RAAF fighters:the desert campaigns, 1939–43

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RAAF fighters:the desert campaigns, 1939–43

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 12 maart 2009, 19:37

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Tomahawk Mk.IIb Unit: 3 Sqn, RAAF Serial: X (AN343) Pilot - F/O Bruce Evans. North Africa. He was shot down and KIA on November 15th, 1941.

On 20 September 1939, the Australian Government approved the plan to raise a six-squadron air expeditionary force for service overseas. Although this plan was later negated by the decision in November that RAAF resources should be employed to ensure the success of the Empire Air Training Scheme, a RAAF flying unit was deployed to the Middle East to assist the 6th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force as an element of General Wavell’s army that was protecting the Suez Canal and Egypt. This unit was 3 Squadron, which had been flying Hawker Demon two-seat biplane fighters from Richmond. Under the command of Squadron Leader I.D. McLachlan, the squadron personnel departed from Sydney aboard the Orontes on 5 July 1940. The personnel arrived at Port Tewfik on 20 August. They commenced training with Westland Lysander army cooperation aircraft at Ismailia, before moving to Helwan, south of Cairo, on 16 September. At Helwan 3 squadron was finally equipped with two flights of Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, four Gloster Gauntlet biplane fighters, and a flight of army cooperation Lysander aircraft from RAF sources. The Gladiator pilots trained in air fighting tactics, the Gauntlets were used as improvised dive- bombers and the Lysander crews practised for their tactical reconnaissance role, before the Gladiators and the Gauntlets were flown to Gerawla, east of Mersa Matruh, early in November.

The squadron fought the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) for the first time on 19 November 1940. Flight Lieutenant B.R. Pelly, escorted by Squadron Leader P.R. Heath, and Flying Officers A.C. Alan Rawlinson and H.H. Alan Boyd, was reconnoitring east of Rabia, when the formation was intercepted by eighteen Fiat CR-42 fighters. The Australian Gladiators, for the loss of the popular Heath, claimed to have shot down or damaged six Italian fighters. From this time until the commencement, on 9 December, of Wavell’s offensive to force the Italians from Sidi Barrani, the squadron maintained three fighters on stand-by to counter any enemy aerial incursions. The fighters were not required, but the unit did undertake practice dive-bombing exercises with the Western Desert Force.

In a brilliant campaign, General Richard O’Connor forced the more numerous Italian forces from the fortress of Bardia and captured Tobruk. After cutting off the retreating Italian Army at Beda Fomm on 7 February, the Western Desert force was poised to attack Tripoli. However, the situation that developed in Greece during January 1941 resulted in the weakening of the desert force to bolster the Greek Army against German invasion. The Regia Aeronautica proved ineffectual in combating the superiority of the three RAF fighter squadrons, one of which was the Gladiator-equipped 3 Squadron, which, for the loss of five Gladiators and two pilots (Flight Lieutenant C.B. Gaden and Flying Officer J.C. Campbell), was credited with the destruction of twelve enemy aircraft. During February the Australian squadron was equipped with Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters and, from its base at Benina, was assigned the task of defending Benghazi from attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft based in Sicily and Tripolitania. Due to the lack of early warning facilities and the Luftwaffe tactics of attacking just before dawn or after dusk, 3 Squadron could claim only one success—on 15 February, Flying Officer J.H.W. Saunders succeeded in destroying a Junkers JU-88.

Luftwaffe operations indicated that General Erwin Rommel, who had arrived in Tripoli during the later days of February with the Afrika Korps to assist the Italians, would not be prepared to accept a passive role. On 24 March, he initiated an offensive which resulted in the capture of Benghazi on 3 April, and the subsequent retreat of the British forces to the vicinity of Bardia by the 11th, leaving the 9th Australian Division surrounded in Tobruk. The RAF fighter squadrons had limited success in covering the retreat and protecting the British forces from the Luftwaffe. During the ten-day, 800-kilometre retreat, 3 Squadron operated from nine separate bases. After evacuating from Benini on 3 April, it undertook a fighting withdrawal. Although it was impossible to supply adequate cover for the retreating troops, the squadron did claim some victories against the Luftwaffe. Eight Hurricanes destroyed five Junkers JU-87s during the afternoon of 5 April while they were covering the withdrawal of the 2nd Armoured Division near Charruba. An hour later Flight Lieutenant J.R. ‘Jock’ Perrin led a formation of nine Hurricanes that surprised twelve JU-87s and claimed the destruction of nine of the enemy. On 14 April, the squadron was operating from Sidi Barrani when Flying Officer W.S. ‘Wulf’ Arthur and Lieutenant A.A. Tennant (South African Air Force) combined to shoot down two twin-engined BF-110s near Tobruk. The following day Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey shot down a Junkers JU-52 transport and successfully strafed three more that had just landed near the Bardia–Capuzzo road. The Australian squadron was withdrawn to Aboukir, for rest, on 20 April.

