LIFE ON AN ITALIAN AIRFIELD IN 1944

John Puttock - Air Gunner
70 Squadron

When asked if I would be submitting a story for publication in this book my immediate reaction was that after 55 years I couldn’t think of any single event around which I could write a story. After giving it more thought however and digging into what remains of my memory, I have come up with a few incidents that do need an airing.

Together with the other four members of my crew, we were a varied band of three officers and two NCOs, we arrived at 70 Squadron based at Tortorella about four to five miles east of Foggia in southern Italy in March 1944, ready to start our first tour of operations. Tortorella was home also to 37 Squadron and together with 70 formed 231 Wing equipped with Wellington IIIs, part of 205 Group the night bomber component of the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force.

Also sharing the airfield were units of the American 15th Air Force flying B17s, we all lived and worked in tented accommodation the Yanks on one side of the 2,000 yard PSB runway and us on the other.

Shortly after our arrival we found out just how primitive life was going to be on an operational squadron in Italy during 1944.

Together with Don, my WOp we were allocated an empty ridge tent in the NCO’s quarters and told we would be sharing with three other NCOs.

On enquiring about beds we were told that any beds in the NCO’s quarters were either made or scrounged by the occupants and we would have to do the same. That night we made do with ground sheets but the following morning, spurred on by the knowledge of how hard the ground can be, we hitched a lift into Foggia where we had spotted some wrecked carriages in a bombed railway siding.

After much wrenching and digging we arrived back at Tortorella with two seats about six feet long complete with coiled springs covered with horse hair and fabric. Propped up on ammo boxes they were ideal, or so we thought. In the early hours of the following morning we learned our mistake for we were being eaten alive by bugs and other undesirables and spent the remainder of the night back on mother earth. After we had removed and burnt the hair and fabric and stretched a couple of issue blankets over the springs they remained our beds for the rest of our time on the squadron.

Although we shared the airfield with the Yanks we did not see a lot of them, it was as if the runway acted as a barrier, they kept to their side and us to ours. On the few occasions that we did cross the runway we did become envious. Their accommodation and food was very superior, much larger tents, each man with a decent camp bed, ablution blocks all under cover and it wouldn’t have surprised me if there wasn’t hot and cold water laid on as well.

Their rations included tinned ham and chicken, ice cream, doughnuts – you name it, they had it. In contrast we on our side of the runway had to make do with dehydrated and powdered food and our ablutions consisted of a Jerry can of water and a strip wash in all weathers outside the tent in all weathers, including snow.

The NCO latrines comprised about six buckets with wooden seats located well away from the tented area in a field with a length of Hessian stretched on poles to the rear (it was close to a track leading to the flights in that direction) no protection overhead and nothing to the front. It was not unknown for the wife of an Italian farmer living locally to approach and from about fifty feet enquire if anyone would like to buy some fruit. She did, however, get some very ribald replies – not to be repeated here.

In spite of our contrasting lifestyles we seemed to get along well with our American neighbours there was never any bad feelings between us but there was plenty of bartering. If something was in short supply on our side (that usually meant everything) and you were lucky enough to have a spare bottle of Scotch the sky was the limit.

I remember a South African pilot who exchanged a bottle of Scotch for a Jeep and kept it (the Jeep) on our side of the runway for the whole of the time he was on the squadron. Nearly all this bartering took place not on the airfield but in the local bars.

On a more sombre note one of our crews returning to base in the early hours of the morning after operations over Austria and in difficulties hit the top of a hill to the north of Foggia plain and all on board were killed. A couple of days later, as it was an all NCO crew, thirty of us were detailed to act as pall bearers. The five coffins were loaded onto a Queen Mary tender (I say coffins, they were in fact rough sawn boxes with open joints and stained with dried blood) and covered with the Union Flag. What I remember to this day above all is the smell and the flies.

It was a hot and humid summer’s day with temperatures up the mid-nineties, the air full of dust and very high humidity. We followed in an open truck, and as we drove through the streets of Foggia on our way to the cemetery nearly all the civilian population who were on the streets turned to face the cortege and doffed headgear as a mark of respect, as we approached handkerchiefs could be seen covering mouths and nostrils. We, of course, could do no such thing particularly when carrying the coffins.

After a short but reverent service conducted by the Padre all five were buried in one grave in a corner of the cemetery. Whilst training in Rhodesia I had been pall bearer at two RAF funerals but this was the one I would never forget and all for the wrong reasons. Before returning to Tortorella I noticed that most of us felt the need to discreetly throw up behind any convenient hedge. We were a very subdued bunch of young men on the return journey!

Not only did we share the airfield with the Yanks, we also shared some of the targets, most notable were oil and transport targets such as Bucharest, Ploesti oil refineries, Budapest and on two nights, for our crew, attacking fighter airfields the night before a Yank daylight raid was to take place elsewhere and was known to be a source of trouble for them. On one such op we did suffer a very high loss rate.

On several occasions our American neighbours attended our briefings. I think they were suitably impressed by our bombing height usually 8,000 to 10,000 feet and even more impressed when briefed for mining the Danube on moonlit nights at 200 feet.

If we had not been flying the night before, a typical day at Tortorella started with a walk to the flights to check out the battle order for crews who would be flying that night. If our crew were on the list we, together with other crews, would try and establish the bomb and fuel load. With this information it was possible to forecast the targets and therefore length of operation and how dicey it was.

