TRAVELS WITH A SPITFIRE or No 242 (Fighter) Squadron - 1942 to 1944
written (it can now be revealed) by Squadron Leader Laurie Abbott RAF (retired).
Originally written ca. 1975
In response to the Editor's recent appeal for contributions to the Clarion, I have set a few thoughts down on paper telling the story of two years in my Air Force career. This particular period of time was during the last war, it has no moral, no earth-shattering message, and is just an "old sweat's tale". I would remind those who do read 'war stories' that this article is being written, not by a professional or well-known personality, but by someone who is still serving at R.A.F Cottesmore. Although remaining anonymous, the writer will probably be recognised by those with a knowledge of medal ribbons.
So to the tale and let us turn the clock back some thirty years or so to the summer of 1942. I was then a sergeant, married but a few months and serving with No 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron equipped with Beaufighter Mk. 2 night-fighter aircraft. Came the dreaded telephone call,
"You're on the boat, report to the orderly room".
After that a medical examination, I report to the M.O. in Sick Quarters who roared with laughter, touched me to see if I was still warm and said with glee,
"Caught you at last, eh?"
So far my path had followed the way worn smooth by countless thousands of forlorn airmen before me, but then things began to develop in a rather mysterious way. I was instructed to report to No. 242 Squadron at R. A. F. Digby in Lincolnshire. This famous squadron, once led by Group Captain Bader, had disbanded after his capture and was reforming at Digby with Spitfire Mk 5 aircraft. A week on embarkation leave and then I was packing equipment into wooden packing-cases for a sea voyage. Then came the order to hand in our blue uniforms and we were issued with army khaki battle-dress on which we sewed our blue chevrons and eagles.
After two or three weeks of frantic activity, one dark night we were taken to the nearest rail-head and off we went. We eventually arrived, at some ghastly hour near dawn, at Greenock in Scotland. There followed the inevitable wait of hours on the dockside, then on to lighters and over to the waiting troopship, whose name, if my memory serves me rightly, was the 'Empress of Scotland'.
By this time, it was mid September; Dame Rumour spread her wretched tales by the hour, but, truth to tell, none of us had the remotest idea, where we were bound. Soon enough, we sailed one night as part of an enormous convoy complete with a fine Royal Naval escort, Imagine the field day the wiseacres had when it was realised that we were sailing in a westerly direction and that there were no squadron pilots in our contingent. After a few days of sailing west, our convoy then turned to the south, then north-east and sundry other points of the compass - always out of sight of land. I will not dwell here upon the joys of travelling troop-deck in a troop-ship, perhaps another old sweat could compose an article on that subject.
However, after ten days or so afloat what should rear itself out of the horizon but the good old Rock of Gibraltar - we had reached the Mediterranean.
"Ah ha," said the optimists, "We're for the Western Desert and the fleshpots of Egypt".
"Not so", replied the pessimists, " It's through the Suez Canal and on to the Far East for us poor b...'s ".
In the event, both were wrong because one bright day in October (I forget the exact date) a sudden dash south brought what was left of our convoy into the port of Algiers on the north coast of Africa. Things had gone so well with the advanced parties of the invasion that our ship was even able to come alongside a jetty enabling us to disembark directly onto terra firma.
Then began a short period that I would prefer to forget. Utter chaos abounded on all sides with troops milling around looking for someone to love them and tell them just what to do next. Eventually our squadron personnel, who had rather huddled together in a form of mutual protection, received the verbal instruction,
"Your airfield is up the road that away, only fourteen miles and you can't miss it".
Our Squadron Warrant Officer optimistically formed us into three ranks and off we bravely stepped. Now each one of us was in full marching order, carrying sten guns and our ammunition pouches full of loaded magazines, remember that we were dressed in thick khaki battle-dress, wearing tin-hats and big ammo boots . . . . . . .. I would rather draw a veil over the rest of that day and the condition in which we eventually straggled into Maison Blanche, our first overseas airfield.
To make us feel really welcome that first night, enemy aircraft liberally sprayed the whole area with vicious 'butterfly' anti-personnel bombs (amongst other things). The squadron eventually got together on one corner of the airfield, our transport started to appear, Spitfires with extra large, overload, long range tanks began to arrive from Gibraltar and slowly but surely we began to look like a proper Air Force unit again. Our trucks and wagons were a real mixture of all sorts and sizes, some of which had never really belonged to us in the first place, but it was a case of 'What I have, I hold '.
