Extract from:

Chapter 8 1942-44 The Marauder Years

Enter the Marauder

14 Squadron was formally withdrawn from the line on 4 August 1942 for conversion to the Marauder. The unit, now comprising only six Blenheims and three Bostons, moved to LG Y, just west of Ismailia, where crews kept themselves current on the Blenheims; the Bostons gave pilots the opportunity to get used to handling an aeroplane with the unfamiliar tricycle undercarriage. Five days later the Squadron moved again, this time to LG 224, twenty miles west of Cairo, where nine brand new Martin B-26 Marauders awaited them. Twice a heavy as a Blenheim, the Marauder was an imposing and intimidating machine, standing twenty feet high on its tricycle undercarriage. It also came with a reputation as a “widow maker”. “When I saw my first Marauder,” recalled Maj Lewis, “I was scared as I thought I’d never be able to fly such a huge aircraft.” The new aircraft required a crew of six, so Marauder crews were formed by the simple expedient of combining two Blenheim crews. The by-product of each amalgamation was one extra navigator who had to be replaced by another air gunner; furthermore one pilot would be the captain while the other was relegated to the role of second pilot. This process caused some angst amonst crews whose loyalty to each other had been forged by shared hardships: even so some, like Sgt Bates’ navigator, Sgt J B Dutton1, volunteered to leave the Squadron early, while they still had some choice about where they went next.

Three USAAF pilots, Lt Col F Garison Jr2, Maj J E Welborn and Capt Marrs, and a RAF instructor, Sqn Ldr B G Meharg3, were seconded to LG 224 to help with the initial conversion. Despite the Marauder’s fearsome reputation, Squadron pilots soon found that when treated with respect the aircraft was not unduly difficult to fly. The main handling difference was on the approach, where the Marauder was flown at around 150 mph - considerably faster than the landing speed for a Blenheim. This higher landing speed was indirectly the cause of an unfortunate accident on 20 August when four Egyptian labourers tried to cross the runway in their lorry just ahead of their aircraft4 as it touched down. The Marauder hit the truck, wrecking both vehicle and aeroplane and killing all four Egyptians, but luckily neither Lt Col Garrison, nor his student Plt Off Willis were injured.

The conversion process caried on over the next few months, but progress was frustratingly slow because of unserviceabilities with the new aircraft. During this period the Squadron moved yet again to Fayed on the western shore of the Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal. The first operational sortie by a 14 Squadron Marauder5 was flown by Lt B W Young6 on 28 October. The Battle of El Alemein was in full swing, but Young’s mission took him not over the battlefield as might have been expected, but out over the Mediterranean to carry out a a weather reconnaissance of Crete. For this eight-hour sortie an extra 1,000 gallon “overload” fuel tank was fitted in the bomb bay, a configuration which would become the standard fit to 14 Squadron’s Marauders. Young’s task also gave a good indication of the Squadron’s future role: the next day the Squadron received news that they had been transferrred to 201 Group, which specialised in maritime operations. During early November a number of maritime reconnaisance sorties were flown. One eventful sortie7 was flown by Wg Cdr Maydwell’s crew on the afternoon of 6 November, and ranged around the Cyclades Islands to the north of Crete. During this patrol Maydwell found five “invasion barges” packed with troops which he strafed. Shortly afterwards came across a Ju52 transport aircraft, but as he manoeuvred to engage it the crew realised that it was a Red Cross aircraft, so they let it go on its way. Later in the patrol they found a pair of merchant ships under the escort of two He115s. As they approached the ships they came under heavy anti-aircraft fire which caused considerable damage to the Marauder, setting fire to the overload fuel tank in the bomb bay and wounding the turret gunner, Sgt W J Nicholls, in the leg. The fire was tackled by the wireless operator, Sgt D G Clarke, using a bottle fire extinguisher; once that was empty, Clarke had to use his bare hands to beat out the last of the flames8. Continuing with the mission, Maydwell saw two more ships at anchor in an island bay, and a convoy escorted by five destroyers and seven Ju88s. When the Marauder approached the convoy for a closer look they were chased off by two of the Ju88s. The return leg of this eight hour sortie was flown under cover of darkness.

