Two weeks after the Allied victory at Alamein there occurred an incident possibly unparalleled in the history of aerial warfare the mounting of a series of offensive strikes by a whole wing of aircraft from an unprotected base scores of miles behind the enemy's forward positions.
In the autumn of 1942 plans crystallised for the forthcoming British offensive-the Battle of Alamein. It was decided at Allied Air Headquarters, Middle East, that after the German front had been broken a squadron of twelve Kittyhawk fighter-bombers would be sent to an airstrip just behind the German lines, near Fort Maddalena. From there it was to strike at Luftwaffe transports flying urgently-needed petrol into airfields in the EI Adem complex. The projected operation was code- named 'Snapper'.
At 21.40 hours on 23rd. October a barrage from over 1,200 guns heralded the British attack. For. eleven days the battle raged to and fro until, on 2nd November, the Axis front crumbled. The Germans and Italians were thrown into headlong retreat and the race to the west began. The British advance was faster than expected and within six days the Eighth Army had reached Sidi Barani. The El Adem airfields came within range of British fighters and Operation 'Snapper' became superfluous. It was therefore decided to try something more ambitious., to operate a wing of Hurricanes from a landing-ground-code-named L.G.125-deep in the desert behind the German lines, 150 miles east of Agedabia and the same distance south of Derna. The primary target, was to be Axis motor transport retreating westwards along the coast road in the Agedabia. area.
No. 243 Wing, commanded by Wing Commander J. Darwen, was chosen for the operation. It comprised No. 213 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Olver, and No. 238 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Marples. The squadrons left their airfields in the Mersa Matruh area early on the morning of Friday, 13th November-an inauspicious date which did not escape mention in the squadrons' diaries-and at 11.30 hours the force of thirty-six Hurricanes landed at L.G.125.
THE FIRST STRIKE
On the previous day stores had been dumped at the landing ground by Hudsons and Bombays of Nos. 117, 216, and 267 Squadrons, and on the 13th aircraft of these squadrons flew in over a hundred groundcrew and more equipment. The Hurricanes were refuelled soon after arrival, and at 13.45 hours twenty-seven aircraft took off for the first strike-a combined strafe of the road from Agheila to Magrun. The wing split into three formations and hit the road at equidistant points, covering it thoroughly. One force,. led by Wing Commander Darwen, took the road to' tl west of Agheila; that led by Squadron Leader Olver covered tl road between Agheila and Agedabia; and the third, under Squadron Leader Marples, dealt with the section from Agedabia to Magrun.
The attacks came as a complete surprise to the Germans. Troops riding in lorries so far from the front thought themselves safe from air attack, and as the Hurricanes roared along the road at low level the Germans, taking them for Luftwaffe. reinforcements, waved to the pilots! The first bursts of cannon fire quickly dispelled their illusions.
There was considerable movement southwards of German and Italian troops, and the initial attack was most successful. More than ninety motor vehicles were knocked out. Just south of Agheila Pilot Officer McKay saw a Fieseler Storch above the road, flying at 60 feet. Closing to within twenty yards, he fired a one-second burst, and saw strikes on the cockpit; the Storch banked into the ground, cartwheeled, and disintegrated.
Two Hurricanes were lost to ground fire on this operation, and that flown by Squadron Leader Olver suffered severe damage to the tailplane after hitting a telegraph pole. The aircraft could not be controlled at speeds of less than 180 m.p.h., but by skilful flying Olver managed to bring it back to base.
Now the Germans would be aware that British aircraft were operating from a base somewhere in the area, and accordingly the Wing's next attack was launched against the airfields from which aircraft might interfere with the Hurricanes' operations. At 09.05 hours the next morning, Olver led twelve aircraft from his squadron on a strafe of airstrips around Agedabia. As the formation ran in on the first target, Flight Lieutenant Cameron spotted a Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79 flying low to the east. He closed in and gave the Italian bomber an eight-second burst from a head-on position; the centre engine burst into flames and the aircraft dived into the ground and exploded. Squadron Leader Olver saw three Fiat C.R.42s on the side of the airfield, and flew along the line spraying them with cannon shells. One blew up so violently that Olver's own machine was damaged, and the other two were destroyed. The formation then flew westwards over the town of Agedabia, shooting up some troops in he main- square before attacking the airfield on the other side. Pilot Officers Furneaux and Smith jointly destroyed a Fiat C.R.42 and Squadron Leader Olver damaged a Junkers Su.87,
On the return flight the squadron ran into trouble. There were no radio homing aids on the makeshift airfield and low Cumulous clouds cast shadows on the -ground wh ch made it mpossible to identify the dark patch of. sand used as a landmark the north of L.G.125. The force was soon lost. Six aircraft headed east past the battle front, and landed at Gambut. The remainder force-landed in the open desert some fifty miles north of the base. The aircraft which landed at Gambut refuelled and immediately flew back to LG. 125; the others were located during
the afternoon by a search aircraft from No.238 Squadron, but nevertheless had to spend the night in the open.
In the meantime No. 238 Squadron had not been idle. At 10.40 hours Squadron Leader Marples led twelve aircraft against the road north of Agedabia, where they found plenty of targets. Twenty-six vehicles were knocked out, and many troops riding in them were killed. During this raid the Hurricanes were shadowed by two Messerschmitt Bf 109s which turned tail whenever they were offered battle. The Germans followed the force on the return flight for fifteen miles, then broke off contact. Clearly the Wing would have to be prepared for more active interference with its operations in the future. However, no enemy aircraft were seen when the squadron launched its afternoon. strafe on the road east of Agheila, and fifteen vehicles were knocked out almost at leisure.