I think it might be appropriate at this juncture to break off the narrative to state one or two general remarks about the time ahead. I would ask you to keep in mind that from the time the squadron left Digby in September 1942 for the next two years we ground staff personnel were never, never, never, told beforehand of any move, nor of the next destination. We were expected to be able to move at less than twenty four hours notice, and often did, being entirely self-contained, having our own transport, technical and domestic facilities. During the two years that lay ahead, the longest time the squadron ever spent in any one place was nine weeks; most of the time living under canvas and eating the eternal compo rations.
But I digress, - back to Maison Blanche. After we had been there about a week, we were ordered to load up and move out. I did not know that our destination was to be a tiny airstrip very near the small port of Bone, along the coast to the east of Algiers. But not for us the direct and comparatively good metalled road along the coast, - that was fully utilized by far more important military traffic moving up to the front. Our route took us directly inland and through the Atlas Mountains over tortuous and very twisting second class roads, stopping when it was dusk to make an evening meal and to sleep under our vehicles. Most of our drivers were what we now call 'Class B', but even so, the only 'casualty' that I remember was a water bowser which was being towed by an old five ton Leyland. A hair-pin bend in the mountains proved to be too sharp for the lock on the trailer wheels and it finished up precariously hanging over a sheer drop. Only by disconnecting and rolling the bowser over the edge of the road could the convoy proceed. To see this water bowser crashing and smashing down hundreds of feet of mountain-side was a spectacle that is still very vivid to me.
We eventually reached the airstrip at Bone, pitched camp and in no time there was a fully operation Spitfire squadron on the job. Unfortunately, air superiority was still very much in the balance at this time with the result that at least three times daily we were treated to unfriendly visitations by German fighter-bombers. This made life a little fraught, especially as we had no system of early warning (other than our own ears).
My outstanding memories of this time includes our amazing shortage of casualties on the ground, our very first ration issue of bread on Christmas Day (one slice per man), the arrival of the first batch of mail from home, and the dawn-to-dusk work, work, work. Our continuous flying patrols plus the enemy raids on the airstrip, however, all took their toll and by the evening of Boxing Day 1942, we were reduced to one serviceable Spitfire. It was time to take a breather. So, on the wagons, off you go heading south. South? Yes, we finished up on the outskirts of the city of Constantine, there to recuperate and receive our replacement aircraft. Two weeks later, on the wagons, heading north again - back to Bone. .... Not a pleasant prospect. This time, though, we landed up at a brand new airstrip which had been constructed by the R.E.'s using P. S. P. (Perforated Steel Plate) and which was located some miles inland from the actual port.
It was called 'Tingley', after the name of the major in charge of its construction, the amazing thing was that although our squadron continued to fly as intensively as ever, the enemy never located that particular airstrip, at least we were never on the receiving end of any 'nasties' while we were there for the next month or so.
An American Lightning squadron flew in and we were on our way once more. Pack up, on the wagon, heading east, this time to a forward airstrip called Souk-el-Arbe just to the rear of the first Army. The action had started up again after being somewhat bogged down during the winter, and, of course, we came in for our fair share of the enemy hate. Still, the campaign proceeded and forward we went in support of the action until the great day dawned when the enemy had been thrown out of North Africa. We then found ourselves on an airfield on the outskirts of Tunis, and had the honour of taking part in the victory parade through that city.
Dame Rumour now gave tongue again; we had completed the task for which our Spitfire Wing had been sent overseas - all four squadrons were being shipped home to the U. K. However, within a couple of weeks came the now familiar order, 'Pack up, on the wagons', - heading south we soon reached the outskirts of the small port of Sfax where we had to wait a couple of days for a ship. I well remember that each night the port was subjected to really fierce air raids and our tented camp got well and truly peppered with debris from A.A. shells. Fortunately we were left unmolested during the day and in no time the whole squadron with all its gear was loaded on a flat-bottomed L.S.T. In brilliant sunshine we sailed off to the north-east, as far as I could see completely unchaperoned by any armed escort.
It was on this voyage that my Flight Sergeant, returning from a shower in the crew's quarters and clad only in a towel, trod full force on an opened bully-beef tin. The result was that he cut his foot so badly that he eventually finished up in hospital and we never saw him again. I mention this incident because the outcome was that I took his place as N.C.O. in charge of the flight and remained so for the rest of the life of the squadron.
In the fullness of time, our L.S.T. waddled into Malta, we disembarked under the eagle eye of General Gort, and made our way to Ta-Qali airfield. There, rather to our surprise, we found that our Spitfires had already arrived. By this time, it was either late May or early June 1943 and life on Malta was still a little rugged, but it did have its points. For instance, instead of living in our; old faithful tents, we were accommodated in buildings. The Sergeants’ Mess at Rabat even had hot showers - a long forgotten luxury. The squadron stayed at Ta-Qali on Malta for six weeks and for the only time in our campaigning it was obvious to everyone where we were headed next. The Allied invasion of Sicily.
