A DETACHMENT TO MALTA 1941/2

Ben Knights DFM
104 & 162 Sqns

In June 1941 I was posted from 19 OTU, Kinloss to No. 104 Squadron, Driffield, a 4 Group unit flying Wellington IIs.

I flew ten operations from this base of which the more notable was first, the daylight raid on Brest against the German battle cruiser Gneisenau. On the return leg over the channel our flight of three was attacked by an ME 109 which very severely damaged the leading plane piloted by S/Ldr Harry Budden DFC, who was awarded an immediate DSO.

Second, a long eight and a half hour op to Stettin when our tough Welsh rear gunner Sgt Johns downed a confirmed ME 110 on the return trip.

And third, my first op to Berlin, a long arduous flight on which S/Ldr Budden went missing but, fortunately, survived as a PoW.

Virtually, out of the blue, a directive came to prepare 16 aircraft to fly non-stop to Malta for a six week detachment in support of 8th Army operations in Egypt. Minimal kit was to be taken, plus key ground staff, and essential spares. The direct route to Luqa had not been flown by any previous squadron and 140 gallons of petrol had to be carried in overload tanks.

The expedition was led by W/Cdr ‘Teddy’ Bears DFC, supported by S/Ldr HM ‘Dinghy’ Young, later to achieve lasting distinction on the Dambuster Raid.

The flight south took us across brightly lit unoccupied France to our turning point Seté. Apart from the spares, we transported four skilled fitters and riggers who had to be called upon to ply their skills when a fierce hydraulic leak leapt up in the cabin. Valiant efforts, in the dark, by our ‘guests’ could not stop the high pressure jet and most of the header tank’s contents ended on the pilots, the windows and the floor.

Having been forewarned of the short and dangerous runway at Luqa, we knew a landing problem was in prospect. In the event, after alerting control, vigorous efforts hand-pumped the wheels down and although flap was minimal, we got in safely. Because of the danger from intruder aircraft, we were whipped away to a remote parking spot way up the Safi Strip.

At the time of our arrival the bombing of the island was mostly high level stuff in the hands of the Italians and good fighter defence by Hurricanes was provided by the boys from Takali and Hal Far.

Apart from major naval units based at Alexandria, the magnificent Grand Harbour of Valletta supported famous cruisers and renowned submarines who were taking a heavy toll of Axis shipping. Reliable information about shipping movements and troop concentrations was brought in by Luqa based Marylands, and aggressive follow-up strikes by the Blenheim squadrons added to the carnage.

Another vital source of superb photographic gen was W/Cdr Tony [Adrian] Warburton. This unique character flew a stripped down Beaufighter to obtain remarkable low level shots of potential targets all over the Med area. The percentage loss of Axis personnel, tanks, guns, fuel and ammunition, together with the ships themselves, was such that German offensive plans at that time were stymied.

The Wellington contribution to the overall British effort was the destruction of facilities at the main ports of embarkation in Italy-Naples and Brindisi, and unloading in Africa-Tripoli and Benghasi.

In Mid October, together with 40 Squadron, the ‘programme’ was opened with two maximum efforts on Naples when the 4,000 lb Cookie was introduced. Opposition was comparatively light and massive confirmed damage was done to the dock area, to unshipped stores of all kinds, the arsenal, and the very important torpedo factory. Attention then switched to Tripoli with its fine harbour, railway station, warehouses, and military dumps.

Nearby was Castel Benito aerodrome (now Tripoli civil airport) the latter was a welcome target for all concerned as we had suffered from the bombers based there. After the initial well planned attack from 6,000 ft we were able to indulge our own feelings at low level and rake the whole place with fore, rear, and side machine gunfire.

A later trip to Naples gave us a nasty scare as, on a clear moonlit night, several night fighters appeared over the city. Coming off the target area at around 10,000 ft we were approached at a distance by an S/E fighter. My rear gunner at that time was F/Sgt René Dixon a veteran from early days in France, on Battles. He gave me excellent, well timed directions as we aimed out to sea in a series of descending turns towards cloud cover.

Sporadic machine gun fire echoed down the fuselage but ‘Chiefy’ sounded well in control and, following a long burst and whoop of triumph, he roared that if I turned sharply to port I would see the fighter falling away vertically. It certainly went straight down into the lower cloud but was not on fire. We reported the incident as a ‘possible’ but no kill was recorded although the Italian radio reported an enemy loss but we had suffered no casualties.

Our other activity was ‘nuisance raids’ which involved a series of aircraft flying over Naples, Tripoli, Brindisi or Benghasi for a two hour solo stretch dropping single bombs at irregular intervals. The aim was to cause continual alarms and thereby interrupt activities especially in the dock areas. It was all pretty straightforward but a bit nerve wracking when the defences decided to put up a colourful defence.

It has to be borne in mind that all our operations were carried out at modest levels as oxygen was in very short supply and, in fact, the oxygen bottles were removed. It was only right that priority should be given to the fighters, submarines and hospitals.

