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'Ground Crew' is a true story of desert warfare, compiled from the author's diary during his service with No.3 RAAF Fighter Bomber Squadron in the Middle East. It includes detailed events of action during the Squadron's campaigns in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Tunisia.
The author has written a very interesting and descriptive story of events as they happened in a day-by-day scene of action in service with the Squadron. No.3 Squadron is one of the most senior RAAF squadrons. Its history began in World War I, with the Australian Flying Corps. It still operates today at Williamtown Air Base, NSW. It was the first Australian Squadron to serve in the Middle East, arriving at Port Tewfik, Egypt, in 1940.
Very little has been documented on the experiences, hardship and dangers faced and endured by ground crews serving in the extreme situations and conditions of desert warfare. The desert road-convoys were easily identified from the air and made prime targets for the German aircraft. The seemingly never-ending sand and dust storms wreaked havoc with transport and aircraft alike. Other difficulties experienced were: the crossing of rugged wadis; climbing up high escarpments; miles of hot desert travel; the Allied advances and the panic of those life-threatening retreats; arriving and establishing an advanced landing ground; consistent day and night enemy strafing and bombing raids; the shortage of water (only a bottle per day for drinking and washing); blazing heat by day and freezing nights; and the ever-present loss of life, with landmines and S-mines hidden all through large areas of the desert, waiting for a victim.
Sainsbury details the legendary exploits of some of our ace pilots who were unstinting in their praise and respect for their ground crews. He recalls time spent on leave in Lebanon, Palestine, Alexandria and Cairo, passing through well-known places of battle - Sidi Barrani, Sollum Pass, Gambut, El Adem, Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli.
Out of all this emerged the most important asset of all; the comradeship, the mateship born out of loyalty and determination to get the job done. The Australian ground crews were outstanding in these unforgiving conditions. They met and challenged the unexpected dangers to achieve a brilliant record of service, bravery and devotion.
The author has presented this true story as it happened in those unforgettable days of action and life in the far off deserts of North Africa.
Below are some sample pages from Felix's 118-page diary, which also includes photographs never published before:
LATE NOVEMBER 1941 ("OPERATION CRUSADER"):
23 November 1941, Sunday
A day of heavy bombing and fighter escorts. Dozens went over most of the day. We expect to be bombed and strafed in retaliation anytime, but have been lucky so far.
24 November 1941, Monday
Five German aircraft attacked us this morning. No-one hurt much. Ack ack shot down one. More bombers for escort today. Ten different types of aircraft on our ALG. Hope the Jerries don't see all these aircraft or we'll cop it. Enemy tanks in our vicinity all last night, so we packed up ready to go. German tanks didn't find us, will hang on a few more days. My tent mate, Bill Gordon, jumped off a truck and sprained his ankle.
25 November 1941, Tuesday
Our kites took off this morning to strafe those tanks. Three kites crashed. F/Lt Manford (Fremantle boy) got back okay. F/O Bothwell shot down and killed in crash. Was later found still strapped in his seat - his pockets had been gone through and his watch taken. P/O Jewell crash landed in a tank battle, his whereabouts unknown.
26 November 1941, Wednesday
Operations again today. Enemy aircraft around last night. F/O Hiller shot down, but bailed out and went down under silk over enemy territory. P/O Glostier shot down and taken prisoner. Ground crews extended to the limit. During all these ops fixing engines, rigging, landing gear, bullet, shell and shrapnel holes, guns and ammo, service requires a maximum effort from all ground staff in these dusty conditions.
27 November 1941, Thursday
Trying to get all aircraft serviced and ready for more ops. Hot and dusty.
28 November 1941, Friday
More bombing patrols. Our aircraft as escorts - big convoys moving. Moving back? We may have to retreat!!
29 November 1941, Saturday
Our Tomahawks doing escort duty with bombers again. Otherwise quiet at the front. Cool day.
30 November 1941, Sunday
Our boys went out looking for a fight and ran into a mixture of Italian and German aircraft. In the ensuing battle, we got eight enemy aircraft confirmed, with a probable 13. We lost three aircraft. One pilot, "Woof" Arthur still missing. Scotty shot down two, the guns must be working well!
Tiny Cameron crash landed in the desert and a German plane saw him and strafed him as he got out of his kite. He got out of it all with a few shrapnel cuts. "Winca" Pete Jeffries saw what was happening and drove off the enemy aircraft, landed in the desert next to Tiny, who ditched his parachute and climbed in with Pete and sat on his knee. Tiny is about 6'4", and Pete is about 6'0", so they can't close the cockpit hood. Pete said "I'll do the foot controls, you take the joystick". So they took off from the desert, hoping not to run into any enemy on the way home. This would be a first. Two up in a single cockpit with one parachute! They landed safely back at the ALG. What a surprise when we saw the two clamber out!! Some quick service of aircraft and off again to escort 32 bombers. All returned safely. Scotty and Tiny both pleased with my guns.