For this particular move of the squadron, I found myself detailed to be in charge of the advance party, scheduled to fly in as soon as our airstrip had been established. We loaded on board one of the old faithful Dakotas and after a completely uneventful flight (I 'm glad to say) landed on another tiny airstrip somewhere in the heart of Sicily about due west of Catania. If this place ever had a name, I'm afraid I have forgotten it, but we seemed to be miles from any town. It was at this time that the squadron acquired a new commanding officer who turned out to be a strict martinet. In the air he was a born leader, so we were told by our pilots, but on the ground he was little short of a despot. In hindsight this was probably just as well because we needed a strong man at the top in the days that lay ahead.
The Sicilian campaign moved on successfully and it was soon time to load up and be on the move again. We had recently 'come by' two Italian five ton trucks to add to our M.T. fleet and these gave us yeoman service for the next few months that we managed to hang on to them. However, there had been a price to pay. We had recovered these trucks under shell fire, and one poor corporal didn't move quickly enough. Northward we went, around the inland side of the base of Mount Etna who seemed to be registering her protest at all the activity. Our destination turned out to be an airstrip on the north-east coast which had been constructed by the R.E.'s at a little place called Milazzo. They had simply ripped out this strip from an area which had previously been covered with grape vines and I remember so well that the soil of the whole area was powder fine. The Spitfires raised great clouds of filthy dust every time they landed or taxied and by the end of each day everybody's legs were black right up to the thighs. Fortunately, we were right beside the sea and could wash off most of the muck at the end of the day.
Another memory of Milazzo is seeing a large three-engined Italian Air Force aircraft land bringing a V.I.P. delegation to negotiate Italy's withdrawal from the war. Soon we were actively engaged in fitting large ninety gallon over-load tanks to our aircraft for long distance patrols over the sea to Italy's mainland.
A few days went by. Then, "Pack up, on the wagons," this time to a spot where we could once more embark upon an L.S.T. and off we sailed in a northerly direction. What we didn’t know was that we were heading for the Salerno beach-head. By the time we reached a point near the shore, the beach-head was still under attack by German artillery in the surrounding hills. It was with mixed feelings that, on the one hand we could see H.M.S. Warspite a little way up the coast belting out broadsides with gay abandon, and on the other watching great plumes of water shoot up from shells exploding in the water near our L.S.T. We landed on the beach in quite good order, remarkably enough without a single casualty in our squadron, and were soon operating from the airstrip on the beach-head itself. In the fullness of time, the breakout from Salerno was achieved by the Army and we moved inland to what was left of a little village called Battipaglia. There we found comparatively comfortable billets in buildings that had escaped severe damage and which were once used for drying the local tobacco crop. It was here that we suffered four casualties in a most curious way. There was a most violent thunderstorm which swept down upon us without warning. Four of the lads dived under a truck for shelter, it was struck by lightning and only one airman survived.
Shortly after this, I found myself detailed once more to be on an advance party heading north. We were making for the civilian airfield just above the city of NapIes, rejoicing in the name of Capadacino. I remember that as we approached the southern edge of the city, the German rear-guard was just pulling out and the whole place was literally a stinking shambles. Never the most salubrious of cities in Southern Europe, Naples at that time, with the pervading stench of dead bodies hanging like a cloud in the streets, was not a pleasant spot to be in. As if to add her voice to the protest Mount Vesuvius, just across the bay, kept growling away adding to the general unease, especially at night. Our advance party reached our destination all right and had just about completed our preparations in one corner of the airfield to receive the aircraft when out of the blue came the order to return to Battipaglia. Imagine our feelings on re-joining the squadron when we were given instructions to drive inland and in a south-west direction. We eventually reached up at an airfield very near the port of Bari and were then told that we were being taken off operations for a few weeks for a rest.
This respite, however "did not last very long. Our wing had by this time been overseas for about a year and we began asking ourselves, "What now?" We were to learn soon enough and what we learnt did not make us feel any happier. Two of the four squadrons in our wing of Spitfires were packed up and in very short time had been placed on a troopship destined, so rumour had it, (and this time quite correct) for the Far East. The two squadrons which remained, including my own, were joined by another squadron to make up a fresh wing. We were ordered down to Taranto docks, on to an old ancient troopship, (the Neuralia I think it was), and into the Mediterranean we sailed. We quickly established that we were sailing east, but to where? Port Said on the Suez Canal was reached without incident and there, to our amazement we were ordered to disembark. Onto a troop-train, down along the Canal, into a tented transit camp; what now?
