Deserts and seas

Combat over the North Sea was challenging enough, but as its remit expanded Coastal Command faced wide-ranging commitments in the Mediterranean. The first Bristol Beaufort torpedo-bombers became operational in April 1940, dramatically increasing the Command’s potential. But it was the prospect of the Beaufighter that really got the ‘top brass’ salivating; here was a truly versatile strike weapon.

With a range of around 1,170 miles (1,882km) the Mk.I offered phenomenal ‘reach’ for a fighter; but Coastal Command needed more. Awesome though the Beaufighter’s battery of guns was, endurance was more important. It was decided to sacrifice the six machine-guns in the wings and replace them with fuel tanks.

This would take time to achieve in terms of re-engineering and production, so Bristol set about giving Coastal Command an interim ‘fix’. A 50-gallon (227-litre) fuel tank as fitted to Vickers Wellington bombers could be squeezed into the fuselage, above the cannon bay and in between the pilot and observer.

The definitive Mk.Ic featured direction finding equipment and a bench for the observer-turned-navigator to plot the long courses the new type offered. Within the wings was an extra 74 gallons of fuel, giving an impressive total of 624 gallons on board. This gave the ‘Beau’ a maximum range of approximately 1,500 miles. Coastal Command had a fighter that could escort convoys deep into the ‘Med’ and — thanks to its four 20mm cannon — could inflict considerable damage on enemy shipping and aircraft.

MIXED FORTUNES

During its brief existence in World War One, 252 Squadron operated another twin-engined type, the Blackburn Kangaroo. These biplanes flew patrols off the north east coast from May 1918 until the unit disbanded in June the following year.

No.252 was resurrected on November 21, 1940, at Bircham Newton in Norfolk, under the command of Sqn Ldr Robert G Yaxley MC. Bristol Blenheim Mk.Is and IVs formed the first equipment and some of these stayed on until April 1941.

On December 1, the squadron moved to Chivenor in Devon in preparation to become the first Beaufighter Coastal Command unit and on December 27 R2198 B-for-Beer touched down. This was a standard Mk.If intended to get aircrew and groundcrew used to the potent new twin. On New Year’s Day R2152 arrived, which had been fitted with a 50-gallon tank in its centre section at St Athan in Wales. It would be April before true Mk.Ics became available.

Having worked up at Chivenor, 252 transited to Aldergrove in Northern Ireland on April 6, 1941, and was declared operational. On the 16th, Flt Lt Bill Riley and observer W/O Donaldson in Mk.Ic T3237 K-for-King caught a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 of Kampfgeschwader 40 off the coast of Scotland. Sustained bursts, ending in a point-blank range onslaught, sent the four-engine Condor into the sea with the loss of all on board.

Riley had downed a Heinkel He 111 on May 26, 1940, while flying a Gloster Gladiator biplane of 263 Squadron in the Norwegian campaign and during the Battle of Britain, at the helm of Hawker Hurricanes, had added a Junkers Ju 88 and a Messerschmitt Bf 109E, in addition to sharing others, to his tally. The Fw 200 was 252’s first ‘kill’ and for Coastal Command, the Beaufighter had begun to fulfil its promise.

The euphoria of the first victory had to be weighed against the unit’s first deaths while flying the Beaufighter that very same day. Plt Off J G Lane and his observer Sgt S Cross both perished when T3238 S-for-Sugar was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 off the coast of Norway.

Three days after the Condor had spiralled into the North Sea, German forces took the Greek port of Salonika. No.252 Squadron was among the assets ear-marked to increase forces in the Mediterranean. The first Beaufighters set off for St Eval in Cornwall, the point of departure on May 1 for the three-day ferry to Luqa on Malta.

ISLAND FORTRESS

On the first leg to Malta on May 1, 1941, Mk.Ic T3229 had to force-land in neutral Portugal; aircraft and crew being interned. (Portugal was later to adopt functioning Beaufighters, operating TF.Xs post-war.)

Worse was to come, Flt Lt Riley -of the Fw 200 shoot down — found himself on the receiving end while approaching Malta on May 3. A defending Hurricane attacked T3237 in error and Riley made a spectacular forced landing at Luqa. He and his observer were injured, but K-for-King was a write-off.

