Click here to return to Part 3a: 'The Desert Stakes'
PART 3b of Neil Smith's No.3 Squadron History
World War II 'Crescendo'. - From Alamein (1942) to Victory in Italy (1945)
El Alamein - A Major Turning-Point of the Second World War
At 9.40 p.m. on the 23rd of October, 1942, Montgomery's offensive at Alamein commenced with more than 1,000 British guns releasing the greatest artillery barrage since World War I.
EL ALAMEIN, NORTH AFRICA. 1942-10-23. THE BATTLE OF EGYPT BEGAN AT 2140 HOURS WITH THE HEAVIEST BARRAGE OF ALL THE WESTERN DESERT CAMPAIGNS. ON A FRONT OF MORE THAN SIX MILES, ONE BRITISH GUN EVERY 23 YARDS POURED A TORNADO OF FIRE ON THE DEEP AXIS DEFENCES. THE 9TH AUSTRALIAN DIVISION WAS IN THE FOREFRONT OF THE INFANTRY ATTACK WHICH FOLLOWED, CLEARING AND WIDENING THE SALIENT AND EXPLOITING THE FINAL BREAK THROUGH, ON THE NIGHT OF 01-02 NOVEMBER 1942. THIS PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS THE OPENING BARRAGE. [AWM 042485]
Within 24 hours, Hitler had personally requested Rommel to leave his hospital bed at Zemmering in Germany to resume command of the Afrika Korps and replace General Stumme, who had died from a heart attack when he and his aide, Colonel Buechting, in a light field vehicle driven by Corporal Wolf, ventured unescorted far too close to the Allied lines in an attempt to personally assess the battle position as it had developed late on 24 October. Later reports showed that an Australian contingent began rapid fire at the vehicle and killed Buechting. Wolf turned the vehicle instantly and retreated at top speed but Stumme, not a fit man, was flung sideways and whilst hanging onto the side, apparently suffered a heart attack and fell out. Wolf did not know this until he reached safety and Stumme’s body wasn’t found until the next day. It was a critical period of the battle and the incident caused a serious hiatus in the German chain of command.
By 8pm that evening, the still-ill Rommel was back and again in command, but at this time his army was very short of fuel and under heavy attack; and to add to their misery, the promises and guarantees that had been made by the German High Command, that they would ensure an adequate supply line, were simply not being kept.
Despite all his materiel and command advantages, Montgomery's Alamein offensive failed to break through. His staff embarked on a frantic (but eventually brilliant) re-plan.
3 Squadron's Kittyhawks continued to provide regular bomber escort and carry out ground-strike missions during the next week and, on 28th October, 1942, the C.O. Bobby Gibbes, flying the Squadron's only Kittyhawk Mark III, shot down an Me109. (How exactly it happened was recounted after a few drinks in the mess that evening... He confessed that he’d actually been aiming at a 109 that was flying at least 100 yards away from the one he'd shot down - much to his embarrassment!) This victory was thought to have brought the Squadron's score of enemy aircraft destroyed up to the grand total of 200.
[But the records turned out to be somewhat overstated: It was only in 1990 that several dedicated ex-3 Squadroners, including Peter Jeffrey, Al Rawlinson and Bobby Gibbes, set about the re-construction of the records and squadron history, showing that an incorrect summation had inadvertently been made in mid-1942. In fact, it was their 175th victory-claim only at that stage, not the 200th.]
At the time, the Squadron appeared to have set another Desert Air Force record. It triggered special celebrations within the Squadron’s base, while congratulations kept flowing in from many commanders in the Desert Air Force.
Back at the front-line, the German defence was stubborn and the Alamein battle raged for 10 days with both sides alternately attacking and counter-attacking. Together with the rest of the Desert Air Force Squadrons, 3 Squadron were flying almost non-stop.
Heat, dust, lack of food and lack of sleep didn't matter to the ground staff, especially fitters and armourers who invariably would have all the fighter-bomber Kittyhawks ready at dawn for their pilots to begin another day of non-stop strafing, bombing and fighter-escort missions. Quite often, 3 Squadron's low-level fighter-bomber attacks were met with deadly flak and light-arms ground fire from the Panzers and the 90th Light Division, but the pilots continued to hit them back.
At the time, these elite German Divisions had been committed against the famous Australian 9th Division, led by Lieutenant-General Leslie Morshead, on the desolate desert sands below. [The Australian division suffered 620 deaths in these October battles, out of a British total of nearly 3000 killed.] By early November, it was clear that Montgomery's tactics were finally working well and by November the 4th, the German front had been pierced, forcing Rommel's armies into retreat with Monty's Eighth Army in hot pursuit.
Further west, in French North Africa (Morocco and Algeria), large Anglo-American invasion forces under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower (later to become the 34th President of the United States) were landing as part of the co-ordinated and highly secret "Operation Torch" which called for this force to advance eastwards along the coast to Tunis and eventually link up with Monty's westward-advancing Eighth Army, hopefully trapping Rommel's forces in the process.
3 Squadron advanced to Landing Ground 106 at Daba only hours after the Luftwaffe had fled, leaving behind aircraft, equipment and personal effects.
DABA, EGYPT. 1942-11-13. ITALIAN CEMETERY AT DABA. THE BLACK CROSSES IN THE FOREGROUND MARK THE
GRAVES OF MEN OF THE 7TH BESAGLIERI REGIMENT, WHILST THE REMAINDER ARE MOSTLY ITALIAN AIRMEN.
NOTE ELABORATE DECORATIONS OF SPENT AMMUNITION, PROPELLER BLADES AND BOMB CASINGS [AWM 025274]
During the next few weeks of November, heavy rains restricted the Squadron’s missions but they didn't stop Eighth Army routing the retreating German forces as they pushed them over the Egyptian border; they reached Tobruk on the 13th. By then the broken and ill Rommel had slipped through the fighting lines and moved his headquarters back again to El Agheila to plan his next move against Montgomery’s army, although he had little more than 60 tanks, 43 serviceable Bfl09s and an estimated combined army of 25,000 Italian and 10,000 Germans left to fight almost 600 British tanks, 1,000 heavy guns and seven divisions of infantry (100,000+ men).
In fifteen days, the Eighth Army chased Rommel's troops over 700 miles from El Alamein to Benghazi, but not without suffering many losses from the hidden land mines laid by the retreating Germans. An ex-Adjutant of 3 Squadron, Squadron Leader Barney Terry, then attached to 239 Wing, was killed, with two other Wing staff, when their jeep drove over a mine - thus joining hundreds of others who were killed or injured in the same way.
Leaving their old Landing Ground 101 at Sidi Haneish, 3 Squadron moved quickly through Sidi Barrani, onto Mischeifa and then to the familiar dustbowl of Gambut where they captured an easily-repaired Messerschmitt 109 and painted it with 3 Squadron markings. [This aircraft survives today in the UK.]
