Stars and stripes

When the United States became involved in World War Two, the British were well entrenched in the art of night-fighting, as were the Germans. The Americans were initially weak in several areas — and having a combat-ready type was one of them.

It would be May 1944 before the USAAF became operational with its new Northrop P-61 Black Widow. Prior to that, the hard-working Douglas A-20 Havoc was adapted as an interim nocturnal and all-weather fighter under the designation P-70.

In the meantime, there was a war to be fought and a stopgap was needed; one that had already proven itself. In the Mediterranean theatre of operations the choice was the Bristol Beaufighter and, on a very limited basis, the de Havilland Mosquito. Four USAAF units flew in combat in the MTO: the 414th, 415th, 416th and 417th Night Fighter Squadrons (NFS).

YORKSHIRE WORK-UP

After training in Florida, personnel of the 417th took a train-ride to New York in the spring of 1943. There, they boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth for the six-day voyage to the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. From there, they settled into Twinwood Farm, near Bedford.

After a short time, flight crews were checked out on the Beaufighter, which was quite different from the P-70 they had trained on. Radar observers (R/Os) had been using the SCR-540, which did not match up to what the RAF were equipped with — airborne interception (AI) Mk.IV radar, which they now had to get to grips with. Maintenance personnel also had a lot to learn, so the entire 417th was scattered around England at different bases in an effort to get proficient on the ‘Beau’.

This intensive familiarisation lasted from May 14 until June 10, during which time the squadron moved en masse to Scorton in Yorkshire where it received a dozen Beaufighters. Scorton was the home base of 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron, a combat-experienced night-fighter unit flying deadly Mk.VIs.

The 417th continued to train until August 10, by which time the aircrews had accumulated between 70 and 80 hours of night and daytime missions. All of the pilots and R/Os had carried out one or more non-stop crosscountries of between 500 and 1,000 miles (804 and 1,609km) each. All at the 417th knew they would be headed for North Africa.

ALGERIAN BASE

Early on the morning of August 7, twelve aircrews took off for Tafaraoui, Algeria, by way of Gibraltar. Another six crews went by transport. Appropriately, they were escorted by RAF Coastal Command Beaufighters on the 1,200-mile, six-hour flight. The next leg involved a two-hour flight over to French Morocco and on to their final destination. First duties were mostly convoy patrols, involving both day and night flights, the 417th NFS sharing their base with a French Bell P-39 Airacobra unit.

During the first week of September, the squadron got its first taste of combat with the Luftwaffe when one of the ‘Beaus’ locked on to a Junkers Ju 88 on a low-level reconnaissance mission. They managed to get some hits but the ’88 pulled away and escaped, so it was credited as a ‘damaged’.

For the remainder of 1943, there wasn’t much activity as the squadron continued to protect numerous convoys. On a few occasions, the Germans attempted attacks on shipping with as many as 20 bombers. The Beaufighters intercepted and turned them back towards southern France, but no ‘kills’ were recorded.

Victories over the Mediterranean at night were not common for any of the four NFS units in theatre. They had to get closer to the action and, in mid-December 1943, the 417th moved on to La Senia, near Oran, and began to see much more activity.

CHECK YOUR GUNS

On the night of February 1, 1944, Flt Off Rayford Jeffrey and Flt Off Bill Henderson, his R/O, were on convoy cover when they picked up a single intruder coming in low. Jeffrey recalls the action: “We had been on patrol close to the Balearic Islands, Majorca and Minorca, off the coast of Spain. As we started back to our home base at La Senia on the North African coast, I decided to fire my 20mm cannons to check their dispersion pattern. While firing at the water, I noticed that the pattern was somewhat irregular, being angled low to the left.

“My R/O, Henderson, who was stationed in the rear and directly behind the guns (having to cock them manually before engagements) clicked in and observed that we had only 20 rounds left in each of my four cannons and we still had quite a distance to fly before reaching our base. I thought this was pretty wise, so I quit firing.