Bill Riley was patched up and back in the air by the 7th when 252 was escorting a force of Blenheim IVs on a raid to Sicily. In the middle of this, an Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello tri-motor transport was spotted and Riley, Sub Lt Fraser and the CO, Robert Yaxley shared shooting it down. No.252 was to acquire a taste for three-engined transports…

Three day later, the squadron used the 20mm cannon on its Beaufighters to good effect when they struck an airfield near Catania on Sicily in an early morning raid. Two enemy aircraft were destroyed and five others damaged. On the 17th the unit detached to Maleme on Crete and from there struck at German-held airfields in Greece. Such was the tide of war that seven days later, Sqn Ldr Yaxley took 252 to attack Maleme, following the German invasion of the island on the 22nd. Eight Junkers Ju 52 transports were destroyed on the ground.

During its time on Malta, 252 Squadron had taken a mauling, with four ‘Beaus’ failing to return from operations and another quartet destroyed on the ground at Luqa. It was decided to wind down the unit, with some personnel going to the UK and others moving to Abu Sueir in Egypt in June. There they worked within the Beaufighter-equipped 272 Squadron until 252 was staffed and equipped sufficiently to operate independently again.

Two aircraft returning from Malta came to grief in very different ways after departing Gibraltar on the morning of May 22, 1941, with St Eval in Cornwall as the intended destination. Mk.Ic T3249, flown by Fg Off S McDonald, with observer Sgt Booth and Fg Off G Lemar as a passenger, ran low on fuel off the Cornish coast and ditched. All three were picked up by a civilian vessel. Fg Off J Holgate in T3235 had no such limitations; he overshot the west country and made a forced landing on the racecourse at Leopardstown in neutral Eire. McDonald, observer Sgt Barnett and extra’ Fg Off H Verity were interned — but only briefly before finding themselves in Northern Ireland.

HOME-SPUN ‘ACE’

No.252 came out from under 272 s ‘wing’ in December 1941 at Idku in Egypt, with Sqn Ldr A G Wincott taking command from the 22nd. On January 16, 1942 the squadron conducted its first operation and ten days later Fairey-built Mk.Ic T4720 failed to return from a strafing raid on El Agueila in western Egypt.

January brought better fortunes to 252, with sorties into the summer comprising desert strikes and deployments to Malta. On January 18, Plt Off Herbert ‘Bert’ Horatio Kitchener Gunnis was flying Mk.Ic T4834 F-for-Freddie on a convoy patrol off the Libyan coast when he shot down a Ju 88 and had two more added to his score as ‘probables’. Sadly T4833, flown by Plt Off Beet, failed to return from this combat. There was much more to come from Gunnis, but Freddie had less than a month to go, eventually being destroyed on the ground during an air raid on Luqa on February 15.

On March 11 during a convoy escort off Tobruk, Plt Off A D Frecker shot down two He 111s and Plt Off Smith dispatched a Ju 88. Bert Gunnis sent a Ju 88 and two He 111s into the sea.

The Luftwaffe was desperately trying to re-supply Rommel’s forces and its large ‘air trains’ of Ju 52 tri-motors offered potentially easy pickings. This was the case on May 12 when half a dozen ‘Beaus’ of 252, escorted by Curtiss Kittyhawks, fell upon 13 Ju 52s escorted by just a pair of Bf 110s. Gunnis, flying G-for-George, carried out a head-on attack on one Junkers, sending its down in flames, and damaged another. On return to base, Bert carried out a successful wheels-up landing. This did not dampen the celebrations, for he had notched up five ‘kills’ and had become an ‘ace’.

No.252 brought about the demise of five Ju 52s in that battle, with Sqn Ldr Wincott and Flt Sgt Reg Ivey (in T4831 D-for-Dog), taking two each. All together, the Luftwaffe lost eleven of the transports (nine were shot down and two force-landed) and one of the Bf 110s. It was not all two more on the ground at Dema in the Libyan desert and they fell apart under his fusillade of 20mm shells, but ground fire ripped upwards and Bert was badly wounded in the legs.

In the cramped confines of the cockpit, Waller managed to patch up his pilot and, with suitable instruction, flew the Beaufighter back to base. Sgt Waller was awarded a DFM while Bert went back to the UK to recuperate. He later became an instructor on ‘Beaus’ at 132 Operational Training Unit at East Fortune in Scotland.