Engineering officer, Flight Lieutenant Ken McRae, took it upon himself to secure and protect this prize for the Squadron and was responsible for arranging for its serviceability. However, when the Squadron reached Gazala on the 15th of November, Headquarters Middle East requisitioned this aircraft, much to the annoyance of the C.O., who often flew it and used it as a training aid to illustrate battle tactics to newly posted Squadron pilots. Happily enough, within a few days of losing that 109, the Squadron captured two more 109s at Martuba to make up for their previous loss.
Several bombing and strafing missions were carried out over the enemy-held Magrun airfield and the roads in the Benghazi area with 3 Squadron's pilots in daily air combat against German Me 109s, still trying their hardest to protect their dwindling Axis army.
By the 19th of November, Benghazi was in Allied hands but heavy rain started on the 20th forcing a lull in air operations so leave was given to pilots who spent a few days living it up in the Egyptian Delta area.
Ex-members of the WW1 3 Squadron (Australian Flying Corps) sent a cable congratulating the Squadron on its achievements. This provided real inspiration for all ranks as they prepared to move forward, firstly to Antelat and later to Belandah where they were greeted by a night bombing attack that left a 500-pound unexploded bomb only a few feet away from the airmens' tent area.
By then, winter had started and chilling, biting winds added gloom to a shortage of food and water. Many of the ground staff grew beards and claimed they'd keep them on until they arrived in Tripoli.
El Agheila remained the main target until the Squadron advanced beyond the bend of the Gulf of Sirte - into territory they'd never occupied before.
They occupied the airfield at Marble Arch, which was infested with mines and booby-traps, one killing five of the Squadron's Leading Air Craftsmen and seriously injuring three others. Still shocked, all ranks worked in unison and the Squadron were soon hitting the Germans in the Sirte area, scoring a valuable direct hit on four 88 millimetre guns, regarded by the Germans as their main defence weapon.
On the 21st of December, Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes led a six Kittyhawk reconnaissance patrol over a German held airfield called Hun located 188 miles from Marble Arch. Parked around the airstrip was a mixture of twelve German and Italian aircraft and gliders. In two low-level passes, the Kittyhawks destroyed or damaged most of the grounded aircraft and on the third pass, hit more of them too but during this last attack, two Kittyhawks were hit by ground-fire. One crashed in flames killing Sergeant "Stuka" Bee.
The other, flown by Pilot Officer Rex Bayly, managed to crash-land about a mile from the target airfield. After sizing up the area and calling on the three remaining pilots to provide air cover, Bobby Gibbes found the closest spot he could land and radioed Bayly to make his way to the spot. After landing, Gibbes threw away his parachute and manually disconnected his half-full petrol drop-tank. He took 300 paces and marked out a possible take-off point by tying his handkerchief to a bush. When Bayly arrived, Gibbes sat him in the cockpit seat and climbed in onto his lap.
Gibbes started the engine, brought it up to full power with his brakes hard-on, then released the brakes and shot off down the tiny 300 yard slope towards a deep and unavoidable wadi with ridges on both sides. Just as the Kittyhawk became airborne, the port wheel smacked into the first ridge and, to his horror, Gibbes observed the whole wheel assembly falling off. By skilful flying, Gibbes cleared the remaining ridges by inches and reached Marble Arch airfield, bringing the Kittyhawk in by landing the aircraft on the single remaining wheel as they came in cross-wind.
He held the port wing up-wind with the aileron and, as speed fell off, turned the aircraft slowly to port throwing the weight out. When it neared a complete stall, he kicked on hard port rudder and the aircraft, swinging harder to port, remained balanced on the starboard wheel until it lost almost all forward speed.
Only the port flap and the wing-tip was slightly damaged. For this feat and other extraordinary acts, Bobby Gibbes was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order. (The A.O.C. at the time, A.V.M. Harry Broadhurst, actually recommended Gibbes for a Victoria Cross for this rescue, but the recommendation was down-graded to a D.S.O. Rex Bayly eventually went on to win a DFC and bar and himself become Commanding Officer of 3 squadron in 1944.)
Christmas 1942, like the previous Christmas, saw the Squadron split again. 'C' Flight were preparing the landing ground at an airfield called Gzina, well ahead of the main army forces, while the rest of the Squadron remained at Marble Arch. However, the Squadron cooks didn't forget 'C' Flight; they sent them a truck loaded with turkeys, hams, plum pudding, sweets and beer, all part of some special supplies flown up from Alexandria.
In Marble Arch, a big combined Army-Air Force church service was held and attended by General Alexander and General Montgomery, who read the lesson.
Several American Air Corps Squadrons had joined the Desert Air Force, including 66 Squadron, United States Army Air Force, with their P40 Warhawks. Being attached to the same Wing, 3 Squadron and 66 Squadron men spent quite a few happy hours socialising and flying together while the Wing was advancing towards Tripoli.
In Tripoli, the enemy forces were now re-gathering and the Luftwaffe tried to maintain air cover as best it could.
On New Year's Day, Flight Lieutenant Dave Ritchie had a lucky escape after an air combat with five Mel09s. He shot one down but was forced to crash-land his Kittyhawk, which hit the ground at an estimated 350 miles per hour (probably the fastest crash landing in the Desert in which the pilot survived). The aircraft was split in two, so the remaining Mel09's didn't strafe the wreck as they usually did as they obviously thought the pilot had been killed in the crash. But Ritchie not only survived, he hired a donkey from some Arabs and covered the 40 miles back to the Squadron, riding the donkey through the Army's front lines.
In mid-January 1943, the Luftwaffe launched a full-scale effort to protect their forward landing ground at Bir Dufan using new and newly-repaired aircraft flown by newly arrived pilots. On the 14th of January, more than twenty Me109s attacked a formation of Boston light bombers which 3 Squadron were escorting to bomb Bir Dufan and, by the end of the day, six of the Squadron's aircraft had failed to return, including the C.O., Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes.
Later, it was learnt that three of the pilots had been killed, one had been taken prisoner, one was captured but broke away ten days later and the last one, the C.O., made his way back after a few hectic days living in enemy territory.
Informal portrait of 260714 Wing Commander Robert Henry Maxwell (Bobby) Gibbes, of Balgowlah, NSW, Commanding Officer of
3 Squadron RAAF, standing while eating a meal at an airfield in Libya, 16 January 1943. S/L Gibbes had taken three days to walk back to safety
after being shot down in the desert behind enemy lines. Note the (very useful) English Army greatcoat he found in the desert.