The reverses in the Western Desert, the fall of Greece and the invasion of Crete marked the nadir of British fortunes in the Middle East and Mediterranean. There was no respite for the hard-pressed Wavell and his forces. As 3 Squadron was being withdrawn for rest, the situation in Vichy French-controlled Syria compelled military action to prevent the potential that German aircraft could refuel at Syrian bases and threaten the oilfields of Persia and Iraq. Wavell, who was preparing for Operation Battleaxe, an offensive to be mounted in June with the aim of relieving Tobruk, was ordered, in combination with Free French Forces, to invade Syria to prevent any such incursions. The force assigned for the Syrian campaign comprised the 7th Australian Division, the 5th Indian Brigade, some composite mechanised units and the Free French Division. A light-bomber squadron, one army cooperation and one fleet air arm squadron, as well as two and a half fighter squadrons supplied air support. Having converted to the American Curtis P-40 Tomahawk fighter at Lyddia in Palestine, 3 squadron was to play a prominent role in the campaign. Their first operation was a strike by five Tomahawks that left six French Morane fighters destroyed on the ground at the Rayak airfield on 8 June. That afternoon four Tomahawks escorted Bristol Blenheims that attacked oil tanks at Beirut. The squadron flew various roles over the next two weeks: interceptions, naval patrols, tactical reconnaissance, close air support of the ground troops and bomber escort duties, all of which gave the opportunity to engage the enemy in combat. On 14 June, Peter Jeffery led eight Tomahawks into combat against a like number of JU-88s (with Italian markings) during which three of the German bombers were shot down.

The Anglo-French advance proceeded quickly until 12 June, when the Australians were halted by Vichy French counterattacks near Merdjayoun. The Free French had advanced to within sixteen kilometres of Damascus, and the British fighter units supported both forces by offensive patrolling. On the 15th, 3 Squadron reconnaissance flight sighted twelve Vichy tanks and 30 motor vehicles near Sheikh Meskine, and Jeffrey and Flying Officer Peter Turnbull each destroyed a Vichy Glenn Martin bomber. Attacks on enemy targets in the Kuneitra area failed to prevent the Vichy French ground forces from threatening the British line of communications. The Vichy Air Force was active, and the demand for protective patrols by the limited British fighter force could not be met.

The hardening of Vichy French resistance led to a reorganisation and reinforcement of the attacking forces. Lieutenant General Lavarack assumed command of I Australian Corps, which had been augmented by a brigade from the 6th British Division and an independent force (Habforce) moved from Iraq to threaten Palmyra. Air reinforcements consisted of the combined 260 Hurricane squadron (comprising RAF pilots and RAAF ground crew) and a Blenheim bomber squadron, thus enabling 3 Squadron to be allocated to support the Australian Corps. The Australian Tomahawks attacked tactical targets and the aggressive strafing of enemy airfields destroyed many enemy aircraft on the ground. Tomahawks also escorted the Blenheims on raids to assist Habforce. On the 28th, nine 3 Squadron Tomahawks escorted Blenheims on a raid before intercepting and shooting down all six enemy Glen Martin bombers that were attacking Habforce units. Flight Lieutenant Alan Rawlinson was credited with three victories; Peter Turnbull was credited with the destruction of two bombers and Sergeant R.K. Wilson claimed the remaining bomber. However, action was not always in the Australians’ favour. On 10 July, they were escorting Blenheims on a raid near Hammara when five Dewoitine fighters, attacking from below the formation, shot down three of the Blenheims before the Tomahawks could intervene. But retribution was swift. Peter Turnbull shot down two Dewoitines and Flying Officer John Jackson, Pilot Officer E.H. Lane and Sergeant G.E. Hiller claimed one each.