A long mission was arranged at short notice when a coast hugging transport was reported at Patras on the Greek coast. It proved a difficult target to get at as this important port was protected by formidably high mountains. Like most of our ops, Patras meant a long haul over water with the possibility of heavy thunderstorms and rain on the approach to Malta when petrol might become a factor. The navigators and wireless operators needed to be on the ball as one could not afford to fiddle about looking for a small island. The Army was very helpful on dodgy nights and every effort was made to get the aircraft over their base.

A unique experience on 18th December at a critical stage in the land battle came when a mine-laying operation was laid on for the inner harbour at Tripoli.

My own crew’s function was to act as part of the overhead diversionary force to create havoc by bombing the immediate area just before the minelayers made their runs. In fact, the 8th Army advance had started on that day and led up to the relief of Tobruk after a siege of 242 days. Our satisfaction at a successful operation was short lived as on the return flight we received a message that Luqa had been bombed and that we were to circle the small island of Gozo.

To make matters uncomfortable the weather had turned stormy which can be quite nasty at that time of year. It transpired that earlier on, as a result of intruder activity, one of 40 Squadron’s aircraft had blown up with a full bomb load killing the captain and blowing the legs off the rear gunner. Everybody from the bigwigs downward, in piercing rain, rallied round to fill in the bomb holes and lay out a temporary half-width runway on grass – indicated by a single line of Glim lamps.

The first of the airborne crews to attempt a landing approached on the wrong side of the line of the lamps, swiped his under carriage in a bomb hole and wrote off a tractor. After more clearance work the few of us remaining landed safely amid a shower of mud and rainwater. Our vexation was compounded by the bus sent out to collect us lost its way back, then got bogged down, and left us to find our own way back to ‘Intelligence’.

Although the Afrika Korps had now retreated as far as El Agheila, the continuous pressure was showing both on Malta’s powers of defence but its ability to maintain the sea and air attacks of the previous weeks. The German High Command had belatedly responded to Rommel’s appeals for more support and with the onset of the Russian winter was able to free large numbers of Ju88s and ME109s to augment Kesselring’s command in Sicily. Submarines were also introduced into the Med which, added to the Navy’s loss of many of its most powerful units, loosened our previous ability to interrupt the flow of supplies from Italy.

Gales flooded the fighter ’dromes at Takali and Hal Far, frustrated the essential contributions of the Marylands and Blenheims, as well as blunting the Wellington programme.

In the air over and above Malta, both by day and night, the now numerous Ju88s, backed up by 109Fs, were a daunting proposition especially when the AA ammunition was in short supply.

Inevitably, although 104 Squadron continued with raids against the ports, the relentless Ju88 low level sweeps, often several times a day, were destroying planes on the ground at an alarming rate.

The enemy strikes were compounded by a massive explosion in the Safi Strip area where a badly sited bomb dump blew up, the overall effect being to reduce 104's effective strength to six.

At this stage, a meeting was called to announce the cessation of our operations on the island. Rather than return to the UK as expected, we learnt that the squadron was being posted to Egypt forthwith. It was agreed, unanimously, that the six fit aircraft, plus any others that could be salvaged, in addition to their own crews, would carry additional air and ex-Driffield ground crew in equal proportions. Cannibalisation and ingenuity produced another couple and the eight battered Wimpys took off as soon as they were ready.

Naturally, the remaining rump of twenty-nine bodies pondered the next move, particularly, as ‘Invasion’ notices had been pinned up in Valetta for some time. However, we were quickly reassured by being designated The Sea Party and told to report, with kit, to that revered supply ship HMA MV Breconshire which lay in the harbour.

That night we crept out of the Grand Harbour and, when the sun came up, were amazed to see our transport very closely escorted by three cruisers with guns elevated vertically, plus an outer screen of destroyers. As we were confined to one of the holds, I was fortunate to be asked to man an armour plated blister on the port side to report and identify any low flying aircraft. This duty gave me a fantastic view of the defensive barrage put up by the ships and appreciate the calm efficiency of the Navy in action.

On arrival at Alexandria, after first being informed that 104 was based at Driffield, a second attempt located them at Kabrit on the Suez Canal. Many of the aircrew had done around forty trips and were sent home whilst the squadron was brought up to strength. I was asked to stay on awhile to convert incoming pilots on to the Wellington II equipped with RR Merlins. The squadron moved up to Desert Landing Ground 106 and I initiated some of the new crews to ops with four trips to Benghasi and my final operational flight to Heraklion, Crete.

The six week detachment had overshot a bit when I was flown Pan-American down to Lagos and ultimately along to Freetown where I joined further homebound aircrew for the final leg on the Largs Bay. The run up the Clyde to Glasgow, on a lovely sunny day, was unforgettable.

It had been nearly nine months since leaving Driffield and my tour had covered 37 very varied operations in three widely different theatres. It had been a revelation to meet such a variety of men from the three Services and to marvel at how well they can work together when the occasion demands – I would not have missed the experience.

Links & Notes

104 Squadron http://www.rafweb.org/Sqn101-105.htm
Adrian Warburton http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrian_Warburton
Dinghy Young http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Melvin_Young
HMS Breconshire http://www.red-duster.co.uk/GLEN10.htm

page last updated 28 June 2010: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010