During Bobby Gibbes' absence, Flight Lieutenant Ron Watt was appointed C.O., but a few days after his promotion, he disappeared without trace during a bombing mission.
The pilots in ‘B’ Flight were the first in the Desert Air Force to land at Castel Benito in Tripolitania and they were quick to claim the best quarters at this quite modern airfield. Compared to their quarters in the desert, Castel Benito was paradise with grass, trees and a windmill-pumped flow of cold water. After they'd settled in and other Desert Air Force Squadrons had arrived, several grass areas were marked out as football fields and inter-squadron games of Australian Rules, Rugby and Soccer were played.
An Italian Caproni Ghibli had been left by the retreating enemy. It was quickly commandeered by the Squadron as an ideal people (and beer!) carrier because of its 700-mile cruising range at 110 miles per hour with a load of twelve people (or the equivalent in beer) inside. A Caproni 164 trainer with dual controls was also secured, allowing some of the Squadron's admin. officers to log some flying hours.
Tripoli had been captured; so a lot of the Squadron travelled the twelve miles into town hoping to see, buy, eat or drink some of the long awaited exotic Italian pleasures reputed to lie inside this supposed oasis in the desert. But it was only a dream; for there was very little in Tripoli to interest the thousands of Eighth Army and Desert Air Force personnel who roamed the streets on leave.
But it was to Tripoli that Winston Churchill quickly travelled to personally congratulate the victorious Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force and his presence was welcomed and respected.
Pilots of the United States Army Air Force who'd provided air support for the newly-created front in Algeria, began calling at the Squadron’s base in their very unusual Lightning P38s. By then, General Eisenhower had been given control of the entire Allied forces and his team included General Alexander who directed all army operations and Air Marshals Tedder and Coningham who commanded different areas of Allied Air Force operations.
Tripolitania, Libya. February 1943. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, surrounded by airmen after arriving in a black-painted converted American
Liberator aircraft to refuel at the Italian-built Castel Benito airfield. He was on his way home after the Yalta conference, a secret meeting with President Roosevelt
of the United States of America and Joseph Stalin, President of the USSR, held at Yalta on the Black Sea in the Crimea.
Both Roosevelt and Churchill flew long detours to keep away from enemy territory.
[Right} Airmen of the RAAF sign their names on the fuselage of the Liberator aircraft. [AWM P03372.006 and MED1283]
The combined Allied Air Forces worked well together, hitting hard at the retreating enemy boxed up in Tunisia. Air Force Command knew that the Axis were destined for doom once their shipping supply line, emanating from the still-strong Fascist and Nazi strongholds in Sicily and Italy, had been cut.
So shipping strikes were ordered and 3 Squadron began flying regular missions over the Mediterranean Sea and in particular, off the coast near Ben Gardane and in Zarzis harbour. And so began the Squadron's score of shipping targets which grew substantially during the months to come. But, towards the end of February, the Squadron was moved forward again, this time into southern Tunisia from where they conducted low-level airfield blitzes behind the Mareth Line.
Rommel renewed his attack between March 5th-8th, foolishly pitting the tanks of his 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions which had been awaiting their orders in the Medenine hills, against a well-prepared anti-tank screen manned by Montgomery’s Eighth Army. 52 of the 140 German tanks were lost without the British incurring the loss of a single tank. Rommel knew his forces could never recover from this battle loss so he voluntarily returned to Germany a few days later, to request Hitler to capitulate in North Africa to save the lives of the remaining German troops. Hitler refused outright, calling Rommel a coward and linking any talk of capitulation in North Africa to the surrender, only five weeks earlier, of the 90,000 frozen German troops trapped in Stalingrad (the remnants of General von Paulus’s formerly-mighty German 6th Army). Hitler forbade surrender and refused Rommel the right to return to the desert, appointing General von Arnim in his place. Thus, for a period, Germany fought on in North Africa.
3 Squadron had moved to Nefatia where they, with other nearby squadrons in the Wing, were asked to help the Fighting French force of General Le Clerc with a strafing operation against a German task-group of tanks, armoured cars and supply trucks. And so 3 Squadron’s score of enemy vehicles destroyed continued to mount while German air opposition became noticeably less.
The Mareth Line
However, on the 21st of March, the Squadron moved to Medenine, only ten miles from enemy front, to escort Bostons and Baltimores bombing the still-German-held Mareth Line. The Squadron operated from here, under shellfire from German 88mm guns, for several days.
The air power applied by the combined Desert Air Force during the battle of the Mareth Line was enormous. Montgomery's original plan to frontally-assault the old French-colonial border fortifications failed to make progress and the Eighth Army suffered considerable loss of life and equipment. No.3 Squadron then provided protection to General "Tiny" Fryberg’s New Zealand Corps which consisted of 27,000 men and 6,000 vehicles and guns, accompanied by British armour, circling around in a 100-mile march across the desert over six days to penetrate the enemy’s south flank of the Mareth Line and attack the Tebaga Gap at El Hamma, near Gabes.
23 days after the start of the Mareth Battles, the New Zealanders stormed this hard-won objective under the cover of brilliantly-coordinated Air Support (acting as "flying artillery" to suppress the potent German anti-tank guns). Of all the exploits and achievements of the Desert Air Force in Africa, the El Hamma breakthrough was probably their "Finest Hour". It is commemorated with a separate 'Battle Honour' on 3 Squadron's Standard.
[New Zealand Archives NZETC]
[Left] Tunisia 1943. German 88mm gun damaged beyond repair and the dead bodies of its crew on the Tunisian battlefield. [AWM MEC0026]
[Right] A German SdKfz 9, 18 ton heavy halftrack, known as a FAMO. The vehicle has been abandoned after being attacked by allied fighter aircraft.
These large haltracks were used as recovery vehicles and as heavy artillery tractors. Although of solid construction, the vehicle is not armour-plated.
The soldiers inspecting the truck are probably with the New Zealanders during their encircling movements of the Mareth Line. During the Battle of El Hamma,
RAF fighter-bomber aircraft played a big part in breaking the enemy resistance. At one time the fires caused by these squadrons were so numerous that
they could not be counted. [AWM MED1472]
‘C’ Flight moved forward to El Hamma landing ground on the March 30th, to assist in the attack on the Axis rearguard stand at Wadi Akarit, where the German 15th and 21st Panzer and 90th Light Divisions fought tenaciously. On the 7th of April, Montgomery’s Eighth Army attacked Wadi Akarit while Alexander simultaneously directed First Army into attack along the Medjerda valley, further north. 3 Squadron flew 46 sorties that day, destroying many enemy vehicles and fortifications.
A movie still from "Operation Valkyrie" (2008), depicting the moment when Major von Stauffenberg
(played here by Tom Cruise) was seriously wounded by a DAF Kittyhawk (7 April 1943).
