Normed originally from personnel drawn from the banks, the Stock Exchange and similar institutions in the ‘square mile’ of the City of London, 600 Squadron has a permanent place of honour in the wartime history of Malta. During its brief time on the island, the Auxiliary Air Force unit became a seasoned, and very successful, night predator.
When war broke out, 600 was operating Bristol Blenheim Ifs in the night defence role moving, in turn, to Northolt, Manston, Hornchurch, Catterick and Colerne, and ending up at Predannack in October 1941. While at the Cornish airfield, it converted to the Beaufighter Vlf before leaving for a period of intense training for air and ground crews at Church Fenton in Yorkshire.
News filtered through that 600 was due to be posted overseas and in preparation it returned to Cornwall, this time to Portreath. During a three-day stay, the squadron refuelled and was kitted out for overseas. On November 17, 1942, its commanding officer, Wg Cdr Watson, led 17 aircraft to Gibraltar, the journey taking between five and seven hours. After an overnight stop they continued to Blida, Algeria.
Only a few operations were carried out from Blida before switching base to Maison Blanche, Algeria, on December 7. On Boxing Day, Wg Cdr C P ‘Paddy’ Green DSO DFC became CO as the Beaufighters started to make their presence felt. The New Year saw a transfer from Coastal Command to the North Africa Tactical Air Force together with a signal informing Wg Cdr Green that 600 was to relocate to Luqa on Malta.
On June 15, 1943 the ground crew left for Sousse and, on the 23rd, embarked for Malta. The next day, 20 Beaufighters left Bone and settled on the crowded airfield at Luqa. No.600 (City of London) Squadron had joined the Desert Air Force.
Aircrew were billeted in a hotel near Sliema Creek while the rest of the officers were given the Meadow bank Hotel’ in the town of Sliema. Groundcrew were dispersed throughout the area, some choosing to live in the many yellow stone buildings that abounded along the Luqa perimeter.
No.600 arrived at a time when Malta was beginning to hit back at the Axis powers. After a long period of near starvation and the prospect of surrender, a visit from His Majesty the King on June 23 had inspired both civilians and the military forces on Malta to take the offensive.
‘City of London’ was tasked with providing an air umbrella over the entire island of Sicily at night. For this, 600 would be supported by one flight from each of 108 and 256 Squadrons.
Having settled in at Luqa, offensive operations started, as 600’s operations record book was able to record: “June 26, 1943 — Beau V8757 — Flt Lt Hilken and Plt Off K Lushington. Time up 22:00. Time down 23:15. Patrolled under control of GCI AMES 41 [Ground Controlled Intercept Air Ministry Experimental Station 41] from Luqa climbing to 10,000ft. Nothing contacted or seen.”
A night-fighter sortie was a combination of patience, anticipation and frustration, very infrequently crowned by triumph. A patrol on June 27 epitomised this cat-and-mouse process. Sqn Ldr Horne afc and Flt Lt R T Browne were airborne in V8741 from Luqa at 01:20 hours. They were instructed by GCI AMES 804 to climb to 20,000ft (6,096m). Having levelled off, they were handed over to AMES 841 to intercept a ‘bogey’ identified as flying north-west. At full boost they got within five miles of the target when the GCI lost contact before the Beaufighter’s airborne interception (AI) radar could find a trace.
It became obvious to all the aircrew how different circumstances, operational and domestic, were on Malta. Not only was it harder to make contact with the enemy but landing at night was hazardous with just a dim, oil-lit flare path to guide the pilot. Then it was a desperate search for a weak light mounted on a truck and the almost undistinguishable words ‘Follow Me’! During daytime, flying with the constant heat haze making visibility difficult was also new. All of this demanded a high degree of concentration.
Being only 60 miles (96.5km) from Italian-occupied Sicily, Malta was a crucial stepping stone to an invasion of that island. No fewer than 37 squadrons were crammed on Malta and neighbouring Gozo.
Living conditions were primitive and, with a lack of food on the island, ‘Malta Dog’, a form of dysentery, was prevalent. The early days of July found the ‘City of London’ drastically depleted due to an epidemic of the ‘dog’. With many personnel being taken to Imtarfa Hospital, it became difficult to maintain the eight crews needed for night readiness.