“Wouldn’t you know, about five minutes later I received a call from our ground-controller that they had a ‘bogey’ on radar and they gave me the vector to intercept. The ‘bogey’ was near Majorca and coming our way. Bill picked it up on his radar and started giving me headings for an intercept. It was just beginning to get light which enabled me to get a visual at about 400m crossing right to left and hugging the surface at approximately 15m right over the water.”

“I identified it as a Ju 88. I was at 3,000ft and initiated my attack from the rear and above, closing the range to about 100m. In the darkness, I saw the flashes from the tracer rounds from the turret gunner as he opened fire on me. Aiming just forward of the nose of the ‘bogey’, I fired a very short burst and saw hits on his cockpit area and down across the wing, inboard of the port engine.

“Suddenly, his port wing separated from the fuselage and the Ju 88 immediately rolled over to the left and dived straight into the water. He was right above the sea so the pilot had no chance to react or get out before impact. I circled above and looked for any survivors but didn’t see any. The ‘kill’ had only used about 10 rounds of ammo from each gun.”

For Jeffrey and his R/O, this was their first ‘kill’ and the 417th’s first confirmed victory. Elated, they headed back to base, but trouble was about to start. About halfway back to their base, one of his engines quit and the Beaufighter tried to roll. Apparently, one of the rounds fired by the Ju 88’s gunner had hit the engine: the ‘Beau’ was hard to handle with only one, and there had been several incidents (American and RAF) where it became impossible to maintain altitude. Jeffrey had to fight the controls constantly for the remainder of the flight and, incredibly, was able to make a safe gear-down landing.

WAVE SKIMMING

Ju 88s flying at wave-top height were very difficult to intercept and almost impossible to set up a firing solution. Airspeeds of the two types were about even with the Beaufighter and Ju 88 registering around 300-plus mph.

On March 28, Jeffrey and his R/O were out on convoy escort between the coast of North Africa and the southern coast of Spain. Soon after take-off, ground control radioed that they had a contact on the scope and immediately gave Jeffrey the vector for an intercept. The unidentified ‘bogey’ was heading straight for the convoy they were protecting.

Jeffrey changed direction and set a head-on course for the intruder. When they were about 20 miles north-east of the convoy, Henderson got a lock-on, and moments later Jeffrey got a visual confirmation that it was another Ju 88 coming straight at them and holding an altitude of only 50ft.

“I started a turn to try to come in behind the intruder, which was difficult due to the low altitude. This was probably one of the Luftwaffe’s most versatile aircraft because it was used in a multitude of missions such as bomber, fighter, pathfinder and it was well suited for night work.

“As I tried to get in close, the ’88 spotted me and immediately started a 180-degree turn, which was to my advantage because it set me up to easily slide in behind him. I closed to within 250m and opened fire, feeling the drop in airspeed resulting from the recoil of my four cannons. They were firing alternate armour-piercing and high explosive ‘ammo’. Most of what I fired missed, but I noticed a few rounds hit him.

“At that time, I saw an object being thrown from the Ju 88. I moved even closer to within 150m, hearing the staccato ‘plunk, plunk, plunk’ of enemy fire striking my aircraft. Another ‘plunk’ and I felt the searing heat of a round striking my foot. “I fired another long burst at him, exhausting my ammo and was rewarded with seeing parts of the ’88 falling from the fuselage — among the them the canopy from the rear gun position that had been firing at me.

“The pilot could no longer maintain altitude and [the aircraft] plummeted the short distance into the water. It didn’t take but a few seconds for it to sink at which time I climbed up to 3,000ft and reported to ground control that I had shot the Ju 88 down.”

MULTIPLE TARGETS

Ten minutes after his second ‘kill’, Jeffrey received a call from control that they had multiple targets heading straight for him. At this point, he was flying with his wingman and two RAF Beaufighters. In the distance, they spotted a large formation of enemy aircraft heading for the convoy. Jeffrey had never seen so many in one place before.