The likelihood is that 3 Squadron was responsible for this famous incident in world history.
By the 10th of April, Eighth Army had overcome the immediate enemy resistance and captured Sfax, with the Squadron helping out by providing fighter escort to Wellington bombers flying over Sfax Harbour delousing mines using their attached mine-degaussers.
Wellington bomber with an electro-magnetic ring for sweeping sea-mines. [Lou Kemp Collection]
Still, the enemy held Tunis. The Squadron moved to El Djem and, for a few days, enjoyed the beauty of this southern Tunisian garden paradise, blooming in spring. They flew sweeps of the Tunis and Cap Bon areas in search of enemy shipping and aircraft, but strangely saw very little enemy activity during that April in 1943.
On the 19th of April, after 274 operational sorties comprising almost 472 flying hours, Bobby Gibbes officially handed the Squadron over to the new C.O., Squadron Leader Brian Eaton. Gibbes left several days later, under orders to report to Headquarters in Cairo for new assignment. He’d finished his second tour, becoming the Squadron’s second-highest scorer with 10¼ enemy aircraft destroyed, five probables and nine damaged.
During the rest of April and the early days of May, the Squadron continued shipping patrols and damaged several enemy destroyers and other vessels.
Victory in Africa
Finally, on the 7th of May 1943, Tunis fell to the original "Desert Rats", the 11th Hussars of 7th Armoured Division, Eighth Army. By the 12th of May 1943, General Graf von Sponeck had formally surrendered to General Freyberg ...and the North African War was officially over.
3 Squadron was the only squadron in the Desert Air Force to have fought through every campaign of the Desert War and they were cheered as the top-scoring fighter Squadron within the Desert Air Force.
To celebrate the end of the desert war, two three-ton trucks were dispatched from the Squadron’s airfield in Kairouan on a 530-mile trip to Algeria to scrounge as much beer, wine, tobacco, chocolate and any other luxuries that could be bought with £400 cash that had been collected from the men.
On the day that the trucks were to return, a Peugeot, one of the many cars recently captured by the Squadron from the retreating enemy, was entered in the "Grand Prix of Kairouan". This sensational eight-mile car race, around the scrubby desert, was a big affair organised by the South African Wing.
3 Squadron’s Peugeot was hot favourite but it broke an oil pipe and didn’t finish, much to the bookies' delight. Nevertheless the Squadron still did well when Murray Knox, in a tiny under-powered Fiat, came in second to a fast front-wheel drive Citroen driven by the C.O. of 450 Squadron, Jack Bartle.
The Squadron, with all the other 239 Wing members, lived it up that night at a gigantic party that 3 Squadron threw as soon as the "grog" convoy arrived. Many claimed that the party was a milestone in the entire Desert War and gave their unanimous agreement that it was the exceptional catering talents of the mess staff that made the party so successful. The climax of the night was a terrific football scrum which came close to collapsing the huge Pi1ots' Mess that had been specially built from three huge captured German tents, fastened together.
During the weeks that followed, leave was given to many of the Squadron’s members who visited Tunis and other places of historical interest. Flight Lieutenant Tom Russell was able to "commandeer" an American sedan and, with a few mates, enjoyed a week's adventurous road-trip into Algeria (suffering a few inevitable breakdowns).
But it wasn’t long before the Squadron had new orders ... proceed to Zuara in Tripolitania for a rest and training period.
Here, on the 20th June, Flight Lieutenant Reg Stevens was appointed Acting Squadron Leader when Brian Eaton stood down for a surgical operation. By early July, in the almost unbearable heat of the Tripolitanian summer, part of the Squadron had moved again ... this time under secret orders - to the island of Malta.
The war in Europe had intensified; the Allied air forces began softening-up the island of Sicily, prior to a huge amphibious invasion on the night of 9/10 July - to secure a stepping-stone for the eventual landing in Continental Italy.
By the 19th of July 1943, a section of the Squadron had travelled by sea in landing-craft directly from Africa to Sicily to join up with the rest of the Squadron, who had arrived at Pachino airstrip via Malta with some of the latest "long-tailed" Kittyhawks.
At this stage, there were seven Australian squadrons in the Mediterranean area, attached to the various R.A.F Wings. They were operating from six widely-spread bases and they flew six different types of aircraft; single-engined Kittyhawk and Hurricane fighters; and Wellington, Baltimore, Hudson and Halifax bombers. Another nine Australian squadrons were based at R.A.F. stations in the United Kingdom, making a total of 16 Australian squadrons poised for an intended attack on Continental Italy and German-occupied Europe.
The Squadron flew their first twelve operational sorties from their new Sicilian base on the 24th of July, bombing enemy gun positions around Catania. Intensive strafing and bombing attacks were continued for weeks against the Axis front-line and communications, then the Squadron moved further north to Agnone, nearer to where the Germans were still holding on strongly around Mt Etna.
During these sorties, the Kittyhawks constantly ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire. In one notable instance, when Sergeant Howell-Price's aircraft was hit, he crashed into the sea. Subsequently, Squadron Leader Reg Stevens sighted him swimming a half-mile off shore. Stevens flew above him until an Air-Sea-Rescue Walrus flying boat arrived, but shells from an enemy coastal gun prevented the Walrus from alighting to pick up Howell-Price.
So Stevens attacked and silenced the gun, but in doing so his aircraft was hit and he was forced to crash-land. However, both pilots survived their ordeals and they had rejoined their Squadron by nightfall.
While the Allied armies were fighting through Sicily, the Italian Fascist regime collapsed on the 25th of July 1943. After 22 years of dictatorship, Mussolini was dismissed by King Victor Emmanuel and imprisoned (the Germans soon rescued Mussolini, but at the end of the war he was captured again and shot by Italian partisans). The new Prime Minister, Marshal Badoglio, immediately began negotiating for an armistice with the Allies.
The Germans however were still entrenched in both Italy and northern Sicily and they began regular day and night bombing of most of the Allied occupied towns and aerodromes. 3 Squadron and the other squadrons in 239 Wing didn't escape the bombs.
On the night of the 11th of August, a lot of their aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Fortunately the Squadron's personnel injuries were slight, although over 80 airmen elsewhere in 239 Wing were either killed or injured during that raid.
[Left] Agnone, Sicily, Italy. 1943. A RAAF airman stands on the damaged wing of a fighter bomber aircraft belonging to No. 3 Squadron
RAAF, which suffered the damage from a 1000-pound enemy bomb during a night raid over the airfield. [MEA0434]
[Right:] An unexploded German 1000kg bomb.
