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a fascinating trail of historical detective-work in North-Eastern Italy,
revisited the April 1945 crash-site of his father Ken's Mustang ...
David standing on the remains of the old concrete apron at Fano, where 3SQN's Mustangs were parked in 1944.
Fano, Italy. c. November 1944.
Informal portrait of 422522 Warrant Officer T. K. (Ken) Higgins
of Randwick, NSW, in the cockpit of his North American P51 Mustang
aircraft. Warrant Officer Higgins is a pilot with No. 3 Squadron RAAF
now flying P51 Mustangs in Italy in close support of the Eighth Army and
assisting Tito's partisans against the retreating Germans in Yugoslavia.
A Request from Italy...
Our story begins in May 2005 when the 3 Squadron Association Website received an enquiry from Enzo Lanconelli, an aviation archaeologist from the Romagna area of North-Eastern Italy. In Enzo's own words:
I'm a historical researcher of the air war in my region, the Romagna. I make it only for passion, I'm not a professional researcher, but I make my work with care. I'm writing a book about planes and pilots shot down here between 1942-1945. (Over 150!! )
We were able to help Enzo and his co-authors in Italy to access the "Operations Record Books" for the Australian Squadrons operating in Italy in 1944/45. The O.R.B.s gave map references for the various crashes that had occurred. One of these was the location where Ken Higgins was shot down by flak on April 13, 1945. (Fortunately, Ken survived this experience!)
In December 2005 Enzo wrote:
I've used the past Summer and Autumn to find witnesses and documents, and I've had good fortune. My research progressed rapidly, and I've travelled in my region to find crash sites. I've found a lot to check for RAAF Squadrons 3°, 450° and 454°. Reading the ORB is a big opportunity, thank you for your help. In particular, I have found information about Edmonds and Higgins. Soon I'll try to find the wreckage of Higgins. (It's in a herbaceous field; this winter I'll try.) Edmonds' crash site is in a clay quarry, there's a lake there now, so it's impossible to find anything.
Then, the following January:
I have news! Last week I found the crash site of Higgins, helped by a witness who saw the crash-landing near his home, not far from the town of Castelguelfo. The plane crashed in a field with fruit trees and the pilot was helped to escape from his aircraft by civilians. I have found some relics of wreckage, engine parts and other little pieces - surely American-built - remains of Higgins Mustang.
Now the weather is bad and the ground is too muddy, but soon I will come back for find all remains (not many, because the plane slid over the ground). Exact point is: N 44° 23' 26; E 11° 39' 22; near the small church of Sellustra.
By December of that year, the Association had been able to put Enzo in touch with David Higgins, Ken's son.
3 Squadron's Operations Record Book (page 678) contains a detailed description of the events in 1945. The major Allied spring offensive towards Bologna had opened on the 9th of April, and 3 Squadron had been flying frequent "cab rank" missions. These involved patrolling over the front line waiting to be called in to strike tactical targets identified by a ground-controller (code-named "Rover"). On the 13th of February, 3 Squadron launched a total of six "cab rank" missions, each comprising four Mustangs carrying 2x500lb. bombs.The fifth mission of the day took off at 1355hrs from Cervia led by Warrant Officer John Taylor, who had already led one earlier "cab-rank" on that morning.
Cervia, Italy. c. 1945. During the present offensive against the fleeing Germans, fighter bomber
pilots of the Desert Air Force have been constantly in the air in support of the Eighth Army.
Many narrow escapes have been experiences, as aircraft return to base bearing the marks of
enemy flak. 422721 Warrant Officer John Taylor of Coonamble, NSW, a member of
No. 3 (Mustang) Squadron RAAF, examines a German 37mm shell which struck the armour
plate in the cockpit of his aircraft, but failed to explode. [AWM MEA2244]
Ken Higgins, who was highly-rated for his flying skills and quite combat-experienced by this time (having been flying with 3 Squadron for seven months) was designated as "White 4", positioned at the rear of the formation. His Mustang III aircraft (Serial KH638) was coded "CV-Z".