When Syrian operations were suspended on 12 July, 3 Squadron moved to protect Beirut from possible German air reaction from bases in the Dodecanese Islands and Crete, before returning to the Western Desert, where it resumed operations from Sidi Haneish on 3 September. Many of the original pilots, like Rawlinson, Perrin and Turnbull, returned to Australia toward the end of 1941. In May, Squadron Leader Gordon Steege had been posted from 3 Squadron to assume the command of 450 Squadron, which finally became operational with Australian ground and aircrews in January 1942. The dilution of experience within 3 Squadron continued with the appointment, on 13 June 1941, of Flight Lieutenant B.R. Pelly to command the newly arrived 451 Squadron. When Pelly returned to Australia he passed the command to Squadron Leader V.A. Pope, RAF on 25 June 1941. Despite its lack of experience, the unit built its proficiency during a series of artillery shoots, photographic and tactical reconnaissance sorties.

Operation Battleaxe proved a failure and the lull in ground operations resulted in 451 Squadron flying only 372 sorties in the period 1 July–14 October. On 9 August, Pope inaugurated photographic sorties to photograph the German positions surrounding Tobruk, and plans were made for a detachment of two Hurricanes from the squadron to operate from within the perimeter. These aircraft operated for some months, where, despite almost daily aerial reconnaissance missions and air raids, the Axis forces were never aware of the underground shelters in which they were housed. Despite increasing Luftwaffe activity in September—the squadron lost six aircraft—the unit was able to report the presence of enemy tanks near Acroma on 11 September and to closely monitor the movements of this column as it advanced to Rabia and then its withdrawal to its start line.

Operation Crusader, the offensive planned by General Auchinleck, the new Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in the Middle East, to destroy the German Army’s armoured forces, relieve Tobruk and clear Tripolitania, commenced on 18 November. Both the Australia fighter squadrons were involved in the preparatory and subsequent operations. The RAF fighter squadrons were reorganised into three groups: one party would move to a forward airfield to prepare for the arrival of the aircraft; a second party would maintain the aircraft and then follow and relieve the first party that would then be available to move further forward. These two groups preceded the third group— the headquarters, workshops, stores and transport—thus ensuring the mobility of the squadron. Given the fluidity of the subsequent actions in North Africa, this proved a sensible arrangement. Although the BF-109F flown by the Luftwaffe was superior to the desert-modified British Tomahawk and Hurricane fighters, the Luftwaffe did not seriously impair the tactical reconnaissance operations of 451 Squadron or engage 3 Squadron fighter sweeps. On 22 November, two aerial battles were fought that established the superiority of the British fighter units. During the morning 3 Squadron escorted a formation of Blenheim bombers when they were intercepted by fifteen BF-109s. In the ensuing melee, three Tomahawks and two BF-109s were shot down. That afternoon 3 Squadron joined with 112 Squadron, RAF, in a battle with twenty BF-109s. Although the Germans had the height and speed advantage, the two formations assumed defensive circling manoeuvres, with individual pilots seeking to exploit any momentary vulnerability of their opponents. Being further from their home bases that the British, the German fighters, due to lack of fuel, were forced to break the stalemate by disengaging and flying west.

Although the ebb and flow of the ground battle between the Eighth Army and the Afrika Korps fluctuated between the combatants, the Axis aerial situation, despite the balance of aircraft losses being in favour of the Luftwaffe, did not, in general terms, threaten RAF freedom of action during the campaign. The 451 Squadron Hurricanes, allotted to undertake tactical reconnaissance for XIII Corps, did so with little interference from enemy aircraft. The squadron did, however, lose personnel as a result of the fluid ground battle. On 27 November, Flight Lieutenant Carmichael, Sergeant ‘Nil’ Fisher, Corporal Keith Taylor and Aircraftman Don Bailey, Arthur Baines, ‘Tubby’ Ward and five other airmen were captured by an enemy column that attacked the landing site at Sidi Azeies.