By the 17th of August 1943, enemy resistance in Sicily had ceased. [Although the Axis was able to successfully evacuate most of their forces via the flak-protected Messina Strait.] Meanwhile, Italy was secretly negotiating to defect to the Allied side. Montgomery’s Eighth Army was ready for the next stage: the invasion of Italy. From his headquarters in a luxurious palazzo high on the cliffs of Taormina, Montgomery looked directly across the Straits of Messina to the Italian mainland while he planned his strategy.
On the 3rd of September, exactly four years after the war against Germany had commenced, 300 landing craft containing 8,000 Eighth Army troops (British and Canadian) left the eastern harbours of Sicily and crossed the Straits to land, without much resistance, on the Calabrian shore.
3 Squadron Invades Mainland Italy...
The Squadron continued to operate out of the Agnone landing grounds in Sicily, attacking enemy transports and supporting the landed forces until, on the 14th of September, an advance party from the Squadron moved to an Italian airfield at Grottaglie near Taranto on the heel of Italy.
[Left] Agnone, Sicily, Italy. September 1943. Ground crew of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, an all Australian squadron preparing to
board an aircraft ready for departure. The destination is unknown to ground crew getting into the Douglas C47 Dakota transport aircraft,
but they are off to Italy to form the advanced party of the first complete squadron to operate in this country.
[Right] Grottaglie, Italy. Ground crew personnel of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF, refuelling a Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk fighter-bomber aircraft
at an Italian airfield in Italy a few minutes after their arrival at the airfield by American air transport. Refuelling is carried out by aid of hand pumps.
[AWM MEA0606 and MEA0714]
The main force of the Eighth Army and the US 5th Army had landed at Salerno on the Italian Western coast (about 200 miles north-west of Grottaglie) and the Italians had simultaneously announced their surrender. The Allies nonetheless encountered heavy German resistance at Salerno and, having failed to secure a beach-side airstrip, desperately called for external air support. So, from the moment that 3 Squadron landed on Italian soil, the small group of pilots and ground staff joined together to manually refuel and arm the Kittyhawks. Within an hour, the Kittybombers had taken off again to begin the first of many operations against the encircling German forces at Salerno. This flight, led by Brian Eaton, was the first Allied air formation to operate from an Italian Mainland airbase; another "first" for 3 Squadron.
German motor transports on the roads around the invasion beach were constantly targeted by the Squadron and other squadrons of 239 Wing. There were some days when twenty-four sorties were flown in twenty-four hours.
On the 22nd of September, an advance party moved 50 miles north to Bari, which Eighth Army had captured the day before, but no sooner had the rest of the Squadron moved up to Bari than the entire Wing was relocated further north to a badly-damaged aerodrome at Foggia.
Italy. October 1943. RAAF members examine a wrecked diesel train in the railway marshalling yard near Foggia which felt the heavy weight
of Allied bombs during the German occupation. No.3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF took part in the attacks on the yard. [AWM MEA0780]
Again the Squadron was on the attack, bombing and strafing enemy transport supply lines, tanks, gun positions and troops around the rail centre of Termoli, flying on occasions at only 500 feet. Although two Kittyhawks were shot down during these missions, their pilots managed to either bail out or crash-land in German-held territory. With great courage and ingenuity, they evaded the German soldiers pursuing them. The fugitives were helped by friendly Italian farmers who held a strong dislike for their ex-allies ever since Italy's new leader, Marshal Badoglio, had declared war on Germany and Japan on the 13th of October, 1943.
Despite heavy rains during October, armed reconnaissance of the area between Pescara and Termoli continued, involving many attacks on rail and motor transports until, on the 24th of October, orders were changed and the Squadron began the first of a series of anti-shipping operations over the Adriatic Sea using long-range fuel tanks fitted onto the Kittyhawks. Shipping around the Lagosta Islands and German fortifications in Yugoslavia were common targets set by the Desert Air Force controllers.
Introduction of the "Cab Rank" Control System
This communication system was a well-developed ground-to-air radio network operated by forward ground-control units (often composed of pilots from 239 Wing who'd finished their "tour"). They'd use the call-sign "Rover", directing 3 Squadron aircraft formations (who were call-signed "Shabby") onto targets and give the pilots progressive reports on their hit-accuracy and any further instructions.
The next airfield to be occupied by the Squadron, together with the rest of 239 Wing, was at Melini where they had to live under canvas in intensely cold weather with frequent rain. It made living difficult and flying even more difficult. But still a dozen or more sorties a day were made, some against German shipping in Yugoslavian harbours. By mid-November, winter gales had slowed most operational activity, although it didn't prevent a team from 3 Squadron beating their mates from 450 Squadron by eighteen points in a slippery game of Australian Rules.
Towards the end of November, Eighth Army overcame strong German resistance and crossed the Sangro River to establish a bridgehead. Bad flying conditions prevented the Squadron from helping in the offensive until the weather cleared during the last days of the month.
Wet weather had made Melini airfield unserviceable, so a bomber landing-strip two miles away at Celone was used instead. But that meant squadron personnel had to travel by truck through shocking conditions with mud so thick that it bogged many of the transports. Yet all aircraft unfailingly took off on schedule, which is a tribute to the determination and persistence of the armourers and other servicing personnel who suffered a long week of personal hardships to perform their duties.
Foggia, Italy. 1943. RAAF members of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, load bombs into a truck preparatory to bombing-up at an advanced airfield.
Note the Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk aircraft in the background. [AWM MEA0832]
Stopped at Monte Cassino
The Allies' plan was to liberate Rome as quickly as possible, but the strongly-defended "Winter Line" that the Germans had established right across the Italian peninsula south of Rome, temporarily stopped Eighth Army. Violent weather and another enemy defence line, known as the 'Gustav Line', slowed down the US 5th Army who were also trying to get to Rome to join up with Eighth Army. Also for the first time since Italy had been invaded, the Luftwaffe became active, bombing Allied lines, but trying to avoid tangling with any Allied aircraft.
The German 'Gustav' Line (red), anchored on the high mountain ranges in the centre of Italy, presented a serious obstacle to forward Allied
progress for nearly six months. The Anzio/Nettuno amphibious landing, on the coast 50 miles behind the Gustav line, also failed to break through.
3 Squadron spent December dive-bombing and strafing enemy fortifications and carrying out raids across the sea on German targets in Yugoslavia.
Christmas Day was cold and wet, but it didn't dampen the Christmas spirit during an excellent dinner served by the officers as their traditional way of saying "thank you" to the airmen for their vital support.
New Year 1944 brought rain, hail, snow and a gale to greet a Squadron advance-party who had travelled to Cutella, near Termoli, to prepare for the Squadron's arrival. - But the weather cleared and bombing operations recommenced.
After 239 Wing Leader, South-African Lieutenant Colonel Wilmot, had test-flown a Kittyhawk carrying two 500-pound bombs under its wings plus a 1,000-pound bomb under the fuselage (equalling the bomb-load of a twin-engined Boston bomber!), 3 Squadron began bombing with 1,000-pounders.