The next day a major strategic event changed the whole face of the war in North Africa: American troops landed on the Morrocan and Algerian coast, opening a “western front” in North Africa. With decisive vistory at El Alemein close at hand it was clear that the Germans would soon be ejected from North Africa, but it was also clear that the battle for control of the Mediterranean would take on a new significance. In Egypt the training continued and it was during a practice bombing sortie on 24 November that tragedy struck. As Fg Off W R Bower’s9 Marauder10 approached the bombing range at Shallufa, just north of Suez, the tail unit broke off and the aircraft dived into the ground, killing the whole crew.

On 30 November the majority of crews and aircraft were detached to Shallufah for a torpedo dropping course. A handful of crews from “A” Flight continued conversion training for new crews at Fayed while the remaining few continued to fly operational sorties from a detached base at Gambut. These sorties included a number of “offensive shipping searches” designed to interdict the Afrika Korps’ martime supply lines. The first bombing attack against shipping was carried out by Fg Off Slade11 on 6 December, when he engaged an 800 ton schooner off the Libyan coast just east of Tripoli. However, the schooner met Slade’s attack with accurate anti-aircraft fire and the bomb- aimer Sgt F W Bayley was hit and wounded just before the bomb release point, causing him to release early and the bombs all fell short.

There was a brief change from maritime work on 11 December when four Marauders12 bombed the aerodrome and station at Gabes in Tunisia, but the majority of operational work consisted of reconnaissance along the Libyan and Tunisian coast. On 16 December a formation of three Marauders was carrying out an offensive shipping sweep to the west of Benghazi. On the outward leg they had been escorted by a flight of Beaufighters which shot down a Ju52 off Tripoli, but on the return leg the Marauders were alone when they were mistakenly attacked by a formation of nine Malta-based Spitfires. Sgt L A Einsaar’s13 aircraft14 was so badly damaged by the fighters that he eventually had to forced land in the sea about fifteen miles to the west of Benghazi. The aircraft caught fire as it hit the water and then sank almost immediately, taking with it Sgt R I Ploskin15, Sgt P F Cockington16 and Sgt A E Watts17. Einsaar, Sgt L R Dixon (the second pilot) Sgt L B Willocks (the gunner) had managed to escape from the wreckage and scrambled aboard the life raft. However, Einsaar then saw the navigator, Sgt T E Exell18, in difficulty in the water, separated from the dinghy by a sea of flame. Einsaar immediately dived into the water and managed to reach Exell, but the navigator was badly injured and he died in Einsaar’s arms shortly afterwards. The survivors were located by an Air Sea Rescue Wellington and picked up by a rescue launch two hours later.

Mines and Torpedoes

Two nights later, six Marauders set off to drop mines into the harbour at Tunis. They set off from Shallufah to Berka, just outside the newly-liberated Benghazi to refuel before five aircraft19 set out for the long flight to Tunis. Each Marauder carried two 1,200-pound American magnetic mines in one side of the bomb bay with the overload fuel tank on the other side. The mines had to be dropped from below 200 feet. “As it was to be a night mission,” recalled Sgt O’Connor, “at briefing we all wanted to know how we got to fly under 200 feet without a radar altimeter. The briefing Officer struck chill in our hearts when he said matter-of-factly ‘Well, you will make a landfall on the north-east tip of Tunisia at Cape Bon. There are 200 foot cliffs for some miles to the west of Cape Bon, so you let down in the moonlight until you are just below the cliffs.’” On arriving off Cape Bon O’Connor found the cliffs that the briefing officer had mentioned and let down just below their level, noting that the altimeter read minus thirty feet.