The fighters however, were able to give substantial cover to the ground forces. For example, on the afternoon of 25 November Peter Jeffery led 3 and 112 Squadrons over Sidi Rezegh, where they encountered an enemy formation of 70 BF-110s and JU-87s that were attacking New Zealand troops. The RAF Squadron engaged the top cover of German and Italian fighters, while 3 Squadron attacked the BF-110s and JU-87s. Much to the delight of the ground troops, the Tomahawk pilots dispatched seven of the enemy, probably destroyed one and damaged another eight, for the loss of one Tomahawk. The British force destroyed a total of ten enemy aircraft.

Early in December, 3 Squadron re-equipped with the Curtis P-40E Kittyhawk. This aircraft was a development of the basic P-40, but was more heavily armed than its predecessors. In the meantime 450 Squadron had deployed to Gambut Main, where it joined the Desert Air Force on 16 February 1942. Six days later Sergeant R. Shaw claimed its first aerial victory: a JU-88 shot down in flames.

Rommel, with his usual resilience, mounted a counterattack in January 1942. The Eighth Army withdrew to Gazala, where Auchinleck planned to hold the Germans prior to initiating a British offensive. The defence was based on a series of strong points such as Bir Hacheim and Knightsbridge, which, together with the armoured killing ground that became known as ‘The Cauldron’, was synonymous with the heavy fighting. The two Australian fighter squadrons, 3 and 450, were active from the opening of the battle on 27 May. During that day 3 Squadron Kittyhawks dropped 22 250-pound bombs, damaging several tanks. Consequent actions were a mix of ground attack sorties in support of the British Army or protecting the same from the incursions of the Luftwaffe: the Free French defensive position at Bir Hacheim was the target for 350 enemy sorties per day. The statistics for operations flown on 16 June indicate the intensity of the Australian squadrons’ effort. From only thirteen aircraft available, 3 Squadron flew 62 operational sorties while 450 Squadron flew 25 bomber escort missions and then another fifteen fighter-bomber missions later in the day.

After the bloody battles of June, the Eighth Army was forced to withdraw under the wings of the Desert Air Force to a defensive position with its right flank resting on the Mediterranean Sea and its left protected by the impassable Qattara Depression. On 1 July Rommel opened the first Battle of El Alamein, advancing toward El Alamein and the approaches to El Ruweisat. The Desert Air Force opposed this advance with vigour. The two Australian squadrons flew with Boston light bombers to attack Deir el Shein, fighting a running battle with BF-109s during the outward journey that resulted in the loss of a Kittyhawk. With the priority given to close support of the troops on the ground and the interdiction of German transport, aerial victories were few. One was claimed on 4 July—a relatively typical operational day during the battle. The two Australian units reconnoitred the coastal road to Daba and strafed a supply column near Ras Gibeisa. That afternoon they bombed landing grounds west of Daba before 450 Squadron machine-gunned a long column of enemy transport on the road. Flight Sergeant D.H. McBurnie shot down a BF-110 reconnaissance aircraft. To finalise the operations for the day, 3 Squadron bombed trucks at Sidi Abd el Rahman and 450 Squadron spied on enemy movements as far west as Fuka.

Although 3 and 450 Squadrons were active in covering the British retreat, 451 was withdrawn to Haifa in Palestine during February 1942. During March the squadron deployed to Cyprus to protect the island from high-flying German reconnaissance aircraft. The squadron removed the armour and half the guns to lighten the Hurricanes to improve their performance. One pilot, Flight Lieutenant R.T. Hudson, claimed to have flown his Hurricane to an altitude of 12 000 metres (2000 metres above the fighter’s normal service ceiling), but only one success was claimed. Flying Officers Lin Terry and Jack Cox combined to shoot down an Italian Cant 107-C reconnaissance aircraft. On 8 January 1943, the unit moved to Mersa Matruh, from where they were involved in mundane patrols over the Nile Delta. Even the attachment of three Supermarine Spitfires did not improve morale. In the first six months of 1943, the unit had a single action. On 22 February, a JU-88 had the better of a brief fight. On 23 July 1943, 451 Squadron lost three of six Hurricanes that had joined a strike force of Martin Baltimore light bombers, Beaufighters and Spitfires on an ineffective strike on targets on Crete.