Mustang KH638 "CV-Z" on the ground at Fano soon after delivery to 3SQN RAAF. (Note that the stars of the Squadron's emblem had not yet been painted on the tail. Also the canvas engine-covers and cockpit-covers are in place.)
White Section made their way to the battle zone south-east of Bologna and orbited over the town of Lugo waiting for business...
Eventually John Taylor was radioed by the ground-controller, "Rover Paddy", who directed them towards a group of five German tanks moving along a road. It was not ideal flying weather, there was 80% cloud-cover with a low cloud-base at 3,000ft, but Taylor spotted three of the tanks through gaps in the clouds. The tanks had pulled off the road amongst houses. The four Mustangs then peeled-off and dove from 7,500ft through a hole in the clouds, releasing their bombs at the bottom of their dives, pulling out at 1,500ft and zooming back into the low clouds. Ken Higgins was the last in this procession.
After bombing, Higgins didn't rejoin the formation. He had last been seen entering his bomb-dive.
"White 3" (Flying Officer A. F. 'Dusty' Lane) went back below the clouds to look for the tell-tale black smoke of a crashed aircraft, but found nothing. (And he observed that all their bombs had missed the German tanks!)
Cervia, Italy. c. 1945. Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) ("Dusty") Lane of Macorna, Vic, a pilot of No. 3
Squadron RAAF in northern Italy. This squadron has been giving invaluable close support to the
Eighth Army in it is devastating drive against the fleeing Germans. Flt Lt Lane was previously a
member of No. 451 (Spitfire) Squadron RAAF. He later became Chief Pilot with Ansett.
No distress call had been made on the radio by Ken Higgins and John Taylor hadn't observed any flak in the target area. Ken was reported missing when the other three aircraft landed back at Cervia at 1515.
Enzo's book continues the story, based on his interviews in the local area:
Ken Higgins' three companions could not have known that he had actually crash-landed five kilometres away from the target, near the church of Sellustra. After Higgins' dive, he headed south, flying at very low altitude over the area of Casola Canina. Several people who saw him feared that he would land right on their heads. Higgins crash-landed in a small field and uprooted some fruit trees. He got out of the Mustang with the help of local villagers and was observed to have broken some of his teeth in the forced landing. The local villagers still remember the event in great detail, such as the "Australia" patches on the shoulders of Ken's uniform, and that he was immediately taken prisoner by Germans airborne troops (Fallschirmjäger) who were then withdrawing from the area.
In fact, Ken's captivity lasted only a few hours. Rather than being imprisoned, he was effectively rescued by the German military. During their retreat, they left Ken in an Italian medical centre where he was found by Allied troops after liberation. His Mustang was treated quite differently; it was blown up by the German paratroopers after they had salvaged all of the available gasoline.
Ken's RAAF file shows that he was reported safe on the 8th of May 1945, but that he was then placed on the seriously-ill list. Ken had in fact been hit by German flak during his bomb-dive. He suffered a badly-infected shrapnel wound in his lower-back, along with amoebic hepatitis. He was eventually repatriated to Australia by hospital ship, travelling as a stretcher-case.
Thankfully, Ken recovered, to enjoy a long and productive life in Australia. He died on the 11th of June 2008.
In April 2010, David Higgins was able to travel to Italy. He wrote to us:
I've had some interesting correspondence with Enzo and am to meet him next Saturday morning at Fano. He and his co-author Andrea have offered to show me around the area on the Saturday and Sunday; which is very generous of them. I am very much looking forward to this...
And upon his return...
The trip to Fano/Italy was quite outstanding and the hospitality from Enzo and Andrea and the family Ordonselli in Fano was most generous. At least in this part of Italy the Allied forces were regarded as liberators and friends, which did surprise me.
Enzo, David and Andrea
Enzo and Andrea presented me with a copy of their book, ”Aerei Perduti” on WW2 crashes in the Romagna area. [See Editor's Note below for the online English translation.] They were also able to show me Father’s target on that day and his crash site, which looks like a current-day wheat field!
The changed scene at Ken Higgin's target of 13/4/45, near the village of Castelguelfo where the German tanks were moving through.