We then walked to dispersal to carry out our various tasks, imagine our surprise when on one such morning I found a vertical section of Perspex had been removed from the turret between the gun mountings. Further enquiries revealed that the same thing had happened to all the squadron aircraft and indeed, I believe, throughout Bomber Command as a whole.

The reasons for this were obvious for in had weather mud thrown up from the runway, particularly on take off, did give us some problems, particularly reducing night vision.

Our longest operations were to the Ploesti oil fields, around 7-8 hours duration, during that time tail end Charlies were confined to their turret (it was a major task to crawl up to the Elsan anyway with all our gear on to keep out the cold) and if there was a call of nature we gunners were always prepared by having to hand a container of some sort we could use.

The first time this became necessary I disposed of the contents and container through the large hole left where previously the vertical section of Perspex had been. After what seemed an age I was shocked and dismayed to find that all the contents (but not container) were thrown back into the turret as if by an unseen hand out there in the darkness. It then began to freeze, but fortunately it happened on the return trip and not on the way out.

On our days off and if the weather was bad there was not a lot to do. If we hitched a lift into Foggia there was only one services club, apart from that it was just a bombed out dusty shanty town that offered nothing. When the weather was fine the squadron sometimes laid on a truck to take us to Manfredonia for a swim in the Adriatic. I cannot remember any cinema or ENSA shows being laid on.

It was not all doom and gloom, however, for after we had completed about 20 operations each crew was given the chance to spend a week at an Aircrew Rest Centre located at Sorrento in the Bay of Naples. The RAF had taken over some of the hotels complete with civilian staff and we lived a life of luxury for the whole of the time we were there. The NCOs were housed in the Minerva and the officers some distance away in the Cocumella.

The food and accommodation were in direct contrast to life on the squadron, real beds with cotton sheets, hot and cold water, baths and meals the like of which we hadn’t tasted for months. We lazed on the beach most days or visited Capri or Pompei. This little bit of Italy seemed to have escaped the war, the only damage that I can remember had been caused by the eruption of Vesuvius the previous March when large amounts of ash had been deposited over the whole area. I returned to Sorrento in 1970 for a holiday with my wife, the Minerva was still there but we could not find the Cocumella or maybe it was under another name.

During take off it was the usual practice for the fire tender to park alongside the runway with the crew on board and the engine running. Tail gunners took off with their turrets in the beam position ready to make a quick exit if required.

One dark night with just the light from the gooseneck flares on either side of the runway we were gathering speed when I noticed a jerk and observed one row of flares passing diagonally under the turret. This was followed almost immediately by an almighty bang, the tail shot up in the air and we came to a standstill. The skipper ordered everyone out and as we had a full bomb load under our feet I needed no second bidding.

I exited through the turret doors but instead of the normal three feet to the ground the turret was now about ten feet in the air, also I had forgotten to disconnect my intercom leads and damn near strangled myself in the process. After hitting the ground I decided to put as much distance between myself and the crash site as quickly as possible.

I had always prided myself on my running ability particularly the sprint but on this occasion I was encumbered by heavy flying kit. I had just gathered speed when I head some puffing and blowing and another member of the crew disappeared ahead of me into the darkness. We had a burst tyre and swung off the runway, the fire crew, seeing us heading in their direction engaged the clutch but abandoned the vehicle just prior to us hitting it. Apart from a few cuts and bruises all of us, including the crew of the fire tender, escaped serious injury but our Wimpy was written off.

There were to be no ops for us that night so we retired to our beds. On waking the following morning we found three empty beds in our tent, the three who were sharing (from another mixed officer/NCO crew) had failed to return from the target, Bucharest. A few months later after the Russians had taken Bucharest the navigator (an Aussie W/O) did appear briefly on the squadron before being repatriated. He was the sole survivor after they had been shot down by a night fighter over the target.

We completed our tour of operations at the end of October and by that time the long hot summers had given way to autumn and the onset of winter. When we left in early November there had already been a heavy fall of snow, we were thankful to be leaving and not have to endure another winter in those conditions.

Links & Notes

John has provided the LXX Squadron Song (tune - Clementine):

Down the flights each ruddy morning,
Sitting waiting for a clue,
Same old notice on the flight board
Maximum effort - Guess where to.

Seventy Squadron, Seventy Squadron,
Though we say it with a sigh,
We must do the ruddy milk run
Every night until we die.

Have you lost us navigator?
Come up here & have a look,
Someone's shot our starboard wing off!
We're alright then, that's Tobruk.

Seventy Squadron, Seventy Squadron,
etc.

Oh to be in Piccadilly,
Selling matches by the score.
Then we should not have to do the
Blessed milk run any more.

Seventy Squadron, Seventy Squadron,
etc.

See also Cyril Pearce's 2nd tour story, when he was on LXX Squadron at Tortorella, You have upset the patient

70 Squadron http://www.raf.mod.uk/organisation/70squadron.cfm
The Foggia Plain and Tortorella http://natureonline.com/37/3-37sqn-italy-foggia.html
LAC Wallace Jackson 70 Squadron http://www.70squadron.roselake.co.uk/italy%20and%20after.htm
Hotel Cocumella, Sorrento http://www.cocumella.com/eng/albergo.htm
Hotel Minerva, Sorrento http://www.minervasorrento.com/en/index.php

page last updated 22 June 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010