Bob Milne DFM MiD - Pilot
47 Squadron

Like so many RAF aircrew I started at Lords Cricket ground, where I was assigned alphabetically into a flight at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon when they reached the letter M, five hours after assembly. After collecting uniforms we were billeted in luxury flats facing the Regents Park canal, however the luxury part was missing! There were about 11,000 raw recruits queuing up for meals or for inoculations, in between marching round the streets of St John’s Wood.

About five months later I stepped onto the deck of an American Cargo boat at Greenock and on Friday, 13th March 1942 we set course for Canada escorted by two Canadian Corvettes. Off Iceland the escort changed to American warships including a battleship, cruisers and destroyers. A welcome sight even though the battleship was barely seaworthy. After thirteen days we landed in New York having been diverted from New Brunswick, due to U-boat activity.

Then in April I arrived at Windsor Mills Empire Flying Training School in southern Quebec, a civilian school with civilised ways. At breakfast it was ‘How many eggs, Sir? How many rashers, Sir?’ It was one of the units with a ‘Hostess House’. This was a house near the main gate where the ladies from the local town of Sherbrooke would serve teas and hold social functions for the airmen. Wonderful!

Service Flying Training School was on an RCAF camp at Hagersville, Ontario, and there I gained my Wings. This was followed by two months doing a General Reconnaissance course at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, learning navigation over the sea, and navigation by the stars. A very intensive course preparatory to working on Coastal Command. Coming second on the course, I was recommended for Sunderland Flying Boats. On return to Britain on the Queen Elizabeth I, this had shrunk to a Beaufighter. Heavy losses of torpedo carrying Beaus meant that replacement crews were a constant requirement.

On 23rd August ’43 I joined 47 Squadron at Tunis at the end of the Sicily Campaign and just prior to the invasion of Italy. We attacked shipping in the area between Sardinia and the Italian mainland. We usually flew in units of ten aircraft, six carrying 2000 lb torpedoes and four without. All Beaufighters had six machine guns forward and four 20 mm cannons. The Pilot operated the guns and the torpedo. The Observer navigated and also did the wireless operating.

We flew at fifty feet to avoid radar detection, no lower because this would leave slipstream trails on the water which would be visible to enemy aircraft. If a target ship was located the four aircraft without torpedoes would fire on the ship while the Torbeaus positioned themselves to deliver the torpedoes. Having assessed the type of ship and its speed you climbed up to 150 feet, aimed ahead of the ship according to the speed you have estimated, and then at 1000 yards range with wings level, level fore and aft, and speed 180 knots you drop the torpedo.

After the drop you have to continue forwards, flying past the bow if you were on the starboard side and the stern if you were on the port side. I always liked to think that if I flew under the bow or stern the big guns would have to be depressed and the cannon balls would fall out!

Everything happens in less than two minutes unless there are enemy aircraft, usually ME 109s, in which case you may be around for over twenty minutes. If a torpedo strike took place we usually lost two aircraft on average. On my first torpedo strike we lost two crews including the crew with whom I had been posted to the unit. I made my Will out that evening.

When Italy was invaded they were worried that the Italian Fleet might be used to interfere with the Allied landings. As a Torpedo Squadron we had to stand by to intercept if needed, virtually a suicide mission. The Fleet was at Genoa and after two days word came though that it was heading for safety in Marseilles. We cheered!

Then our CO came up with a plan. We could still get to it and as there would be insufficient fuel for a return to base we could ditch alongside a destroyer north of Sardinia and be picked up – that is if anyone survived the torpedo attack. The Italian Fleet was a fast one and it was in Marseilles before this crazy scheme could be put into practice.

Shortly afterwards we were moved from Tunis to El Adem in Libya. We were to locate a German invasion fleet which was leaving Athens to cross the Aegean sailing from island to island until it could invade Leros where Allied troops were held up. During the next three weeks we lost thirteen of our eighteen crews ending up with no usable planes and only three available crews. Leros fell on the 16th November 1943.