I was also introduced to Gastone Mazzanti who has written a number of books on the air component of WW2, both about the Fano area and also operations in the vicinity of Rome.
Fano, Italy. 1944-12-16. No. 3 Squadron, RAAF. Since the all-Australian fighter bomber squadron
in Italy has switched from Kittyhawks to Mustangs, they have been carrying out long-range raids
over Yugoslavia in support of Tito's partisan troops as well as continuing to blast enemy
strongpoints on the northern front in Italy. Picture shows the symmetrical lines of the Mustang
fighter-bomber, which is proving very popular with the squadron. [AWM 129025.]
Tommaso Ordonselli showed me the Fano airstrip as seen in the photo commonly used to depict conditions for 3 Sqn in Fano. He used the low hills in the background of the photo for orientation. The conclusion was that the strip in the photo is adjacent to the current civilian aerodrome. This is some distance from the ocean, maybe 3 or so km. (So it's hard to reconcile this with Father’s story of a short, cliff-top airstrip.)
Fano is a beachside holiday place, with Roman and medieval structures, a commercial fishing fleet and holiday accommodation looking across the Adriatic Sea. We saw the somewhat-refurbished Koala Club from WW2. Evidently a well-regarded watering hole, now a well-regarded retail establishment.
Former "Koala Casa" at Fano.
[Left: AWM Photo MEA2216] Italy. c. 1944. View from the outside of "Koala Casa", the Australian recreation centre of 239 Wing RAF in northern Italy. This rest centre is the brain-child of Padre R. E. (Bob) Davies of Newcastle.
[Right: MEB0224] Pilots and ground crew members of two veteran RAAF fighter-bomber squadrons, Nos. 3 and 450 (Kittyhawk) Squadrons RAAF enjoying a cup of tea between operations in the "Koala Casa" club. Note the depiction of No.3 Squadron emblem and the paintings on the walls [by Norm FRENCH].
Enzo and Andrea took me to Cervia and the site of the 3 Sqn base there. Also flat land, plenty of mosquitoes, maybe 300m from the sea. Now a beach hotspot...
Ken Higgins, who had been living in the RSL Retirement Village at Narrabeen, NSW, sustained a massive stroke and died peacefully at Mona Vale Hospital on 11 June, 2008.
The RAAF Chaplain from Richmond Air Base led a celebration of Ken's life at the Camellia Chapel at Macquarie Park Crematorium, which was packed with Ken's family and friends. Poignant eulogies were delivered by Ken's sons. F/O Matt Taylor represented 3 Squadron and Peter Cuthbert of 3 Squadron Association delivered The Ode.
On the afternoon of 13 April, 1945, Ken had been reported "missing in action". Ken's plane was badly damaged and he was seriously injured by ground fire. Being too weak to bail out, he remained sufficiently in-control to make a crash-landing in an Italian farmer's paddock near the Santerno River, north-west of Fano. The plane was strewn all around and Ken was rescued from the wreckage by the farmer's family, who cared for him in their barn until the Germans took Ken to a field-hospital. The transport was a German soldier's bicycle, ridden by the German soldier! German first aid there, and later at a base hospital near Padua, was basic, but sufficient to sustain him until after the German surrender in Italy, on 2 May, 1945.
On 11 May 1945 Ken was removed to a British Army hospital in Rimini, and later another in Foggia. There, one of the British surgeons is said to have told Ken, "If you want to recover, breathe with your right lung only." He did that, somehow!
After surgery, dysentery, five months' treatment and bed rest in Italy, Ken was transported across the Mediterranean on King Farouk's private yacht (lots of potential, but hardly a pleasure cruise) to the New Zealand Services Hospital in Cairo. By then Ken was recovering, and up to some day-leave in Cairo. In mid-October 1945, Ken was evacuated home on a troop ship via New Zealand. En route he met a Kiwi soldier who had been near the Santerno River on 13 April, 1945, and had seen Ken's Mustang crash-land between the lines.
Ken's service record lists him being discharged from 2 Medical Rehabilitation Unit on 11th March, 1946.
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