LATE DECEMBER 1941 (ADVANCE INTO LIBYA):
27 December 1941
The Derna area was extensively farmed by Italians pre-war, and some are still there. The Germans forced them into uniforms of war and they were not the least interested in leaving their farms and fighting. The Italians living in North Africa never ever performed to the German expectations, and thousands laid down their arms if the opportunity arose. They were not regarded very highly by their German allies.
Our next problem was traversing from the top of the escarpment, down Derna Pass to the valley below. The road wound down the hillside in a series of "S" bends, the drop was 1100' in two miles. Very tight corners and slow. A favourite place for Jerry to bomb and strafe, and, by the looks of the wrecked and burned trucks over the sides, he must have paid some visits recently. We made it okay to the bottom and noticed many wrecked enemy aircraft on Derna aerodrome. Before leaving in a hurry, they scattered their bombs all over the whole area.
28 December 1941, Sunday
Departed Derna at 10.00am, after sleeping next to the trucks overnight. Not long up the road, and up another pass to the top of the escarpment again. Raining a little bit. Lovely and green, looking back.
Back in the desert again, on top of the escarpment. We passed two Italian trucks, strafed and burned, with eight or nine dead Italian soldiers in and around the wrecks. Arrived about 4.30pm at the top of the Barce Valley Pass. Another damned pass to wind down as quick as we can. We feel like sitting ducks on these open passes. Camped at the bottom overnight. The sight of the rich Barce Valley, with its nice green farmland, was great to the eyes after the desert.
29 December 1941, Monday
Set out from Barce Village at 10.00am in a fair downfall of rain. Travelled along the only road, when, up front, appeared another pass. This one, Tocra Pass. Half way up, we had to make a very rough detour, as the Germans had blown up the roadway whilst retreating a day or two before. We were glad to be out of this area, as we had been lucky on these passes, up until now.
Back on top again, we travelled through the desert until we sighted Benghazi at 2.30pm. A large and important Port, which was full of bombed-out and sunken ships. Our bombers sure did a great job of all the harbour and surrounding area, some of it is still burning.
Benghazi is a big town, and almost totally deserted. I couldn't believe the number of shops, complete with all stock intact, just left, as if in the middle of trading for the day. We stopped at a suitable shop and cliftied some blankets, pillows, etc, while the orderly room clerk grabbed a typewriter or two. "Jykus" and "Pud" backed their Crossley truck up to the local brewery gates and pulled them out. They loaded up with large basket crates of Italian Chianti wine. Each bottle in its own woven raffia cover.
We couldn't stay in town too long, as we had to find a place to bed down, away from the town. We drove out of town past El Berka aerodrome, which had many captured German and Italian aircraft on it. We stopped about 30 miles out in a wog village in the grounds of the local mosque.
As an advance group, there were not many of us (or transport), so the large crate of Chianti was more than enough for treble our number, and, over the next few days, started to have a devastating effect on our fitness level.
The wog village went under the name of Chemines. By now, we were getting hungry, so traded some biscuits for eggs from the Arabs. It's very cold, but the Chianti helps!
30 December 1941, Tuesday
Did nothing today. Still a bit crook, all of us. That plonk is pretty powerful medicine. Still waiting for some convoy to come through to give us an idea of where our advanced landing ground is situated. Bartered for more eggs. The cook made us a bully beef stew, for those well enough to eat it.
LATE JANUARY 1942 (RETREAT FROM ROMMEL'S COUNTER-ATTACK):
22 January 1942, Thursday
Real good fine day. 32 bombers and our planes went into action to hold up the enemy. Stukas are bombing our retreating troops. Our aircraft are strafing and attacking the enemy. We shoot down two Jerry planes (F/O Bradbury shot down one JU87). Bad news. We pack up again, ready to move back again any minute. The German tanks are just a few miles away. We don't know the whereabouts of our advance party! We may not move out tonight. No tents, no slit trench - no time for those luxuries.
23 January 1942, Friday
Slept out in the open last night. I could hear the tanks during the night. Not so good, they must be close now. I was told last night that a few of us must stay behind to see the aircraft get away okay. That means we are separated from the rest of B Flight. We are on our own.
24 January 1942, Saturday
F/O Pace down in the desert. Motor seized, had to pick him up. German tanks too close to be healthy. The retreat is in full swing now. Everybody, army and air forces are moving back. Just before leaving, we take our truck over to a NAAFI Depot (comfort funds' stores) who have panicked and left everything. We load up with tins of peaches and tinned stuff of different varieties, stuff that we didn't think existed in the desert. We only had bully beef and biscuits in our ration allocation. We get back to the convoy and are out of there as quick as possible, at about 10.00am. We head somewhere out in the desert as the German tanks close in on the other end of the drome perimeter. We head out, flat out, and don't stop until about 70 or 80 miles into the desert, and we are lost!