There followed a few days of kicking our heels (in the sand), then one fine dark night we clambered aboard yet another troop train. This time, it was a case of travelling in the old traditional way of moving military men - in cattle trucks. (Shades of an earlier campaign, '40 hommes or 8 chevaux'). We were confounded, to find that we were travelling north. We stopped at predetermined points where the Army, warned of our movements, had prepared meals in convenient railway sidings.
"Ah well" we thought, "Palestine is now a nice long way from the war in any direction - it will be nice to have a rest cure". However, this idea was quickly dispelled when the train kept on going north, on and on and on. By the-by, have you ever thought of the predicament that could arise with troops travelling in cattle trucks and who may be feeling the effects of ‘Gyppo Tum', as most or us were? You may take my word for it that it can be a harrowing experience hanging out of a fast moving train relying solely on the strong arms of your travelling companions.
But I digress. On and on we went until grinding to a halt one night we found ourselves in Aleppo in Syria. Off the train onto lorries and still north we went until on Christmas Eve 1943, we arrived at a very lonely airfield just short of the Turkish border. Surprise, surprise, our Spitfires were there waiting for us. There we were destined to sit twiddling our thumbs until the following February waiting for Turkey to declare war on Germany, which, of course, never happened. So then our journeying started all over again in the reverse direction. First to Aleppo, on to that train but this time only as far as Ramat David in Palestine. There, to everyone's delight, we lost our Spitfire Mk 5's and were re-equipped with Mk 9's. We then thought we were the Bees Knees, we would show them, but where? the nearest action was hundreds of miles away. We were not left in suspense much longer. On to that infamous train yet again, back down south to that same transit camp in the desert, back up the treaty road beside the Suez CanaI to Port Said, and on to a troopship once more. This time she was the Circassia, a hell ship if I ever sailed in one. Conditions below decks were so bad, that most of us, against all regulations, used to creep up on deck after dark to sleep under the stars.
We found ourselves travelling west. . . .. were we really going home at last? After yet another completely uneventful sea voyage, we a woke one morning a few days later to find ourselves anchored in a strange harbour that no one could recognise. Where had we finished up this time? It turned out to be Augusta in Sicily, on the west coast. But, stranger things were yet to happen. Later that day a large grey warship sailed into the harbour, we were ordered onto lighters and transhipped across the water to the new arrival. This ship turned out to be the "Ville D'Oran", a Free French armed cruiser, into which we packed like sardines. The wildest rumours all sounded creditable enough, especially when we left Augusta without an escort of any kind and at very high speed. Even the whiz kids among us could make no sense of the direction in which we were heading. My memory fails me at this point as to the actual duration of this voyage, but packed in as we were, it could not have lasted too long.
Soon enough, we sailed into yet another strange harbour, where of all places but Ajaccio on the south-west coast of Corsica. This time, we disembarked, feeling very glad to be on dry land once more, loaded on to trucks that were waiting and off we set through the mountainous roads leading inland, on to yet another unspecified destination. It turned out to be a very small airstrip on the east coast, south of Bastia. This airstrip, was one of many from which our wing of Spitfires were to cover the Allied advance on Rome straight across the water. What I do recollect most vividly about this nameless place (in addition to the continuous hard grafting from dawn to dusk) was the squadron's first experience of being on the receiving end of clusters of fragmentation bombs dropped by enemy aircraft operating from Italy. Ribbed like a hand grenade, these small bombs exploded on impact with the ground and reduced many a poor Spitfire's fuselage to a pepper pot. It was here too, that I had one of my own personal 'close things'. They counted at least fourteen pieces of fragmentation bomb that they took out of a corporal who lay right beside me in one raid. But he survived to tell the tale, as did many of us. Incidentally, the worst raids of the Corsican airstrips occurred on the very night before the Allies' big push on Rome - which proves something about the enemy intelligence at that time.
However, the front in Italy gradually moved northward and then the oft-heard order came again, "Pack up, on the wagons". Again on the move, we crossed the island to another airstrip up in the north-west of Corsica near to the town of Calvi. It was now mid-summer, 1944, the Second Front in Europe was either in the offing or had just been launched, and we did not have to be told that our wing was also headed for France or Northern Italy. This time I found myself in charge of the rear party with enough supplies and equipment for only a few days. We were briefed that we would only operate for a very short time before re- joining the main body of the squadron. What went wrong I never did find out, but those few days stretched to about two weeks, by which time my rear party was just about driven into the ground maintaining aircraft which were carrying out constant long distance patrols between Corsica and France. However. we caught up with the rest of the squadron in time to load aboard the ubiquitous L.S.T.s, and off we went heading north.