Although it was designed for a two-man crew, it was possible to fit a third person into the Beaufighter’s cramped fuselage. By leaving the navigator behind, the powerful twin could be used as a fast ‘taxi’. In this role Wg Cdr Green flew Generals Montgomery and Browning to Kairouan in Tunisia, and returned them safely to Malta. The VIPs were involved with planning Operation HUSKY, the Sicilian landings.
Both air and ground crew discovered how best to maximise their day. This began at 06:00, with breakfast being taken at dispersal and work continuing until lunch at 12:30. In the extreme heat of the Maltese summer, efforts then ceased until 16:30 when preparations began for night flying. If common sense did not prevail, crews quickly discovered that the aircraft were far too hot to work on until the late afternoon.
With the invasion of Sicily beginning on July 10, the pace for 600 quickened. Fg Off Turnbull with his navigator, Sgt Fowler, opened the score by destroying a Junkers Ju 88 and watching it fall in flames during an early morning patrol. With a slight reduction in sickness, the squadron was able to fly further sorties enabling the score to steadily climb. On the next night, Sqn Ldr Horne DFC and Fg Off Richie found a lone Heinkel He 111 stooging around Sicily. Firing four two-second bursts they had the satisfaction of seeing it crash near Syracuse.
With the landings proceeding according to plan, a signal was received at Luqa warning 600’s personnel to be on four-hour readiness to move into Sicily. Supermarine Spitfire units were already deploying to the island.
The night of July 12/13 saw even further success. From dusk to dawn, 600 — with the aid of the GCI stations, destroyed six enemy aircraft. First to open the night’s score were Wg Cdr Green and Fg Off Reg Gillies, shooting down a Ju 88 followed by a He 111.
Shortly after, Fg Offs F R L ‘Togs’ Mellersh and Armstrong found a Ju 88 just off the coast of Gozo. Although the enemy gunner fought back, the Beaufighter crew soon sent it to a watery grave. Minutes later they were vectored on to an Italian CANT 1007 which was also eliminated.
But the night was still young — Sqn Ldr Hughes with Fg Off Dixon downed a He 111; then Plt Offs Mckinnon and Poole destroyed a Dornier Do 217. It had been, as 600’s diarist recorded, “quite a night”.
With Operation HUSKY several days old, the sustained attacks carried out before the invasion were intensified. British and US bombers from Libya and Tunisia were joining the island’s squadrons to keep up the campaign. With a continuous fighter umbrella provided by Malta’s fighters for many weeks the Filter Room plotting table at the war rooms, deep in the bastions at Lascaris, was a mass of plots — day and night.
On the night of July 14 Wg Cdr Green again found himself flying in passenger mode. Brigadier Bowen was on board to observe paratroops drops by night. The likelihood of there being ‘trade’ out there dictated that the CO’s usual ‘nav’, Fg Off Gilles, was also on hand and the guns were loaded.
The call came and Green was vectored to a He 111 just off the Sicilian coast. This was promptly dispatched, to the excitement of the passenger. Landing back at Luqa, the Brigadier said that: “it was the most memorable and thrilling moment I have had since the war began.” The following night Green and Gillies shot down four enemy aircraft and damaged a fifth. Minutes later, Fg Off Johnny Turnbull with his navigator, Sgt Fowler, accounted for three Ju 88s with Fg Off Roberts and Flt Sgt Durbaston sending another to the bottom of the sea. This was to prove an all-time record: eight destroyed and one damaged.
As 600 prepared to move into Cassibile on Sicily, the Times of Malta printed the headline: “RAF non-stop attacks. Our fighters yesterday shot down nine aircraft.” This included an extract from the squadron diary written by the CO in which he praised the ground crews: “… to them much of the credit was due for the ‘kills’ made.” By July 25 an advance party had arrived on Sicily and the Beaufighters touched down the next day. Shortly afterwards recognition of 600’s contribution came in the form of DFCs for Fg Offs Turnbull, Gillies, Mellersh and Roberts with a DFM going to Flt Sgt Fowler. The ‘City of London’ had made its mark in the defence of Malta.