VERSATILE WARHORSES

Daily taskings for 252’s aircrews were varied both geographically and tactically with the second half of 1942 well illustrating this. On July 2, the Beaufighters strafed the airfield at Fuka — the squadron had been based there in late 1941 — and destroyed one-sided: a Ju 52 rear gunner shot down Sgts Cripps and Batemen in T5028 of 252.

In June Bert Gunnis was awarded the DFC and promoted to Flying Officer. The incredible conflict of May 12 brought to an end his air-to-air victories, but he had not lost his taste for tri-motors. On June 28 he and observer Sgt E W Waller caught three Bf 109s. This came at a high cost, with two of the attackers going down to the guns of a Bf 109 and an Italian fighter. No.252 was back the following day, hitting the landing grounds around Fuka, destroying or severely damaging up to a dozen Bf 109s and an Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero.

From August 9, the unit was back on detachment in Malta and was also operating from Paphos on Cyprus. On the 31st, two more Beaufighters failed to return from ‘ops’. In mid-September

Wg Cdr P H Bragg became the CO and the pace increased dramatically from October 23 when the Battle of El Alamein started. That month, 252 destroyed four ships and six enemy aircraft; on the 25th it accounted for two Ju 88s and a Dornier Do 24 flying-boat.

In November, 252 received a Beaufighter If; Weston-super-Mare-built X7704 fitted with 40mm cannon for operational trials. As related in the feature on weapons, Punch, nothing came of this modification.

On December 6, two ‘Beaus’ failed to return from a desert strafing attack. The ‘Boss’, Wg Cdr Bragg was killed and his observer, Fg Off Nichols, was taken prisoner. Sqn Ldr A D Frecker dfc and Fg Off T Armstrong, survived a forced landing in T5045 and set off on a long, and successful, trek back to base. On the 12th, Wg Cdr P B B Ogilvie dso dfc became CO.

From early December, the unit had been operating from one of several landing grounds around Berka, near Benghazi in Libya, and by the summer of 1943, Berka III became 252’s main base. By this time Wg Cdr D O Butler had taken command with Wg Cdr P H Woodruff succeeding him in December 1943.

STRIKING BY MOONLIGHT

From May 1943 the squadron was tasked more and more to hit maritime and coastal targets in the Ionian Sea to the west of Greece and the Aegean Sea to the east. For this, 252’s Beaufighters carried bombs under the centre section and the wings. From September, the unit moved to Cyprus, greatly cutting down the ‘commute’ and increasing the sortie rate, which in October peaked at 224.

Ground strikes on airfields, attacks on all forms of shipping and targets-of-opportunity became 252’s bread and butter for the remainder of the war.

Contact with the Luftwaffe became increasingly rare, but on January 31, 1944, a Ju 88 was shot down, but two Beaufighters failed to return.

The following month, the squadron added rocket projectiles to its arsenal, greatly increasing its strike capacity. On June 1, 1944 the Beaufighters ripped into a convoy, sinking a merchant vessel, mauling a destroyer and another ship. South African Wg Cdr Bryce Meharg afc, CO from March 1944, and his observer failed to return from this action, but lived to fight another day.

Targets in Greek waters and on the mainland remained a high priority for the remainder of 1944, the squadron often using moonlit evenings to its advantage. On October 13 — after a long flight across the Mediterranean — 252 unleashed its rockets on the German fortification at Naxia in Greece and this action was instrumental in the Allied capture of the base.

On February 18, 1945 the unit moved into Hassani in Greece and increased the pace of strikes against the retreating Germans. Increasingly there was a new requirement: the harassment of Greece communists as British liberating forces found themselves in the middle of a civil war.

General Montgomery accepted the surrender of German forces at Lüneburg Heath, near Hanover, on May 4 and on that day 252 started an intense barrage of coastal defence artillery positions at Melos in the Aegean. The following day, the last rockets were unleashed and the squadron’s valiant part in World War Two was brought to a close. The unit settled on Araxos on the Ionian coast in August 1945 and it was there on August 28, 1945, that 252 disbanded for the final time.

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