7 - A Safari in Africa

On 16 December 1942 most of the graduates of my OTU course assembled at the Liverpool docks following a brief stay at yet another transit camp (for tropicalising our kit and uniforms plus the medical attention required for the hot places). Some long-term friendships began to be established at this time, notably for three of us who were to serve on the same units until VJ-day and who had surnames beginning with the letter 'W'; inevitably we became jointly named the '3Ws',

The ship we boarded, the Caernarvon Castle, had plied the UK to South Africa route before the war as a luxury liner. There was not much luxury for us however, when our turn came to set course for 'somewhere in Africa' and we had an additional cause for unease which the pre-war passengers did not experience; the Caernarvon Castle was now an Armed Merchant Cruiser which, translated, meant it was the sole protector of the convoy of which we were part, not only against U-boats, but also German battle-cruisers, one at least, we heard, being at sea at the time. To provide this protection, the ship sported two naval guns, one at the sharp end and the other at the stern, both of small calibre, and some depth charges. The ship was crewed by the Royal Navy and therefore carried the 'HMS' designation. A secondary duty of the ship was to make use of the space aboard for the carriage of 1000 or so troops. The number could be calculated fairly accurately because the troop complement was divided into several groups, each of which took duty turns daily to wash-up the cutlery and trays used on the mess decks; for something to do, we counted them.

Apart from a stormy period in the Bay of Biscay at first, we entered calm conditions and warmer weather about three days out from the UK. We had taken a track well out into the Atlantic to be out of range of German aviation from French airfields, before turning south for Africa.

Always at the back of our minds was the debacle of HMS Jervis Bay, the Armed Merchant Cruiser which was lost in November 1940 defending its convoy by engaging a German warship Admiral Scheer, thus allowing the other ships of the convoy to scatter and escape; the Captain of the Jervis Bay was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his and his crew's gallantry. So, while we enjoyed sunning ourselves on deck as we entered the Azores flying fish area, we nevertheless continuously scanned the horizon for any sign of smoke.

After about three weeks at sea we sighted land and steamed into Freetown in Sierra Leone where we anchored, then stayed aboard for a couple of days before transhipping to a rather greasy Highland Line ex-meat ship to take us some 700nm further along the coast to Takoradi in Gold Coast (now Ghana). We actually welcomed the accommodation on the former meat ship to some extent since our mess-deck zone was the refrigerator hold and we could therefore escape the blistering heat above by shinning down the ladders to the cool air (identifiable by its blue haze) below.

Royal Air Force Takoradi was, in the main, an airfield where crated fighter aircraft shipped in were assembled for delivery by ferry crews to Egypt, a direct distance of about 2500nm to the north east. It also served as a transit camp for those of us who awaited transport to Cairo and thence to the operational areas. The transit camp consisted of about 20 marquee tents spaced evenly around the central football field (on which I made my first representative appearance for an RAF team against a Gold Coast eleven). And there we waited for 40 days and 40 nights trying to entertain ourselves as best we could, even to the extent of making explorations up some of the jungly rivers by native canoe to remote villages; the first signs of tourism to come perhaps? Not so, as it turned out.

At last our turn came to leave, in dribs and drabs, transported to Cairo (by Douglas Dakota in my case) via Accra in the Gold Coast, Kano and Maiduguri in Nigeria, and El Geneina and Khartoum in the Sudan (a total flight distance of over 3000nm) arriving at Almaza near Cairo on 20 February 1943.

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When I left No 55 OTU back in mid-November, the battle at El Alamein had just been won by the Eighth Army, Rommel was in retreat and the First Army had invaded the north-west African coast. We had assumed that we would see plenty of action in Libya and Tunisia before the Germans were removed from Africa. However, here we were kicking our heels in the sand at Almaza, still awaiting joining instructions to a Western Desert Air Force squadron, and now Tripoli had been recaptured. It looked like a race was on to see if we would be able to do any worthwhile flying before the finish. We spent six weeks in Almaza doing nothing, until the 31 March when Warrant Officer MacKay ('Mac') and I got our posting notice to No 6 Squadron, Hurricane IID tank-busters, serving with 244 Wing. But yet again we were faced with a sail, this time up the Mediterranean to Tripoli, then by 15cwt truck to find 6 Squadron as best we could. The Eighth Army was now past the Mareth line.