On 15th November, at 06.25 hours, Squadron Leader Marples led his squadron against the Agheila airfields. As usual, complete surprise was achieved. Flight Lieutenant Ayerst destroyed a Ju.52 on the ground, Sergeant Morris destroyed another, and Sergeant Allington scored hits on a Messerschmitt Bf 109. Afterwards the squadron used up the remainder of its ammunition on vehicles on the main road, and knocked out thirty-eight. One aircraft was lost during this attack.
At 09.10 hours two aircraft from No. 213 Squadron flew out to the Hurricanes stranded in the desert. The latter refuelled from the long range tanks of the relief aircraft, and the whole force returned to L.G.125.
AN ITALIAN COUNTER ATTACK
During the morning, six Hurricanes of No. 213 Squadron, led by Wing Commander Darwen, set out to strafe the landing ground at Gailo. On the way they chanced upon an Italian column comprising fourteen vehicles, four field guns and an armoured car, only sixty miles from L.G.125. In fact this was the garrison from Siwa Oasis in full retreat, but to the British it looked like a full-scale attempt to wipe out their base. The Hurricanes attacked the field guns and the lorries towing them, knocking out all four combinations. They were then forced to break off the attack as their ammunition was exhausted. The column became the top-priority target, and a shuttle service was organised against it. At 10.30 hours four aircraft of No. 238 Squadron took off to resume its destruction, and, finding the column stationary in the desert, pressed home their attacks. Ten ,vehicles were destroyed before the ammunition ran out, and the remainder was knocked out just before noon by a four-aircraft strike under Squadron Leader Marples.
Wing Commander Darwen was anxious that the armoured cars should 'mop up' the remnants of the Italian force, but owing to the distance involved and the rough nature of the terrain this plan was dropped; the column no longer constituted any real threat to L.G.125.
At 11.35 hours six aircraft of No. 213 Squadron, led by Flying Officer Haule, took off for the delayed strafe of Gailo
Airfield. They approached from the south, and the leader opened the score by destroying one Cant 1007 on the ground and damaging another. Squadron Leader Young scored several bits on a Ju.88, which blew up, and went on to destroy two Fiat C.R.42s. One S.M.79 was destroyed by Pilot Officer Carrick, and the destruction of another was shared by -Flying _Officer Furneaux and Flight Sergeant Wilson. On the way out the Hurricanes strafed a column entering Gailo from the East, and five vehicles were knocked out.
At dusk on the 15th, just as a party of ground crew arrived after driving from Mersa Matruh, the armoured car screen reported nine hostile bombers approaching the area from the west. The vehicles were hastily dispersed, and four aircraft of No. 213 Squadron were scrambled, but no attack materialised. However, it was an augury that the lack of opposition had probably run its course. Owing to its exposed position, L.G.125 could never survive an attack in any strength, and with much regret it was decided to terminate operations on the following. day.
THE LAST DAY
For their final show, on the 16th November, ten 213 Squadron aircraft took off at 08.30 hours for another attack on Gailo airfield, led by Wing Commander Darwen. Except for the burntout wreck of the Ju.88 destroyed on the previous day there were no aircraft on the field, and the only worthwhile target was a solitary armoured car, which the wing commander destroyed. Some thirty miles to the north-west, however, the squadron found a long column of stationary vehicles. Some of the lorries had red stripes across their bonnets as if to create the impression that they were carrying casualties. They were not attacked, but the others were, and twenty-seven were destroyed.
Also at 08.30 hours, Squadron Leader Marples led eleven aircraft of his squadron on a strafe of the coast road near Agheila. They found heavy traffic on the road, and carried out their firing runs without loss in the face of some flak and machine-gun fire. Forty-two vehicles were knocked out, and as the Hurricanes turned for base fifteen fires were counted. Towards the end of the attack a Ju.88 was seen at 5,000 feet, escorted by three Messerschmitt Bf 109s. The latter made no attempt to attack, and it appeared that the German aircraft were there for the express purpose of tracking the British back to their base. If this was the case the attempt was a half-hearted one, for the Hurricanes soon eluded their pursuers.
During the latter part of the morning eight Hudsons arrived to fly out those of the groundcrews not proceeding back overland. At 12.30 hours the transports, escorted by the Hurricanes, took off for more secure bases in the Fuka area.
The three days of operations from L.G.125 had been extremely successful, and had cost the Axis more than three hundred and ten vehicles, fourteen aircraft destroyed, and three damaged. This was at a time when the Afrika Korps needed every vehicle it could lay its hands on for the withdrawal. Many troops and much equipment had to be left behind, and there can be little doubt that the loss of so many lorries was felt.
The squadrons had flown 156 sorties, and lost three Hurricanes and their pilots in action. In addition four aircraft which were too badly damaged to return to Fulca, were destroyed by the ground party before they moved out. Thus ended an extremely bold and successful operation, one carried out in the very best traditions of the Royal Air Force.
Reproduced from the December 1964 (No 3. Vol 20) edition of Flying Review International.
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