The squadron was re-equipped with Spitfires and commenced a new phase of operations from Poretta, Corsica on 23 April 1944, when it escorted a formation of 24 North American B-25 Mitchell bombers to attack a railway bridge at Orvieto, Italy. During the return flight the formation was intercepted, and Flying Officer Wallis claimed a share in the destruction of a FW-190 fighter. Even though the majority of the bomber escort and armed reconnaissance flights from Poretta were unopposed, the Luftwaffe was still capable of making its presence felt. On the night of 11 May, a JU-88 dropped anti-personnel bombs on Poretta, killing two pilots and six of the squadron ground staff. In the air the Luftwaffe was less deadly. On 25 May, Flight Lieutenants House, Thomas and Bray each claimed the destruction of a FW-190 after a sharp encounter over Roccalbegna, north of Rome, accounting for three of the seven enemy aircraft shot down by 451 Squadron during the month. Another highlight was the covering of the landing by French commandos on the island of Elba.

Squadron Leader W.W.B. Gale assumed the command of 451 Squadron early in July, but was shot down a week later while engaged in a reconnaissance flight over the bridges spanning the Arno River between Florence and Empoli. Squadron Leader G.W. Small assumed command on 7 July. Next day the squadron moved to St Catherine, from where it flew fighter sweeps over Marseilles and Toulon prior to flying cover for the Allied landing on the coast of southern France on 15 August. The unit moved to St Cuer, from where, as has been already noted, it deployed to Hawkinge.

While 451 Squadron was stalled in Palestine, the two other Australian fighter squadrons were withdrawn for rest before participating in the second Battle of El Alamein. During this period Flying Officer A.W. ‘Nicky’ Barr enhanced his reputation. On 11 January 1942, he claimed victories over a single Italian Fiat G-50, and two BF-109s. During the combat Barr was wounded in the legs, and his Kittyhawk was badly damaged, forcing Barr to crash land behind enemy lines. Assisted by the local tribesmen, Barr was able to gain information on enemy dispositions that proved valuable after his return to the unit. Barr was promoted to the rank of squadron leader and assumed temporary command of 3 Squadron. On 30 May, Nicky made a spectacular high-speed crash landing, but was able to return to the Allied lines on foot, having passed though a tank battle en route. However, on 25 June Barr, badly wounded, bailed out of his severely battle-damaged Kittyhawk. He was captured, but managed to escape from captivity. In an eight-month period evading recapture in Austria and Italy, he eluded the enemy again and again, finally becoming involved with an Allied Airborne Special Services unit, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He had previously been awarded a DFC and bar, and remains, with a score of twelve enemy aircraft to his credit, the highest scoring 3 Squadron pilot of the Second World War.

At the end of September the Kittyhawks reverted to the fighter-bomber role, when they attacked Axis positions near Sidi Abd el Rahman and Ghazal. Sorties during October were a mixture of interceptions, fighter-bomber and bomber-escort missions. These missions enabled the respective commanders of 3 and 450 Squadrons, Squadron Leaders R.H. ‘Bobby’ Gibbes and J.E.A. Williams, to blood new pilots, thus ensuring that the units were at peak efficiency for duties during the forthcoming battle at El Alamein.

General Montgomery began the battle on 23 October 1942, but it was not until 4 November that the Axis forces were in full retreat. The British fighter units escorted light bomber formations, undertook tactical reconnaissance flights and strikes against Luftwaffe bases. Throughout the battle, the Luftwaffe resisted stoutly, despite the long-range efforts of the Kittyhawks to disturb their airfields. Although profitable, these operations were not without cost; 450 Squadron lost its commander when he was forced down near Buq Buq on 31 October. Williams was captured and, like Catanach, was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, one of the Gestapo victims to be executed as a result of his efforts in the ‘Great Escape’.

Once the Eighth Army broke through the Axis lines, the Desert Air Force was utilised to hinder the enemy retreat. Between 6 and 19 November, the fighter units were based at seven separate airfields. One task was escorting light bomber formations. On 9 November, Sergeant Dave Borthwick, of 450 Squadron, was part of the high cover for a formation of Bostons when he was shot down. Although wounded, he managed to parachute to the relative safety of the desert. On landing, he used his parachute material to bind his wounds. Despite his bindings, he could not walk, and crawled on hands and one leg for four days, eating beetles and licking the early morning dew from desert plants to sustain him. He finally found an Arab tomb, and was discovered by a King’s Royal Rifle Regiment patrol. He had lost 25 kilos in weight during his ordeal. Borthwick was awarded an MID for his fortitude.

