea - throw a pound or two into a large aluminum “dixie” and open a steam valve hooked into the locomotive boiler. Shortly, to our discomfort we realized that boiler compound may have been a necessity in the steam engine but it served our flues equally well and at increasingly frequent intervals!
We had a day in Algiers where we could buy oranges, watermelons, grapes etc. which had been totally missing from our diet.
From the ship to Liverpool - normally two or three days but we were on this ship for ten days. It seems we had to sail west even beyond the Azores to escape threats from the enemy still holding fast to France. I was then “screened” my immediate future apparently was to be an instructor at an Operational Training Unit at Wellesbourne, four miles east of Stratford - on - Avon.