The Squadron had to reform with new planes and crews to get up to strength, and we moved to nearby Gambut III in the Western Desert. We would continue operations in the Aegean for another three months before going to the Far East to stand by for the Japanese Fleet.

Life in the desert was not all gloom. We were fortunate to have visits from the NAAFI at El Adem, so we could supplement our rations of ‘Bully Beef’ and ‘Soya Links’ (sausages made of soya beans) which we couldn’t eat. We were able to buy such things as tinned meat, puddings and vegetables. These required to be cooked as we bought primus stoves, but these needed paraffin. In the desert the only source of this commodity was the flare path where goose neck flares were fuelled with paraffin. The aircrews on flare path duty had to economise by only lighting the flares when needed and reducing the number set out. Have you ever landed with only three flares!!!

Entertainment was provided by American units flying Mitchells. They had a projector, and films flown over from Hollywood. The screen was put against the side of a lorry and we took our own petrol cans to sit on. Betty Grable was very popular.

One operation carried on 22nd February ’44 was written up in a magazine called Parade. We were to attack the last ship of any size left in the Mediterranean. It was approaching Heraklion in Northern Crete with an escort of two destroyers and the usual ME 109s. No. 47 Squadron Torbeaus were escorted by fighter Beaus of Nos. 47 and 603 Squadrons and approached from the east. A flight of American Mitchells then turned back drawing off the German fighters so that we could attack the ship without their interference. This worked perfectly and we hit and sank the ship with torpedoes before the 109s realised what was happening. Three Beaufighters were then shot down. The strike was thus very successful.

In March 1944 a Torpedo squadron was needed in the Far East and 47 Squadron was ordered to go. I was now tour expired along with two of my colleagues, but it was realised that if we left there would be no one apart from the CO who had actually dropped torpedoes. We were therefore booked for a second tour with the same squadron.

We flew out from near Cairo to Baghdad, Bahrain, Sherja, Karachi, Hyderabad and finally Madras to await the Japanese Fleet. After six months the Japanese were suffering reverses so the Fleet finally went to the Pacific instead of into the Indian Ocean. We then changed to bombs and rockets on the Beaufighters and then later onto Mosquitoes in order to fight in Burma.

I completed a second tour but had difficulty getting a transport plane out of Burma so two months later, when the war ended, I was still there.

Then on the first day of peace a Japanese raiding party raided the camp and I was wounded, ending up in hospital. We were on an airfield north of Rangoon and I returned there on discharge from hospital. The first prisoners of war to be freed were brought here by Dakotas. I remember that we were mistaken for POWs because we were thin and a sickly yellow colour from taking Mepacrine to prevent malaria. The POWs were very thin indeed but they were bronzed from exposure to the sun.

Late in August 1945, two years after joining 47 Squadron I left in a Dakota bound for Calcutta and then on to Bombay where I boarded a ship, destination England.

No. 47 Squadron, formed in 1916, is continuing to be active. Based at Lyneham they have been flying Hercules Transport planes, taking part in many actions from the Falklands to Somalia, and then the Gulf war, Bosnia and the Kosovo crisis.

We have reunions and I am proud to have been involved with 47 Squadron.

Incidentally, the official statistics quote torpedo dropping as the most dangerous activity with only seventeen and a half per cent survival rate for one tour and for two tours, only three percent.

Now they tell me!!

Flt Lt Bob Milne 1946: source Milne

Bob Milne 30 June 2010: source Haslam

Links & Notes

Windsor Mills http://www.airfieldinformationexchange.org/community/showthread.php?2812-Windsor-Mills-Sherbrooke-Quebec.&p=27356&viewfull=1
Hagersville, Ontario http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagersville,_Ontario
47 Squadron http://www.raf.mod.uk/organisation/47squadron.cfm
Bristol Beaufighter http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Beaufighter

page last updated 28 July 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010