Flight Lieutenant Jack Doyle had the honour of dropping the Squadron’s first "big’n" and his direct hit was the first of many scored by the Squadron with thousand pounders.
As January 1944 ended, the Squadron was bombing targets closer to Rome as part of a new Allied offensive to break through at Cassino. Areas close to Cassino and Anzio, which were heavily concentrated with German troops and tanks, became targets for all 239 Wing's squadrons of Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, particularly near Anzio where Allied troops had landed on January 22nd.
February saw the Squadron resume long-range bombing runs over the Adriatic to Split Harbour in Yugoslavia and attacking and sinking enemy vessels along the way.
5th US Army requested a bombing attack on the Monte Cassino Benedictine Monastery, which was suspected of being used by the Germans for artillery-spotting.
On the 16th of February, the four squadrons from 239 Wing set out for the Monastery, but the shocking weather conditions made crossing the Apennines difficult and all aircraft except those of 3 Squadron were forced to turn back. 3 Squadron pressed on by themselves and bombed the target with excellent results and, the next day, they flew back again to continue the bombing, although this commanding mountain-top position continued to withstand the punishment.
[Left:] Cassino, Italy. c. 1944. View of the bombed Cassino Monastery as seen from the air. This was the site where St. Benedict founded monastic Christianity in AD529. Ironically, in 1944 the German commander had no troops at all in the monastery, out of respect for relations with the Vatican, and the Germans had also moved the Monastery's invaluable library and art collection to safety in Rome. However, the Abbey's fate was sealed by its psychological impact, looking down over the bloody battlefield below. Once the building had been bombed, however, the Germans skilfully utilised it as a defensive position. The Cassino front saw sustained, bitter and incredibly costly fighting for several more months. [AWM MEA1773]
[Right:] The ruined castle looking over the town of Cassino. (The small castle is located well down the ridge below the level of the monastery, which dominates the entire landscape). New Zealand troops distinguished themselves in capturing the township. This photograph was taken, after the Cassino battle, from an RAAF truck moving ground-crew through to the next battle front north of Rome. [AWM P03372.016]
[Below:] After the war the Abbey was rebuilt.
On the 22nd of February, Brian Eaton D.F.C., now a Wing Commander, was appointed Deputy Sector Commander for 1 Mobile Operations Radio Unit, Desert Air Force. Squadron Leader Murray Nash, D.F.C. replaced him as the 3 Squadron Commanding Officer and he remained C.O. until the 11th of April when his tour of duty ended.
Squadron Leader Jack Doyle took over the Squadron temporarily before his posting as C.O. to 450 Squadron.
Acts of courage and instances of outstanding service arose regularly in the day-to-day routine of the Squadron and many of the pilots involved were decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Two D.F.C.s awarded in March were quite typical of the Squadron's style in action:
The first was awarded to 24-year-old Flying Officer Ken Richards, who'd neatly dropped his bomb down the funnel of a 3,000 ton vessel destroying it completely and within a few weeks, he'd split a 6,000-ton ship in two with another direct bomb hit.
The second D.F.C. was awarded to 26-year-old Jack Doyle, who'd dropped the Squadron's first 1,000-pounder and continued his strong leadership on many occasions, particularly when attacking 88mm gun emplacements and ammunition dumps a few months earlier.
Courageous acts weren't limited to operations in the air. On the 29th of April 1944, American pilots flying four P-47 Thunderbolts [US 325th Fighter Group] mistakenly strafed Cutella airfield, thinking it was a German base. At the time, engine fitters Corporal Slim Moore and LAC Kev Harris were servicing a Kittyhawk in the dispersal bay next to two other Kittyhawks (all with 500lb bombs loaded). Bullets from the P-47s set one of the Kittyhawks alight, but before the flames spread, these two men, ignoring the possibility of the bomb exploding, unshackled it and dragged it clear of the burning aircraft. Then they started-up and taxied the other two Kittyhawks away from the fire (one aircraft being the personal mount of 239 Wing Commander, Brian Eaton). By doing so they helped avoid a catastrophic explosion on the Squadron apron area right next to the Operations Tent. Slim and Kev were Mentioned in Despatches for their bravery. The Commanding Officer of the US 325th Fighter Group later visited to make formal apology for this incident.
Cutella Airfield, Italy. 29 April 1944. USAAF Republic P47 Thunderbolts strafed Cutella airfield, destroying one Kittyhawk and killing the pilot of 239 Wing's air-sea-rescue Walrus.
The bomb that was dropped off the burning plane and dragged away on a fabric engine-cover can be seen just to the right of the Operations Tent. Wing Commander Eaton's
P40 Kittyhawk (Coded "BA-E") can be seen parked at far right, after having been taxied away to safety by Slim Moore - with its bomb still attached and its starboard tyre flat from a bullet strike. [AWM MEA1918]
3 Squadron formed part of the Allied Armies' air support during the last weeks of March when they made their third attempt to capture Cassino and open up the way to Rome. The enemy was too firmly entrenched in the caves and rocky terrain around Cassino, so the attack was abandoned and it was the 12th of May before another attack was tried. On that day, the Squadron's Kittyhawks carried 2,000-pound bomb loads and made several attacks on enemy gun emplacements in the Cassino area and on long-range gun emplacements in Atina.
Already the Squadron was quite experienced in dropping two 500-pounders and a 1,000-pounder in a single bomb load, as their first 2,000 pound raids had been carried out a month earlier when they, with other squadrons of 239 Wing, breached the iron sluice gates of the Pescara Dam in a divebombing attack, which had the effect of removing the threat that German forces would flood the valley towards Pescara during the coming Allied offensive.
The 3 Squadron "Kittybomber Shield" designed by Norm French early in 1944.
This took place about the same time that Squadron Leader Rex Bayly, D.F.C. relieved Jack Doyle as C.O., in anticipation of Jack's posting to Mobile Operations Radio Unit where, shortly after, he and five of his men survived the blast of a German time-bomb, which killed fourteen others and destroyed the villa that they were using as a high observation post. Doyle’s escape from death was miraculous as he fell several stories from the tower to the ground when the bomb went off.
Eventua1ly, on the 18th of May, the monastery at Cassino was captured by the Allies in a tremendous battle against crack German paratroops who had fought fanatica1ly to hold this strategically important feature guarding the gateway to Rome.
