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Battles of Attrition

December 1942 - January 1943

By Tom Russell

Kittyhawk Pilot Tom Russell relaxes after a mission.

Three Squadron's Kittyhawks flew their last operation of the year 1942 on 30 December.  It is reported in "Fighters Over The Desert" (by Shores and Ring) as follows:

"At 1350 hours seven aircraft of this unit patrolled over Bir el Zidan, refuelling at Alem el Gzina so that they were able to remain in the area until 1730 hours.  During the afternoon, fifteen Bf 109s of 11/JG77 attacked, but the Australians were able to claim victories without losses, F/Lt Watt, F/Lt Boardman and Sgt Righetti each shooting down one fighter.  Watts claiming a second probably destroyed.  Oblt. Burchard Boker was killed, and Uffz. Gunter Mielenz became a POW."

My diary notes help reconstruct the scene that day:

We had flown to Gzina, a landing ground that had been found by Danny Boardman, and which we knew as "Danny's Acre", refuelled, and took off at about 3.15pm to patrol over our forward troops, who were south west of Buerat.  Danny was leading, and the gaggle included Ronald Watt, his No.2 Alan Righetti, and David Ritchie with me as his No.2.  David had to return early.

Nearing the area, we saw trucks burning, where 109s had apparently been strafing.  We were at 10,000ft when Danny reported 12 aircraft at 2 o'clock on the same level and ordered us to climb.  Six 109's came out of the sun, two were behind us, and seven more were above.  They attacked from all directions and split us up completely.

I was attacked by two of them, and in taking evasive action, spun from 8,000 to 1,500 ft - thought I’d "had it", not from the spin, which I controlled OK, but from the 109s.  Fortunately for some reason, they didn't follow me down.

I climbed back and was attacked by two more 109s who did very poor "head ons", which allowed me to get a quick shot at one, with no result.  Pulled away and climbed up to 5,000ft where I saw a 109 sitting about 1,000ft above me.  We watched each other for a while, and he was so intent on trying to get into position to lodge an attack, that he didn't see Watty, who came in behind him.  The next moment I saw the 109 simply disintegrate and catch fire, (on our return to base I was able to confirm this for him).  Watty got so excited that he called to me to, "come on up Russ and we'll get some more". I climbed as quickly as I could, but didn't get anywhere near him, because he had seen four more 109's west of him, engaged them and got a probable.

I was on my own now, saw another aircraft east of me, thought it may have been a 109, but it turned out to be Danny Boardman, and we came back to base together.

In his excellent book "Desert Warriors", Russell Brown includes reports from Danny, Watt and Alan Righetti. Each of those three destroyed a 109.

And so ended 1942.

January of 1943 was to be a time of conflicting emotions for us.  On the morning of the 14th, we were excited because mail had come in, but the day was to end on a very distressing note: we were to have five aircraft shot down.

Our first job was to be top cover to 260 squadron, who were to strafe, but they couldn't find the target, so we returned to base.  Late in the morning, 12 Kittys led by Bob Gibbes were to be close escort to Bostons, who were to bomb Bir Dufan airfield.  

RAF Bostons

450 squadron was to be medium cover, 250 as top, and 260 had a roving commission; 48 Kittyhawks was thought to be impregnable.

However, a fair force of 109s approached from the ace Staffel 1/JG 77, led by Major Müncheberg (who just eight days later was to shoot down Alan Righetti, who became a POW, and also do a fair bit of damage to my own aircraft).

Major Joachim Müncheberg.

There were also some Macchi 202s in the enemy force.  The 109s attacked and the result for 3 Squadron was five aircraft lost.  Les Weatherburn became a POW, Norm Caldwell was found in a hospital as the Allies advanced, Bob Gibbes aircraft was hit, he belly landed and later returned to base.  Sadly Bill Diehm and Allan Tonkin (on his first operation) were killed.  450 also lost two pilots.

Informal portrait of 412049 Flying Officer (FO) William George Diehm of Lithgow, NSW.  FO Diehm, a clerk prior to enlistment,
served as a pilot with 3 Squadron RAAF in the Middle East.  FO Diehm, aged 23, was killed when his aircraft was lost
 on operations over North Africa on 14 January 1943.

In the afternoon, conditions were very poor with sandstorms around, and only seven of us got off.  Garth Clabburn was leading but was forced to return with engine problems, and Rex Bayly took over.  We were to do a dive-bombing job, and also act as top cover to 450 Squadron.  Six 109s attacked us and I was lucky to be able to avoid one who was right on my tail.  I saw a 109 closing in on Nev Austin's aircraft, and was making my way over to try and help, but before I could get there Nev was shot down.  Rex Bayly had also seen Nev in trouble, was closer than me and able to get behind the 109 and shoot him down.  When we left the area there were two fires on the ground.  Ted Hankey was missing for a while, but it turned out he had put down at another landing ground.  Rex Bayly’s account of this encounter is also reported in Russell Brown's book.   While Gibby was missing, Ronald Watt took over.  On the 27th, Ron was to be killed  (he had also been on the operations of the 14th).  He was also one of four sons, all of whom who were lost to a mother, during the war.

Major Müncheberg was probably the top German pilot of this time, and at the time of his death was credited with 135 victories.  He had done most of his fighting in the European theatre of war, and his score there was 124, plus 11 in North Africa.  His death occurred in a bizarre manner, and is recorded in "Fighters Over Tunisia":

"Around 0930 on the 23rd March 1943, Major Müncheberg of Stab/JG 77 took off from La Fauconnerie with his wingman, Lt. Strasen, and headed for the Mareth area to see "if there was anything to shoot down".  Strasen saw some Spitfires below of the USAAF 52nd Fighter Group near Sened, and both dived to attack, Müncheberg attacking Captain Theodore Sweetland, whose aircraft began to pour smoke as it was hit in the engine.  Müncheberg's speed was so great that he got too near to his 135th victim, and what happened next is not very clear.  Strasen reported that Sweetland's aircraft exploded and that debris fell on Müncheberg's wings, one of which snapped off.  Captain Hugh L. Williamson reported however, that Sweetland deliberately rammed the Messerschmitt with his burning Spitfire.  Whatever the truth was, both aircraft fell to the ground in flames; at this moment Strasen shot down Williamson, who baled out, all three aircraft crashing near kilometre stone No.82 on the Gabes-Gafsa road, the wreckage of the Messerschmitt flanked by that of the two Spitfires.  So died one of the Luftwaffe's most outstanding fighter pilots and leader."

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