Mac and I caught a train from Cairo to the port of Alexandria where we waited at RAF Aboukir for a passage on a convoy forming up to sail to Tripoli. On 5 April we boarded a small sleazy coastal steamer and edged out of Alex into a stormy Mediterranean. Mac and I appeared to be the only RAF men aboard, the other 100 or so being Eighth Army squadies joining their units at the front. The ship's accommodation was a shambles. We were alloted space on the most forward mess-deck, which was partly open to the outside elements; there was little room on the mess-deck and soon the sea-sickness retchings began and by meal-time in the late afternoon, the stench was appalling. Fortunately, we had our lilos available so we decided to spend the night in the open on the top deck under the cover of the bridge. After a sleepless night we checked the mess-deck area in the morning and, having viewed the awful state of it, chose the top deck as our cabin for the remainder of the voyage. Luckily, the weather improved on the slow, weary way to Tripoli; it took five days to get there, escorted by Hurricane convoy patrols for most of the way. Finally, we crawled into Tripoli, evading a few bombed-out shipwrecks on the way in, and moored in the semi-circular harbour which was guarded by dozens of anti-aircraft guns, spaced at about 30yd intervals all along the surrounding road. We thankfully disembarked and reported to RAF HQ Tripoli which fixed us up with 'accommodation' in Marshal Badoglio's palace, on its marble floor (no beds, no furniture); we were advised that RAF motor transport would be arranged for the next stage of our journey. The transport did not materialise for four days, so we spent a fairly pleasant time touring the town on foot and watching the Libyans trying to return the place to normality. Looking round the garden of our 'palatial' billet, we came across a large piece of what had once been part of a ship's plating which we heard had been blown there from an ammunition ship, bombed whilst unloading its cargo in the harbour. Our thoughts turned to this when the air-raid warning was sounded in the darkness of the following evening and while we watched the subsequent German bomber attack, the attacker picked out by searchlights round the harbour. We did not notice any new damage to the port next morning so presumably the raider had made a single-pass miss on the target. On the other hand, we did not see or hear of the enemy aircraft being shot down, which did not reflect well on our gunners' shooting ability, since the bomber flew overhead at about 1000ft, almost sitting-duck height.

Eventually, an RAF 15cwt truck turned up at our palace, loaded with tins of bully-beef and packets of hard biscuits, and we set course for 6 Squadron positioned somewhere to the west of Gabes in Tunisia, a westerly journey of about 200nm, which took four days to complete due to the competition for road space with other reinforcing MT units going up to the front and the careful negotiation of minefields not yet fully cleared. Finally, on 18 April, just six days short of a year since I was awarded my wings, I spotted some Hurricanes and Spitfires on a desert strip, 244 Wing of the Desert Air Force. You can imagine the emotions of Mac and me - astonishment, chagrin and pleasure - when on arrival at No 6 Squadron we were met by Sergeants Phil Williams and Malcolm White (the other two of the 3Ws) who had left Almaza several days after Mac and me but had arrived ahead of us, having done the journey in style in a DC-3; it had taken them as long in hours as it had Mac and me in days.

That day, the Squadron moved forward to a strip at Bou Goubrine, north of Sfax, and I started flying the following day (my first flight for five months) practising very low flying and firing the two 40mm Vickers 'S' guns, each in a pod underslung on the wings. A rumour that I had heard before leaving Almaza that a stoppage on one of these guns could cause the aircraft to flip over on to its back due to asymmetric recoil, I found to be untrue; the trim change was scarcely detectable, which was just as well, because all our gun attacks were made while running in a foot or so above the ground!

By this time the Germans had dug in defensively along a line running west from Enfidaville on the coast, a mere 40nm in front of Tunis; the situation for them on the ground and in the air was fraught indeed. The Spitfires of the Wing were seen to be busy each day acting as top cover for medium bombers - Martin Marauders and North American Mitchells if I remember correctly - with the only reply as far as our Wing was concerned, being the odd night strafing raid and anti-personnel bombing attacks on the airstrip. One sensed that here was not just air superiority, but air supremacy. For us on 6 Squadron however, it was a case of reconnoitring the area at low level and pumping 40mm shells into abandoned German tanks; the one chance I had of a sortie to hit tanks on the move had to be aborted when our targets could not be found in the open, a rather sorry end to the campaign. A few days later the standard Montgomery bombardment provided us with a celebratory firework display and Tunis was taken; it was then all over bar the shouting. Half-a-dozen of us drove to the coast for a swim at Monastir and a spot of sunbathing on its deserted beach. As we drove back we passed thousands of German POWs walking back to camps at our rear; they did not look too distressed.

I had my first altercation with one of my superiors during this time; more would follow later in my career in aviation. On my arrival on 6 Squadron I had had a briefing on how to carry out a tank attack, which was no more than advice to run in making a feint at a target other than the one intended, then turn in to get the fixed gunsight on to the actual target and go in very low, to below the depression angle achievable by the German flak guns if possible. Then to open fire with the two 0.303-inch machine guns, and when it was seen that the bullets of the burst had run up to the level of the tank, the 'S' guns would then be at optimum range to open fire. No mention of starting range for the attack was suggested, so my method was to get right down to attack level at a fair distance out and get the centre cross of the fixed gunsight on to the target early; this was the bit that the commander wasn't keen on because he thought I might fly into the ground before I was ready to open fire. However, I had to ask him how it would be possible to strike the ground if I had my fixed cross (depressed sightline harmonised for the gravity drop of the shells) clearly on the target during the whole run-in; the aircraft's flight path has to be (must be) a slight bunt, so how come a collision with the ground? There was a pregnant pause before he turned to another subject.