This was the invasion which, for us, was a real piece of cake. We landed on the French coast at Frejus on a pitch black night. Although chaos did not reign supreme on this occasion, things did not turn out to be all that simple. I had been detailed to drive the squadron's cook-house wagon, a beat up old Ford truck and I very successfully missed the white guide tapes on the beachhead to wind up in the middle of a mine field. But that, too, is another story; sufficient to say that the Army did a first class job of rescuing me and my mobile cook-house all on one piece. So, after an interval of just over four years, I found myself back on the mainland of France once more. (On the previous occasion I had left in rather a hurry and very ignominiously in June, 1940).
After a pause near the coast to get ourselves organised we followed the hastily retreating German army of occupation up the country until we reached an airfield outside the town of Montelimar (where THE nougat comes from). Came the great anti-climax. It was here that, as an experienced operational fighter wing, we received what we considered was a humiliating blow. The advance had gone so well and quickly that the Army could not cope with the supply of aviation fuel for our fighters. The result was that one complete wing; ours, was grounded and given the task of supplying the fuel to our sister wing which had gone forward as far as Lyons. All available trucks were pressed into this task, running a shuttle service from Marseilles to Montelimar and from thence up to Lyons. Nevertheless, our faces were looking to the north and every move would now bring us that much closer to home. Soon came our next move, this time to Istres which, since then, has become very well known to many in the R. A. F. as a staging post.
It was at Istres that within a space of a week there came three items of unexpected news. Firstly, after being in charge of my flight since June 1943, I had been promoted to acting Flight Sergeant. Secondly, I was told that I had been officially mentioned in dispatches. But thirdly, and here the heavens fell in, our wing of Spitfires was to be disbanded. We were being returned to a transit centre for re-posting within the Mediterranean Theatre. With morale at rock bottom, and for the last time, we packed up, got on the wagons, and off we went southward. Down to Marseilles, on to an L.S.T. going where? Of all places to return to, it was back to NapIes and then a transit camp on the outskirts of the city. There we finally lost sight of our squadron equipment and were housed in a very old disused macaroni factory - what an anti-climax. Most of us had then been together for just over two years but it was going to be well over another year before the majority of us saw England again. When our postings came through at last, we all dispersed to all points of the compass and I finished up in an engine repair workshops of a maintenance unit just to the north of Naples. But that, as they say, is yet another story.
Well, for over two years our squadron had played its part all over the Mediterranean Theatre. In all that time we worked seven days a week and had no official leave at all. There were the odd slack periods when we got an occasional day off, but these were few and far between: Always on the move, never sure of our ultimate destination or what might lie in store for us when we got there.
To close this tale, it may be of interest to describe some aspects of our squadron life 'in the field'. Our normal working day was from dawn to dusk (thank God our Spitfires were never required to fly at night). For most of the time we lived in tents which were pitched at a discrete and prudent distance from the airstrip. Our tents were 180 pounders, the airmen living eight and ten to a tent, the N.C.O.'s six, and the officers two. There was no such thing as an issue of beds or sheets; if you could not improvise, then you slept on the ground. I well remember that my bed for two years was some sacking material stretched between two old tent-poles and supported at each corner by a four gallon petrol tin. However, whenever we moved, space on the squadron 'wagons was always at a premium and if the crunch came (and it did quite often), our 'beds' were amongst the first load to be dumped. Water, too, was usually in short supply, coming from a bowser trailer filled from the nearest source and then purified. For the most part, our food rations came out of tins - oh, the eternal variations of bully beef, Machonicies' M & V., tinned herrings, tinned cheese and hard biscuits. Every week without fail, and I never remember missing out even when things were really bad, we were given a free issue of either 50 cigarettes or 2 ounces of tobacco. It does not require much imagination to visualise how rarely mail from the U. K. caught up with a squadron as mobile as ours. But, it did, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
My two years with No 242 Squadron left me with an affection for the Spitfire aircraft which still remains with me to this day. Let no one kid you. it was a lovely aircraft to keep serviceable, surviving brutal treatment from friend and foe alike. It fully deserves its place of honour in the history of the Royal Air Force.
My tale is done, a worm's eye view of squadron life overseas on active service some thirty odd years ago. I hope it has been of interest to the reader - it all seems so very long ago now.
Links for 242 squadron
3 25th May 1944 Operational Record Book
5 Friends Re-united