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Into Battle For The First Time...

By Bobby Gibbes

Rayak Airbase, Lebanon.  Bobby [centre, holding "pith helmet"] with his groundcrew
(Fitter IIE), and Tom BENTLEY (Fitter IIA)  on the 20th of August 1941,
after 3SQN had occupied the former Vichy-French airbase.
This was also the scene of Bobby's first (near-fatal!) combat experience.
[Photo from Gibbes family album.]

(An extract from his book: YOU LIVE BUT ONCE)

At long last I had arrived at the very famous "Number 3" and I was to spend two years trying to live up to the achievements of those early pilots whose exploits had won high acclaim with all other Commonwealth Air Forces operating in the Western Desert, and even more importantly, with the soldiers of the A.I.F.  

They had lost a number of their original pilots, and those who had survived had flown many combat hours fighting Italian and German airmen and had carried out a great amount of reconnaissance and ground-strafing of enemy concentrations.  Already their combat victories had reached over 60. Their first Commanding Officer, Wing Commander McLachlan had been posted to head the RAAF Liaison Headquarters in Cairo and his replacement was Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey.  Pete had originally been attached to the squadron as their Signals Officer, but after arrival in the Middle East, he changed his role to become a full time operational pilot.

As I commence writing of my operations in Syria and in the Western Desert, I am aided by the fact that, contrary to regulations, I kept diaries.  Towards the end of the war, with the help of these diaries and my flying log book, I wrote up some of my experiences fairly fully while they were comparatively fresh in my memory.  I find that, many years later, while many memories have faded, re-reading those earlier writings often bring back a further recall of events and happenings which have not been previously recorded.

Before proceeding, I should mention that there were many pilots flying similar operations who were better pilots and braver than me.  I was just an average pilot.  Other pilots shared similar experiences and many acquitted themselves with much greater success.  The events which I recorded in my diaries were as I saw them at the time.  Another pilot, engaged in the same combat, might recall events quite differently.

Air fighting was only one part of a squadron's activity.  Ground-strafing sorties were carried out almost continuously, and some little time after we were re-equipped with Kittyhawks, bomb-racks were fitted, and we then carried out a great number of dive-bombing sorties.  All operations were fraught with danger; danger which we learned to live with.  In air combat, the ability of the pilot played a large part in his survival, but with ground-strafing and dive-bombing, the pilots' experience and ability in air-fighting did little to ensure his safety.  I find that I have recorded very little regarding ground attack, as my main interest centred around "air combat".

I will commence my story in a re-write of my diary covering my first operation.  Reading it now, it appears pretty corny, but perhaps it expressed the naivety of a 24-year-old going into battle for the first time.

I wrote: "On Sunday, the 8th of June, 1941, after a total of six hours flying on Tomahawk fighters, I was called up for briefing with the rest of the squadron pilots.  The C.O. gave us "the gen." [information] on the opening blow of the squadron in the Syrian campaign.  We had been half expecting to be at war with the Vichy French for some days, and the actual news of the offensive commencing was greeted with a feeling of relief, coupled with that of dismay to think that it was actually necessary to come to blows with our old allies, the French, in order to prevent German infiltration into Iraq.  The AIF had also been committed to cross into Syria on the same morning.

I was selected for the morning show, together with five other pilots, the C.O. to lead.  The thought of justifying my training by coming to grips with the enemy was somehow satisfying, and at the same time, rather frightening.  I think I was afraid that I would not be able to conquer my fear of facing possible death.  I was about to be put to the test.

We were called before dawn and we hurriedly dressed and donned our flying gear.  I needed no call, as I had been awake for most of the night worrying about the morrow.  During the final briefing, our target, together with formation details, and method of attack, were outlined by Peter Jeffrey, our commanding officer.  We were going to strafe the Rayak aerodrome in Syria, a Vichy French Air Force base.

On climbing into my Tomahawk, my fear started to abate and was being replaced by a growing excitement.  It had gone completely by the time we started our engines and became airborne at first light.  We climbed in a northerly direction from our base at Lydda, Palestine.  I tried without success to see Jerusalem out to our right, and later, the Sea of Galilee.

Three unidentified aircraft appeared some little distance ahead and as Peter turned his gun-switch on, for some reason they started firing.  Jock Perrin, seeing this, pulled the nose of his aircraft up to compensate for extreme range, and opened fire.  Three very startled [British] Blenheim crews dived madly downward and away.

On nearing Rayak, we went into starboard echelon and dived down, selecting aircraft parked on the ground as our targets.  I shot up an old biplane, type unknown, and somehow, due to my inexperience and stupidity, I ended up under Jock's aircraft.  He was shooting at a square building on the western side of the aerodrome, and I flew in a shower of his empty cartridge cases, within a foot or so of the surface of the field. I was not able to bank and turn away without colliding, and I tried desperately to skid from beneath him.  He finally pulled up and I was able to clear his target by a few feet only.  It was an awfully close shave, and Jock had no idea of how close we both went to joining our maker.  I never told him.  We had really tempted fate that day.  Jock's target was an ammunition shed.  It would have made quite a bang.

After the period of intense fear which I had just experienced, for some peculiar reason I flew into a rage.  As I weaved and jinked - almost right on the deck to avoid the expected flak, which didn't eventuate due to the complete surprise of our attack - I came across an Arab mounted on a camel.  I lined-up my gunsight on him and when about to pull the trigger, my sanity returned.  If I had fired, it would have lived with me always.  I will never understand what devil entered my head on this occasion.

On return to Lydda Airport, I felt elated.  I had passed my first test, albeit a fairly easy one.  We had shot up at least six Vichy aircraft...

Rayak Airbase, Lebanon.  The wreck of one of the dangerous Vichy-French Dewoitine D520 fighters,
burnt-out on the ground.
[Photo from the Harry Clare Collection]

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