“As we ran in on our mine dropping run,” continued O’Connor, “I asked Buck [the navigator, Sgt J C Buckland20] if he was sure it was Tunis harbour. He did not have to answer, for suddenly, on came the searchlights, and flak from anti-aircraft guns began hammering a Marauder about a quarter of a mile ahead. The pilot pulled up and started weaving, but his evasive actions were to no avail. A shell must have hit his mines or fuel tank, for his aircraft exploded into a large ball of orange flame.” In fact O’Connor had just witnessed Plt Off Willis’ Marauder flying into the sea, or perhaps hitting a gantry crane as he tried to avoid the anti-aircraft fire21. Another pilot, Plt Off Grimsey narrowly missed a ship’s mast as he made his attack.

“Buck had opened the bomb bay doors of our aeroplane, ready to drop our mines. Suddenly he yelled ‘Pull up!! Gantry cranes ahead!! Mines dropped.’ Reacting automatically to Buck’s urgent outburst, I climbed steeply to avoid the cranes, then turned for home up the harbour with the knowledge that our job was done. Relief was short-lived, for almost immediately, from the mid- upper gunner came the sharp call of ‘Night fighter’. A couple of bursts of tracer fire went past us as I dived the aircraft towards the water. At about 400 feet, the fighter broke off his attack, no doubt thinking that we would plough into the drink. I stopped weaving and levelled out at an altimeter reading of minus fifty feet.”

On the return leg, O’Connor attempted to transfer fuel from the overload tank, but the fuel gauges read empty. When Flt Sgt C A Long22 , the second pilot, went back to check the bomb bay, he found that the fuel tank was no longer there - in the heat of the moment, as they narrowly missed the gantry cranes, Buckland had dropped the mines and the fuel tank into Tunis harbour. With little fuel and few options remaining, O’Connor decided to divert to Malta. Arriving there just after an air raid, O’Connor landed in pitch darkness. Fortunately Long had previously flown Spitfires from Malta and knew that the runway was very short; he shouted for O’Connor to apply the brakes, and the aircraft shuddered to a halt just before the sheer drop to the sea at the end of the airstrip. As they taxied clear, the port engine failed through lack of fuel.

Maj Lewis and Capt Young had a slightly easier time on Christmas Eve when, flying via Berka, they dropped mines in daylight off Qarqanna island near Sfax. Christmas Day itself was something of a celebration as the Torpedo Course at Shallufah was finished and the whole Squadron was reunited at Fayed. The Squadron’s operations diary recorded “a magnificent spread in all Messes.”

Throughout January and early February 14 Squadron’s Marauders flew daily maritime reconnaissance sorties, supplemented by frequent anti-submarine patrols and offensive shipping sweeps. These latter were part of a combined, but unco-ordinated, campaign by 201 Group aircraft and RN submarines against axis shipping using the waters of the Aegean. While many ships had to run the gauntlet of submarines and aircraft in the Aegean, others were able to use the well-sheltered route between the eastern coast of Greece and the large island of Euboea. Here the narrow channel, with steep hills on either side, offered a route which was safe from attack by both submarines and aircraft. However this waterway had a narrow choke point at the Euripus Strait near Khalkis, which was an ideal place to lay mines. On 9 January two aircraft27 loaded with magnetic mines took off from Shallufah bound for the Burgi (Bourtzi) Channel, a few miles south of Khalkis where the waterway narrowed to a half-mile width before opening into the Gulf of Euboea. Plt Off Elliott had to return to Shallufah soon after take-off with engine trouble, but Wg Cdr Maydwell continued alone, threading his way northwards through the Dodecanese islands as far as Psara. From here he turned westwards towards Khalkis to approach the target over Euboea from due east. Once over the straits, the Marauder would be very vulnerable as there was no room to manoevre to avoid anti- aircraft fire. “I had deliberately chosen midday as the time of the strike,” recalled Maydwell, “guessing that the Italians would be changing the guard and probably having a siesta. This assumption proved to be correct and the anti-aircraft gunners in the channel were taken unawares and all the shots they fired were way behind us... [the mines] had to be droppd at thirty feet and as slow as possible. We were so low on that operation that my tail gunner got soaked in sea water spray. So much so that the ground crew asked him if he had been swiming!” As they flew homebound they saw a small convoy of four ships to the east of Naxos and were fired on by the escorting destroyers, but no damage was done.