After spending five months at Cutella, which was the longest period the Squadron had ever spent in one operational base, 239 Wing moved inland across the Apennines to San Angelo on the West Coast of Italy and here they found far more picturesque surroundings. The pilots flew out of Cutella on the 24th of May and, on the way to San Angelo, bombed the Roccagroga area. However, one of their 12 Kittyhawks, flown by Warrant Officer Jennings, went down. For Jennings, this was the start of an extraordinary adventure, during which he was disguised by some Italians and spent five long days dodging Germans until he walked back to the Allied front line.
Breakthrough to Rome
At last, on the 25th of May, the enemy began to evacuate Rome after their much-vaunted Adolf Hitler Line, formed outside the city, crumbled under the onslaught of the linked forces of 5th and Eighth Armies.
3 Squadron flew constant sorties for the next week against the retreating enemy on the roads around Rome and they had a field day on the 30th when they found 200 transports jammed nose-to-tail and three wide on a road south of Subiaco. The end result, after other Squadrons from the Wing joined them, was a long charred column of wrecks.
On the 3rd of June, LAC Harry Knight was carrying out his duties as a fitter in 3 Squadron's dispersal area when a Kittyhawk, loaded with two bombs, caught fire. With only a few seconds to spare, Knight jumped into another Kittyhawk sitting alongside and taxied it to safety before the blazing Kittyhawk blew up. For his courage, Knight was awarded the British Empire Medal.
During the 4th and 5th of June, the Allies marched into Rome and, a week later, the Squadron moved to Guidonia, which was little more than an hour's drive NE of Rome. During the next ten days, many of the men in the Squadron took the opportunity of visiting this famous city but, during the same time, they still flew 48 sorties against enemy transports and gun positions.
Then, on the 23rd of June the Wing again moved, this time to Falerium. Day after day, the Wing provided air support for the ground troops as they advanced northward, chasing a retreating German army. The pace stepped up and on some days the Squadron flew 36 sorties as far north as Florence and Rimini.
Again the Wing advanced northwards ... to a town called Crete only 70 miles from Florence in very pleasant surroundings, except for the close proximity to the enemy. In fact, the German front line was so close that when the Squadron first took off at 1920 hours on the 8th of July, only two hours after they'd arrived, the ground staff, from where they stood on the airfield, could see the Kittyhawks peeling-off to make their bombing and strafing dives.
Even one week later, the distance to the front line was so close that aircraft could drop their bombs and fire their bullets in less than 45 minutes before coming in to land. Then they'd be rearmed and they'd take off again to carry out another sortie.
The Gothic Line
By the 15th of July, the enemy had retreated north past Arezzo ... but they didn't retreat from Florence and it took almost another month before Florence could be liberated. During that month the Squadron continued to provide air-support for the attacking Eighth Army and still managed to carry out many shipping and rail strikes. It was during that same month that King George VI visited the Wing and spent a little time discussing operations with some of the pilots.
Members of No.3 Squadron, operating from a central Italian airfield, inspect an early model German Panzerkampfwagen V Ausf A "Panther" tank,
which has been disabled and abandoned in the Florence area. Since the battle for Florence began, RAAF members and their P40 aircraft have taken a heavy
toll of enemy tanks, motor transport and railway rolling stock, effectively cramping German transportation and ability to wage war. [AWM MEA1916]
There was another highlight too when Brian Eaton, D.S.O., D.F.C. was promoted to the rank of Group Captain and given command of 239 Wing from the 3rd of August. He was one of the official party to accompany Winston Churchill and General Alexander when they called at the Wing’s new landing ground at Iesi on the east coast. It was from here that 3 Squadron spent the rest of July, August and the first ten days of September attacking the enemy fortifications around Pesaro and Rimini. They flew so hard and well that, in the month of August alone, the Squadron received five official congratulatory messages for their work.
The Luftwaffe was rarely seen in the sky but the German anti-aircraft gun crews almost made up for them with their dangerously accurate shooting against the attacking Kittyhawks. In the twelve months between the 5th of September, 1943 (when Warrant Officer R. E. Percival died of wounds after crashing) and the 6th of September, 1944 (when Warrant Officer Hedger's Kittyhawk blew up while landing with bombs still attached) it was thought that at least five other 3 Squadron pilots were shot down and killed by anti-aircraft fire and two more pilots were killed at different times when their aircraft malfunctioned and went down before they could bail out.
The Squadron moved west on the 11th of September to Foiano and they continued their attacks on gun and mortar positions and railway communications lines in very wet weather which continued for the rest of the month. By the 20th, they had rejoined the rest of the Wing at Iesi when Foiano landing ground became waterlogged and inoperable.
Then, early in October, leave was given to the Squadron allowing groups of fifteen to twenty at a time to visit the artistic city of Florence where the Hotel Berchielli was renamed the Hotel Australia to make the Aussies feel more at home.
Those not on leave continued to work hard. Verona and Mensa were targets for bombing and strafing missions. Flight Lieutenant Ian Roediger became temporary C.O. when Rex Bayly completed his second operational tour and went on leave on the 21st of October. On the 29th, Murray Nash returned to start his 2nd tour and resumed command as Squadron Leader.
In early November the Squadron moved into more comfortable living quarters close to the village in Iesi. From there they attacked shipping across the Adriatic in the Fiume Harbour and, on the 5th, sent a corvette to the bottom in less than a minute with a direct hit from a thousand-pounder.
The Squadron was the first R.A.A.F. unit to be equipped with North American P-5l Mustang III and between the 13th and the 15th, they received five of these new fighter bombers. A few days later, operations were suspended while pilots and ground staff trained on their new aircraft and before long, most were saying that the Mustang was quite an improvement on the faithful old Kittyhawk.
The pilots found that its steady, smooth diving capability gave them more accurate bombing results and its speed, rate of climb and range were far better than the Kitty's.
It could in fact fly at 430 miles per hour (which is just on 700 kilometres per hour) at 30,000 feet (or 9,144 metres) and reach that height in about twelve and a half minutes. With a long range fuel tank attached, it could fly for five to seven hours and cover almost 2,500 miles (or nearly 4,000 kilometres). It could carry two 1,000-pound bombs or a single bomb plus the long range fuel tank, which could be dropped before the start of a bombing dive. The Mustang had only four 0.5in calibre machine guns and carried 250 rounds of ammunition less than the Kittyhawk but still provided adequate fire power.
The Squadron's last Kittyhawk operational flight, comprising 12 aircraft, took off from their new landing ground at Fano on the 20th of November 1944. After completing an attack on gun targets in the Faenza area, they were handed over to the Maintenance Unit for transfer to other squadrons as required. Then on the 22nd, the Squadron's first operational flight of six Mustangs escorted a Lysander on a special mission over northern Italy. Incredibly, during the journey, a 12th U.S. Air Force Mustang mistook the slow-flying Lysander for an enemy and shot it down before the Squadron escort could do anything to prevent it, but subsequently the Squadron's six pilots were cleared of any blame whatsoever.
