Monday, May 18, 2015

August 1940 – Air Warfare I

Savoia Marchetti SM. 79 II.Serie

The first three days of August 1940 had been fairly quiet for Malta's defenders. Only single reconnaissance aircraft ventured over the island but these still resulted in Fighter Flight's readiness section having to be scrambled. Plt Off Tommy Balmforth was airborne in Gladiator N5529 on 2 August, as was Flt Lt Burges later in the day, when he broke a wheel on landing, although he was able to fly the repaired aircraft next day, accompanied by Balmforth flying N5524. No contact was made with enemy patrols during these sorties. At 1530 on 4 August the air raid alarm was sounded when unidentified aircraft were plotted approaching from the north, but these turned out to be fighters flying at great height and again no contact was made. Obviously aware of the presence of the Hurricane reinforcements, the Italians launched a heavy raid next day (5 August), damaging Hurricanes P2614 and P3733 on the ground. Plt Off Balmforth, on this occasion flying one of the new Hurricanes (N2484), claimed an SM79 probably destroyed, while Flt Lt Burges (N2716) reported being attacked by eight CR42s. Next day (6 August) Sgt Harry Ayre, accompanied by Capt Ford, flew the Skua on a reconnaissance sortie to Catania, Augusta and Syracuse to observe activity in the harbours, the potentially hazardous flight taking two hours 20 minutes. Neither fighters nor flak were encountered, as noted by Ayre:

"Did recce in Skua with Capt Ford RM over Sicily, looking for enemy convoy forming up. No sign of convoy but much shipping in Catania, Augusta and Syracuse harbours. Few naval ships. Flew right over one Italian cruiser. No AA fire. Was sorry we had no bombs."

In fact, the first recorded engagement following the arrival of the new Hurricanes did not occur until the night of 13 August. An impromptu night fighter section had been formed, with Flg Off Eric Taylor and Pit Off Jock Barber being initially selected for this duty. Between 2110 and 2301 a number of bombers came over singly and in pairs, and Barber was ordered off in N2715:
"The Savoias were in the habit of coming over on moonlit nights - for some reason they didn't come over on dark nights - and would drop the odd bomb and generally create a nuisance. So it was decided we should do some night fighting in Hurricanes. Eric Taylor and myself were selected, and on 9 August I did one hour. 20 minutes night-flying with searchlight co-operation. The two of us took it in turns to be coned by the searchlights whilst the other did dummy attacks. In fact our guns were loaded and I remember each time the one was attacking the other, the one being attacked would call out over the radio, 'Make bloody sure you've gal the tit on safe. for God's sake.'

On this particular evening I was scrambled and was told a single SM79 was on its way. Unfortunately, my Hurricane was overheating - it was a very hot night - and I was obliged to climb in coarse pitch to keep my glycol temperature within limits. The SM was beautifully coned in the searchlights and had a clear bombing run with no ack-ack as I was in the air, of course. Eventually it passed to the south of the island out of the searchlights before I could reach his height r managed to keep my eyes glued to him until I eventually reached his height. I pulled up underneath him and just kept on firing into his belly until I stalled and fell out of the sky, and I then lost sight of him. I was most disappointed because I'd hoped for a flamer. I flew around to the south of the island, losing height and hoping to find him, but no joy. I could only claim him as damaged."

His tire had indeed done its job better than he had realised; the SM79, an aircraft of 259* Squadriglia, was badly hit and failed to make it home, coming down in the sea five miles from the Sicilian coast. Two members of the crew were drowned; the other three swam ashore near Marina di Ragusa. This was the first aircraft shot down during the war by a night fighter outside Western Europe.

Two days later, during the early afternoon of 15 August, ten SM79s of 60*Gruppo BT in two equal formations approached Hal Far, escorted by 18 CR42s of 17°Gruppo CT with one from 23°Gruppo CT. At 1340 four Hurricanes of A Flight led by Flt Lt Balden attempted to intercept, but were engaged by the escort. Ten Smtirana of 72* Squadriglia succeeded in shooting down into the sea Sgt Roy O'Donnell's aircraft (N2716); he was not seen to bale out. Meanwhile, Flt Lt Balden (N2672), with Sgt Eric Kelsey as his No2, chased one straggling CR42 which they spotted north of the island. Balden fired one long burst whereupon the biplane looped and was lost from sight; it was claimed as damaged. On the ground at Hal Far bombs destroyed a FAA Swordfish and damaged a second, while two personnel were wounded by splinters.

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