So keen was the fighter force that on 9 November the advance parties of the 3 and 450 Squadron’s ‘B’ echelons appear to have been leading the whole Allied Forces pursuit. For example, a 3 Squadron party was located to the west of Sidi Barrani when they were strafed by BF-109s while watching the forward element of the Eighth Army’s armoured spearhead advancing behind them. Similarly, a 450 Squadron ‘B’ echelon was advised by the surprised armoured column commander who found them that it may be wiser for them to wait on the fall of Sidi Barrani before proceeding to the airfield. The advance from Amiriya, near Alexandria, was so rapid that 3 Squadron had advanced 800 kilometres in ten days and operated from five separate airfields. On 18 December the Australians had reached the airfield at Marble Arch in Libya. The effort was marred by the loss of five 3 Squadron ground crew members, the victim of an enemy landmine that had been laid near the landing field.

Despite the Allied landing in Morocco during November 1942, ensuring that the Axis forces in North Africa could not recover the initiative in the theatre, hard fighting ensued before the final African victory. The Australians had a reputation of making every effort to rescue downed pilots during the campaign—successful rescues had been previously completed by, among others, Peter Jeffery and Flying Officer Lou Spence—and the effort of Bobby Gibbes to rescue Sergeant Rex Bayley on 21 December 1942 is an excellent example of the hazards involved. Six 3 Squadron aircraft successfully strafed the German airfield at Hun, leaving six enemy fighters destroyed in their wake. Defending anti-aircraft fire shot down two of the attackers. One of the victims was Rex Bayley, who, after successfully crash landing his Kittyhawk, radioed that he was unhurt. Gibbes, despite Bayley’s protestations, landed his aircraft. After releasing the half-full drop tank from the Kittyhawk’s fuselage, Gibbes unstrapped himself from the cockpit and moved the ejected tank from under the aircraft. When Bayley arrived, Gibbes removed his own parachute and sat on his lap. The take-off was hazardous. There was only 300 metres available before the ground dropped off into a wadi. Under full power, the Kittyhawk became airborne, but not before the port wheel of the undercarriage was demolished when it hit the earth on the opposite side of the wadi. On landing at Marble Arch, Gibbes skilfully balanced the aircraft on its remaining starboard wheel on landing. The aircraft ground looped, but suffered only minor damage. Incidentally, Gibbes was himself shot down on 14 January 1943, but evaded capture for five days before returning to Allied lines.

The Allies accepted the final surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia on 13 May 1943. During the March 1943 breakthrough of Rommel’s defensive line at Mareth, the squadrons flew similar roles to those at El Alamein, and contributed to the inability of the Luftwaffe to resupply and protect the Axis troops in Tunisia. For 3 Squadron to have been— with the exception of Operation Battleaxe—involved in every major operation during the North African campaign was a proud achievement. With over 200 victories, it was the highest scoring Desert Air Force squadron. 450 Squadron had, with less opportunity, also made its mark. In sixteen months of operations this squadron destroyed 47 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, and, to give some credence to the varied role of fighter-bombers with the Desert Air Force, destroyed 584 enemy motor vehicles.

Australian fighter pilots also served with the RAF. The most outstanding was Clive Robertson Caldwell, who, with 28 confirmed victories, was the highest scoring Australian ‘ace’ of the Second World War. By the time he arrived back in Australia during September 1942, he had scored at least twenty victories and commanded 112 Squadron, RAF. He was acknowledged as a superb shot, and his ‘shadow shooting’ technique—a pilot would fire live rounds at the ground shadow of an accompanying aircraft, thus honing his skills in deflection shooting as well as allowing for the time taken for the projectiles and targets to meet at the same spot (leading the target). He was awarded a DSO, DFC and bar and the Polish Cross of Valour while in the Middle East. A contemporary was John Lloyd Waddy, who served in 250 Squadron, RAF, and 4 Squadron, South African Air Force (SAAF), before returning to Australia in February 1943. During his service in the Middle East he was awarded a DFC and scored twelve aerial victories.
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