After three weeks of desultory training from our desert strip at Bou Goubrine, we were ordered to retire to a strip by the sea, close to the Libyan border. I flew down as one of a pair, with a New Zealander colleague, and we were asked by a controller to fill in for an absentee convoy escort, until the missing escort turned up later; not a very interesting business this convoy escort role, I felt. Of greater interest was the draw for the three tickets alloted to the Squadron to visit an ENSA show of well-known film and theatre stars in Tripoli. I drew one of the tickets with Bob Mercer and Johnny Waterhouse, both Flying Officers in the Royal Australian Air Force, as the other two. We flew to Tripoli in our Hurricanes, at low level all the way, jinking round the palm trees as we went. We landed at Mellaha, an extremely short strip alongside the Tripoli racecourse, with take-off and landing generally made towards the sea wall at the end of the strip. We got a lift into town by RAF MT. Bob and Johnny had booked Officers' Club accommodation for themselves, but, as I was a Sergeant Pilot, the problem was where to get a billet for me. Bob solved it. The ploy was for them to book in and go to their rooms; having settled in, Bob would come out of the building carrying Johnny's Flying Officer epaulette tags, hand them to me to put on to my epaulettes, and then I would book in as Flying Officer Wood. I should add that NCO pilots of the Desert Air Force did not wear badges of rank, since they used, with the commissioned officers, a common 'aircrew mess'. This rigmarole was used for all our movements within the Club, including meals - and it worked like a charm. The star of the following day's ENSA show will never be forgotten as she was probably the most beautiful female on earth at the time, the incredible Vivien Leigh. After a quick meal, we thumbed a lift to Mellaha, started our engines and blasted the throttles open, just making it over the sea wall with very little to spare.

During this inactive period we heard rumours that we were to be re-equipped with Hurricane Mk IV aircraft. No one knew what a Mk IV was, until we met a pilot who had recently arrived from the UK. He told us that he had seen one at some test centre and that it was a bit bigger than the Mk II Hurricane, had a bigger engine with an air intake below it, a four-bladed propellor, larger tail fin, very fast. On 13 July the first of them came and our disappointment was acute. The 'Hurricane' described by the idiot who gave us the false 'gen' was, of course, the Hawker Typhoon. What we actually got was a straightforward Hurricane with even more cockpit armour than the IID, with a poorer performance due to the increase in aircraft weight. An even bigger disappointment followed a few days later.

No 6 Squadron was originally formed during World War One as an Army Co-operation squadron and had remained as such until the desert war of 1941-43. Because of the association with the Army, all pilots of the Squadron were required to be commissioned officers. This tradition was dropped during the offensive against Rommel, quite rightly you may think. Now, to the astonishment of the NCO pilots, its Army Co-operation status was to be resurrected and we NCOs were told that we were to leave the squadron and go back to Cairo for further posting instructions. I could not believe the stupidity of this anti-NCO obeisance to the wishes of another arm of the forces. I wondered what our Commonwealth colleagues thought of it, or what Pathfinder Bennett (who sought the qualities of NCO aircrew) or Don Kingaby (with his record of three DFMs) would have thought of it, if they had known. I flew my last sortie on 6 Squadron, on a desperate but futile search deep into the desert for a lost Dakota, on 16 July 1943. I felt a bit lost myself at this stage.

So, after an operational tour of a mere thirteen weeks, Mac and the 3Ws found ourselves back in a tent at Almaza. We presumed we would be posted to the only other Hurricane IID overseas squadron, No 20, which we heard had formed in the Far East for the war against the Japanese in India and Burma. At Almaza, the station stores section dished out our Africa Star campaign medal ribbon. I thought at the time that the Atlantic Star would have been more appropriate because of the greater threat and amount of time I had spent in the emptiness of that ocean. On 11 July we said goodbye to Africa and took-off from Cairo, on our long way to India, in a Dakota. The last we heard of No 6 Squadron was that it was to use its new Hurricane Mk IVs from bases in Italy, loaded with four rocket projectiles under one wing and a drop tank full of fuel under the other, to attack targets in support of the guerillas operating against the German occupying-army in Jugoslavia. Perhaps our Far East posting was better for our health - they didn't call No 6 Squadron 'Shitty Six' for fun!


Copyright William C. Wood 1997.