Seconds later, the air battle started and Jeffrey noticed tracers coming over the top of his aircraft. He glanced back to find his wingman trying to lob rounds over him to get to the oncoming bombers.

With all of his cannon rounds used up, he relied on his 0.303-calibre machine-guns to fend off the intruders. He spewed out short bursts as he lined up one after another. The two RAF ‘Beaus’ helped scatter the bombers. Even though none of the friendlies shot down any ‘bogies’, they managed to turn the entire formation back before they could locate the convoy, so it all ended well. It was time to return to base as darkness was creeping up.

Jeffrey: “I arrived over the base just at dark and found out to my dismay that the enemy gunner had not only knocked out my radar, but also my hydraulic system. This rendered me unable to lower my gear! As if getting my airplane shot up, taking a round in the foot, facing a huge enemy formation and ducking friendly fire from my wingman wasn’t enough!

“Now I had to do a gear-up landing and it was dark! I brought her in and hit the ground hard; so hard that one of the restraining shoulder straps broke on impact, instantly dislocating my shoulder. The props immediately stopped and bent as we hit the ground and slid to a halt in a cloud of dirt, dust and grass from the field.

“Once out of the cockpit, I discovered that the round I took in my foot had only entered the thick sole of my flying boot. It was just close enough to my foot to burn it, which made me think I had been hit. I still have the bullet to this day.”

Intelligence determined that Jeffrey had shot down the pathfinder aircraft that was supposed to have dropped a homing device into the convoy which would have led the rest of the attacking force to the target. That was the object he had seen being ejected from the Ju 88 right after the initial encounter. In an unusual twist, they found out that 25 of the attackers never made it back to base due to battle damage and other reasons.

Jeffrey ended up with one ‘kill’ and three ‘damaged’. Official records stated that the four Beaufighters (two from the 417th and two from the RAF) had engaged and repelled an enemy formation of 70, and had successfully kept them from reaching any of the ships in the convoy.

INKY BLACKNESS

Only a small percentage of missions by night-fighters in the MTO resulted in victories. Countless hours were spent on monotonous patrols when ground control didn’t pick up a single ‘bogey’. Three nights after dispatching the pathfinder, Jeffrey and Henderson were standing alert at Lapasset, Algeria. Not long into their shift, they received ‘scramble’ orders and, after getting airborne, were vectored onto an incoming intruder being pursued by an RAF pilot.

Due to the length of the chase, the RAF airman was running low on fuel and was going to have to break off and return to base. Minutes later, Henderson got a lock-on and set up the intercept. As was to be expected, the hostile was coming in almost at wave-top altitude, which made a positive identification difficult.

“We were required to get a visual before firing, and when you are above another aircraft that low over the water you are looking into an inky blackness which was almost impossible to see. The best position to get a ‘positive’ was from below and, in this situation, there was no way to get under him and if I did, the turbulence from his prop-wash would make it too risky.

“At this point, he began taking evasive action, turning quickly to the right and then to the left. Bill’s job was to keep his eyes glued on the screen where he could constantly give me directions so I could keep up with all the Ju 88 s manoeuvres.

“The enemy pilot continued to hug the wave tops and I was waiting for him to gain a little altitude and then I would have him. Suddenly, the ‘bogey’ pulled up enough to fill my gunsight, and I opened fire and saw that my high-explosive incendiary rounds were hitting his wing and fuselage. He pulled up sharply to the right and we lost radar contact. Our ground controller also had nothing on his screen, so we were only able to claim a ‘probable’.”

Intelligence confirmed that the Ju 88 never returned to its base. A short time later, the British gave Jeffrey credit for three aircraft destroyed and awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

For the entire tenure of Beaufighters with the USAAF night-fighter squadrons, there was very little, if any, dissatisfaction with the aircraft and most crews enjoyed flying and maintaining it. Its Anglo-American contribution to protecting the ships in the Mediterranean can never be overstated.

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