25 January 1942, Sunday
After a bit of a conference, having had a bit of a restless night, as we were not sure where the Jerry tanks were heading, we decide to head back to a previous area we had used on the way up, called Mechili. After an early start (having slept next to our trucks overnight), we see dust in the distance and arrive at Mechili at 10.00am. A bit of luck. B Flight were there waiting for us, but another panic. We must leave again within the hour.
We take off again. After an hour or so we find ourselves slap bang in the middle of a series of big minefields. Sometimes they are marked at their perimeters with an odd metal stake, if you're lucky. We couldn't see any, so we concluded that I had driven a long way into the minefield. I told the boys to stay in the truck and guide me out, backwards, in our own wheel tracks, for several hundred yards and we will try a different direction. (We might get lucky!) We kept backing on our tracks and eventually found some minefield stakes. We went quietly parallel to them and eventually picked our way out of the minefield area. We were pretty lucky to get away with it.
Stopped at 12.30am for some bully beef and biscuits, plus some tins of peaches we'd cliftied from the NAAFI dump. However, one tin looked a bit swollen and out of shape. Anyway, Mudgy stabbed it with a bayonet (no tin openers) and it exploded everywhere. Us, and all the gear, covered with rotten peaches and syrup. Only a short stop and we are on our way again. The Jerries have broken through everywhere, and we will have to drive all day, and well into the night to stay in front of them. It is a full retreat. Everyone for themselves now!
We are driving the trucks as fast as they will go over this rough desert terrain. It's pitch black and we have no lights. Hitting slit trenches is our worst problem. I went through one and broke the right front spring off at the rear hangar. I am unable to stop. Nothing I can do about it under these circumstances, must keep going if possible.
We belted through the dark until we reached an old drome we operated from on the way up, El Gazala No.2 Advanced Landing Ground, at about midnight.
LATE JUNE 1942 (RETREAT AFTER ROMMEL'S BREAK-OUT FROM "THE CAULDRON"):
26 June 1942, Friday
Another high-pressure day. Aircraft on dive-bombing and strafing missions all day. At 7.30pm ack-ack suddenly opened up with everything. We all panicked a bit, but the bomber turned out to be one of ours. We could see flashes in the distance, and hear the rumble of artillery. We are told to leave immediately.
Another big panic to pack up, and we leave at 10.00pm. Enemy planes are over us as we roar into the desert night. We saw one enemy plane shot down by ack ack. We pressed on in the darkness, no lights can be shown. We pulled up at 4.30am and slept next to the truck on the prairie. I had been driving all night, pushing the truck pretty hard and hoping not to hit anything in the dark, so the stop was a relief.
27 June 1942, Saturday
Up and on our way again at 6.00am. We travel well spread-out over the desert, trying to pick the best bit of territory to travel over without getting into trouble. The desert often changes suddenly, so being alert and trying to anticipate the best section to navigate over is the way to go. You soon learn the hard way if you get careless.
At midday we arrive at an area where Wellington Bombers are operating. This drome is called Landing Ground 106. A large area, well stocked with bombs and ammo and some Wimpy bombers. We reckon this big drome will be a cert to get bombed, so bugger the tents, let's put the slitty down first!
28 June 1942, Sunday
Our aircraft have arrived, so it's up at 7.00am and straight into ops. Bombing up and checking guns and they are away again. Glad we put down our slit trench. We were bombed and strafed and two Wellingtons (which had taxied into one another earlier) were both hit and exploded and burned into a tangled mess of metal. Both were to be destroyed the next day anyway. C-Flight to move back to Base, 22 miles out of Alexandria LG91.
29 June 1942, Monday
Enemy planes around all night, only one dropped bombs close. We are on immediate notice to move, so packed up in a rush to move out at noon. We hit the Coast Road again. It's jammed with every type of transport you could name. All retreating, one behind the other, in the direction of Alex.
The road is packed. A pommie staff car ran into our bomb trailer, which we tow behind our truck (it carries eight bombs when loaded). It was pretty slow going, and we just hoped Jerry aircraft would not discover this transport mess, or it would be curtains for the lot of us!
We arrived at our destination about 5.30pm at Landing Ground 91. We were bloody glad to get off that Coast Road. The sides of which were littered with strafed and burnt out trucks of luckless people before us.
The base chaps were in a bit of a panic and were ready to move out. They weren't so used to this sudden movement lurk!
30 June 1942, Tuesday
Not much doing. Dug slit trench. I wonder how many miles of rotten slit trenches we have dug. Planes unable to return to this drome until sunset, when dust storm has subsided. Payday, if we want any. There is nowhere to spend it anyway. Base has moved out and headed for Miena Camp near the pyramids and Cairo. The New Zealanders with their Maori Battalions attack the enemy, with good results.
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