Maydwell set off for the Burgi Channel again on 14 February. This time he was at the lead of three aircraft, but once again his number two dropped out because of unserviceability, leaving Maydwell and Plt Off C P M Phillips28 to carry on 29. They followed a similar route to that used on the previous mission; this time, however, the weather was appalling and the aircraft had to negotiate their way round heavy storms, with thick cloud covering hilltops. It was difficult to find the target area in such conditions, but once again the Marauders achieved complete surprise and dropped their mines successfully to the south of Khalkis

The next day two Marauders30 set off for a routine offensive shipping sweep of the Aegean. Nothing further was heard from Flt Sgt Truman’s aircraft, but it was presumed to have been shot down when the formation attacked a merchant vessel in the eastern Aegean. During the engagement Lt Jones’ aircraft was badly damaged and one engine failed, but he managed to coax the aeroplane to the Turkish coast and landed at Izmir, where the aircraft and its crew were interned. On the same day the Squadron was informed that they would move from Fayid to Berka III just outside Benghazi: a road journey of over seven hundred miles which would take them from 17 to 23 February to complete.

1 Flt Lt Brian Dutton DFC later flew Wellingtons and Lancasters. He transferred to the Air Traffic Control branch of the RAF after the war and left the service in 1962

2 Col Flint Garrison Jr (1905-1979) commanded 320th Bombadment Group

3 Wg Cdr Bryce Meharg OBE AFC* (1917-2000) retired from the RAF in 1972

4 Marauder FK157

5 in Marauder FK121

6 Bruce Young SAAF was shot down in Jan 1943 and became a PoW

7 in Marauder FK375

8 Donald Clarke was awarded the DFM for this action. After the war he transferred to the Fighter Control Branch of the RAF which he left in 1954.

9 William Bower, aged 31, was from Union Point, Manitoba, Canada

10 Marauder FK122

11 in Marauder FK159

12 Fg Off F R Brown FK130, Sgt Egebjerg FK131, Flt Lt Brooks FK371, Sgt Einsaar FK376

13 Described as “a giant of a man” Fg Off Leonard Einsaar DFM (b 1913) was born in Awaba, New South Wales Before the war he had been a policeman in the tough mining town of Broken Hill, NSW and he represented Australia as a rower in the 1936 Olympic Games. He was shot down in 1943 and after spending a year as a PoW he was discharged from the RAAF in 1945.

14 Marauder FK367

15 Ralph Ploskin from Birmingham

16 Aged 21, Percival Cockington was from Woodville, South Australia

17 Alan Watts, aged 27 was from Sheffield

18 Tom Exell from Kensington, Victoria, Australia was 21 years old.

19 Plt Off Grimsey FK131, Plt Off Clarke-Hall FK155, Lt Leach FK370, Sgt O’Connor FK133, Plt Off Willis FK366

20 After the war Sqn Ldr John Buckland retired from the RAAF and returned to farming in Mansfield, Victoria, Australia

21 By a miracle John Willis survived the crash which killed the rest of his crew, probably because he had undone his harness and forgotten to refasten it. It seems that he was blown through the windscreen by the exlosion and he was found by the Germans floating in the harbour kept afloat by his lifejacket. Willis spent the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War and died in 1999. According to his his wishes, his ashes were scattered into Tunis harbour where his crew had perished 56 years earlier.

22 Flt Lt Carl Long AMICE MIMunE retired from the Airfield Construction Branch of the RAF in 1956

27 Wg Cdr Maydwell FK376, Plt Off Elliott FK139

28 20-year old Christopher Phillips, from Sussex, died from burns received in a flying accident in July 1943

29 Wg Cdr Maydwell FK139, Plt Off Phillips FK373

30 Lt Jones FK143, Flt Sgt Truman FK150