Early in December, it was so cold and wet that the Squadron was stood down from operations for several days.
Fano, Italy. 1944. Recent heavy falls of snow in northern Italy have curtailed the activities of No. 3 (Mustang) Squadron RAAF
to some extent, in their operations against the enemy on the Eighth Army front and in Yugoslavia. Standing beside one of the Mustang
aircraft after a heavy snowfall are, 20785 Leading Aircraftman N. De la Motte, transport driver, and 4644 Flight Lieutenant K. N. McRae MBE,
Engineer Officer, of New Lambton, NSW. [AWM MEA2207]
When flying did resume, the weather was unpredictable. On the 6th, ten-tenths cloud closed in on a flight of 3 Squadron Mustangs returning from a strafing run over Yugoslavia and one, flown by Warrant Officer R. E. R. Fountain, disappeared without trace. Another six of the ten aircraft from 5 Squadron, South African Air Force that were flying on the same mission, also disappeared in heavy cloud that day so perhaps, if the very experienced Flight Lieutenant Ian Roediger hadn't been leading the 3 Squadron flight, the Squadron's losses could have been much worse that day.
Since mid-September, three other pilots had been killed, two going down after being hit by anti-aircraft fire and the third never returned from a solo strafing run.
Christmas 1944 was the 5th Christmas that the Squadron had spent overseas. By then the Allied armies had the upper hand, but German resistance was still very strong throughout Europe.
By the end of 1944, four 239 Wing Squadrons had been equipped with Mustangs, but few of the Mustangs had engaged enemy aircraft, as these were now rarely seen in Northern Italy. However, on Boxing Day, Warrant Officer Quinn of 3 Squadron was jumped out of the sun by two [Italian fascist ANR] ME109's. Quinn was shot down before he could retaliate but he bailed out successfully. Later, having jettisoned their bombs, C.O. Murray Nash and his Flight of Mustangs stalked and ambushed one of the enemy aircraft, downing it.
One of the weapons that had been developed by the Allies to inflict as much damage as possible on enemy positions was the Napalm Bomb. This 750-pounder was an incendiary containing specially-treated 100-octane petrol that ignited and spread when the bomb exploded and intensified the resulting fire into mammoth proportions. 3 Squadron received orders to begin dropping them in the new year and their first target was an enemy pocket near Alfonsine. Six Mustangs went in first and each dropped their two 500 pound bombs into the target area then the other six Mustangs, armed with Napalm bombs, followed in long shallow dives at a height of about 100 feet and dropped their loads.
The results were devastating.
Detail from the artwork "Southern Cross Over Italy" by Steve Heyen, CV-P leads the 3 Squadron formation.
Flight Lieutenant J. A. T. Hodgkinson became temporary C.O. for a few weeks in February, which was about the time the Squadron began "blind" bombing from 12,000 feet by using radar to detect their targets through the now common ten-tenths cloud formations. They continued their attacks throughout February's chilling snowy and icy weather which limited their operations until on the 23rd, they moved to Cervia, 60 miles away.
In March, temporary command changed again when Flight Lieutenant Ken A. Richards D.F.C. became temporary C.O. and the weather changed too... but this time to constant heavy mist which made flying difficult but bombing of bridges, shipping and railway locations continued. Venice was the target on the 21st of March but every pilot was exceptionally carefully to drop his bombs only inside well defined target zones so that none of the city's historical buildings were touched.
Ken Richards. [Artwork by Dennis Adams AWM copyright ART24438]
At last, on the 7th of April, the final offensive that collapsed the enemy in Italy began when Eighth Army attacked across the Senio River near Lugo. 3 Squadron and the rest of the Wing flew almost continuous formations of Mustangs in flights of four, five and six aircraft to bomb and strafe the enemy positions for much of April. Some missions were also flown firing under-wing rockets.
During the months of 1945, the Squadron lost quite a few Mustangs to anti-aircraft fire. Fortunately, many of the Mustang pilots survived the demise of their aircraft, including Warrant Officer Alan Clark, who evaded capture in Yugoslavia, joining up with the Partisans until the end of the war. (Along the way he met up with 3 Squadron's F/Lt. Barney Davies, who was doing much the same thing!)
Squadron Leader Murray Nash, D.F.C. and Bar, resumed command on the 3rd of May and, on the 5th, the Squadron completed its last operational flight, carrying out a reconnaissance of the areas around Fiume, Trieste and Udine. Warrant Officer Arthur Pardy was one of the pilots who flew that last sortie.
5th Army joined the thrust towards Bologna on the 15th and the Po River became the focal point of the fight. By the 21st, German control of Italy was all but over, as only four German Army Divisions remained.
On the 29th, while the Squadron were attacking enemy transports in the Trento-Boizano region, General von Vietinghoff was signing an unconditional surrender at Field Marshal Alexander’s Headquarters in the Royal Palace at Caserta. On the 2nd of May 1945, the surrender became effective in Italy and the German General gave strong credit to the performance of the Allied fighter bombers squadrons who, he said, had contributed greatly to the downfall of his forces in Italy.
The news that Adolf Hitler, and his wife of a single day, Eva Braun, had suicided on the 30th of April, followed one day after by Joseph Goebbles with Magda, his wife of almost fourteen years, and their six innocent children, was the signal for the surviving German Commander in Chief, Field Marshal Jodl, to negotiate the final German surrender which was, in fact signed on the 7th of May, 1945 by Jodl at Allied Headquarters in Rheims.
Two weeks later, they moved to Lavariano where at last they began to relax for the first time in years, although many in the Squadron confessed to a strong feeling of anticlimax and even depression with the realisation that the war against Japan still had to be won.
On the 28th of May at 1800 hours, a huge crowd of army and air force personnel watched the Victory Fly-Past of the Desert Air Force over Campoformido airfield.
239 Wing had the honour of leading the formation and the first aircraft to roar over the saluting dais was flown by the Wing leader, Group Captain Brian Eaton, with the six squadrons of the Wing following.
Squadron Leader Murray Nash continued to lead the Squadron during its wind-down period which involved final moves on the 20th of August to Taranto and back to Al Maza, Cairo on the 13th of September in preparation for its return to Australia.
By the 15th of December, 1945 the Squadron was back at Point Cook and Flight Lieutenant A. J. Hoelter took temporary command, on the 16th, until Flying Officer W. M. Campbell relieved him on the 11th of March, 1946. But, by then the R.A.A.F. Command had decided to disband the Squadron so, for the next three months, only a skeleton structure of 3 Squadron existed to carry out the necessary administration work.
On the 30th of July 1946, the Squadron was officially disbanded.
But that was not the end of 3 Squadron's story...
Click here to proceed to Part 4: THE JET AGE