I met Art and Jim in a hotel in Hollwood, California, where Art still lives. Both men had served on Malta, Art during the summer of 1942, Jim just prior to the invasion of Sicily a little under a year later. Boht had also volunteered for the RAF before the United States entered war, joining 71 Eagle Squadron. Jim is the one transcribed in italics.
ART ROSCOE AND JIM GRAY
Immediately, you try and break into the attack. If you’re attacked from starboard, you break starboard, if you’re attacked from port, you break port and you do that without thinking.
And you get it into as tight a turn as possible?
Yes, so they can’t hit you. So I did that and saw him briefly and then he took off and that set my engine on fire. I tried to bail out and I couldn’t bail out. I disconnected everything. Turned the….upside-down. Pushed forward on the stick the way we were instructed to do and I should’ve passed out but I didn’t. The engine was smoking, no actual flames that I could see but it was making loud clanking noises but it was still running, on how many cylinders I don’t know, but it was still going. I headed back to Takali and the last thing I remember seeing, I was coming up on a blast shelter and I must have hit the top of the blast shelter and the next thing I remember was waking up on a table in the mess in the monastery There were 2 who were DFM’s, there was a Wing-Co there who was also an orthopaedic surgeon which was just what I needed. When things calmed down he fixed me up….
So it had just gone straight through you?
Straight into my back. When things calmed down and they could move me,
they moved me to the hospital.
You said when you were shot and then you pulled back the throttle and got a hard rudder so he came round in front of you but did you know right away you’d been shot?
Was it instant agony?
Oh no. No pain at all. It was just as though someone had thumped me from behind. Just like someone had come up and hit the back of my shoulder. Quite a sound, a big thwacking thump, but no pain, not until later.
So that was the end of you on Malta?
Yeah. I didn’t fly on Malta any more. That happened October 12 so at the end of October I went in a Liberator to Gibraltar. I was in the hospital and everyone was coming in. I met another American there, named Bud Mulligan.
He was never an Eagle.
No he wasn’t an Eagle but he was in my flight. He was a sergeant pilot.
Yeah ICAF. He was shot down , so and was shot down and so and so that’s when the Germans were going crazy.
Were you aware at the time that you were winning that particular battle, because they suffered big time didn’t they?
I don’t know that we were thinking much about that. That was too big an overall picture for us to comprehend. It was severe. It was a vast effort. I don’t know how true it is but with that Pedestal convoy I know they had plans that if that convoy hadn’t come through they were thinking of abandoning Malta.
Yeah, it was pretty dicey.
I think they kept changing the day. They had a thing called target date and that had been going on since the beginning of April. The convoy always managed to get through in the nick of time and they managed to hang in there for a bit longer.
Then they went into North Africa in October so that took some pressure off.
You were in a Liberator that crashed so you must have been feeling like your luck was running out.
Yeah. I didn’t swim in. I’m a good swimmer but my arm was in a sling, so I thought I’d stay with the aircraft. It wasn’t sinking. It was resting on the landing gear … we were on the bottom of the bay and the wing was awash.
They just overshot the strip.
It was crew fatigue. They’d flown from Gibraltar to Malta to Cairo to Malta to Gibraltar with no crew rest so he must have been seeing 2 or 3 runways by the time he got to Gibraltar. He came in too fast and too high and ran off the end. There was no overshoot, one side is the Atlantic and the other side the bay. There was just that little isthmus. No room for mistakes. A lot of good guys got killed coming over. Civilians, a couple of babies, some RAF pilots who’d done their time…Hetherington was killed. He was the flight commander of 249. He and I roomed together and he was a really nice guy. One of those things. Everyone who was killed was in the bomb bay. There were no seats, we just had blankets. But I woke up and it was so hot down there I went aft where the side gunners are, those ports were open and Beurling came back too and we were passing just south of Minorca and Majorca, and we stayed back there and the gunners had hot coffee in flasks, so we had some coffee, and it was cool with all the windows open, well there were no windows to close, but we stayed back there and then one of the gunners warned us we were going to crash. He said â€œGrab a hold of something. We’re going to crash! and we did.
Just to go back to Beurling. Everyone presumably recognised his amazing talent for marksmanship at the time but was he considered to be much of a loner?
Yeah. He didn’t have many friends. He was a remarkable shot. I’d say he was happiest at about a 45 degree angle off. Most kills are made at an angle off of 30 degrees or less but he liked the angles off and he had exceptional vision, 20/10 or something like that. He could spot them a long way off. He was the only one who called them Schmitts, meaning a 109.
There was a story about Beurling and I’ve never found anyone to validate this, but when Operation Pedestal was creaking into Grand Harbour, he’d had a bad bout of Malta Dog during the time, but he got into an aeroplane just as Ohio was creeping into port and there is a rumour that he flew over the harbour doing acrobatics…
The Ohio was an American ship but it had a British crew.
Did you ever get ill while you were in Malta?
You kept pretty healthy, apart from when you were shot down, and had
enough to eat…?
As long as you liked bully beef, there wasn’t really anything else. Well, hard biscuits and these kind of Italian tomatoes, oval shape. They must’ve grown them there. Tea, jam.
Not much drink?
Oh we always had something to drink! Can you imagine the RAF boys with nothing to drink? They used to bring stuff in from Cairo. Oh yeah, in September we even had a party. We invited guys from some of the other squadrons, guys from the hole, which was ops, and our controller. He was a wing commander. Woody Woodhall. He was great. As a matter of fact, he was the one who got me posted to 242. When I came back overseas, they posted me to Malta again, and Woodall was still there and I went down to see him and said â€œLook, get me out of here, there’s no more war in Malta.
So when did you go back to Malta?
After I got out of the hospital. Then I had a bit to do in Scotland and I got the AOC of 13 Group to get me out of there. He got me an overseas posting and I came back just before I joined 242, June or July just after the invasion. They sent me back to Malta to 229 squadron in a place called Qrendi. I thought where the hell is this! I said to Woody, â€œGet me out of this, get me up to Sicily, that’s where the action is.
So you wanted active duty?
Oh yeah. I didn’t want to be stuck there in Malta, not then. So he got me sent to 242.
I did virtually the same thing in Gibraltar. They told me I was going to Malta and I said â€œNo, I don’t want to go to Malta I want to go to North Africa. So they left me in limbo there. I ferried some aircraft from Gibraltar to La Senja and to Iran and then I went back. I got to Algiers and hung around there getting ready to get into a C47 and go back to Gib, because that was my base and I ran into Cocky Dundass. I asked him â€œCan you get me up to your wing up there, 224 in North Africa? and he said Yes, I’ll put you up for it. Git your ass back to Gibraltar, and then sure enough the posting came through and I was there from January or February til April sitting around.
What was it like in North Africa?
Oh tense. There was a slit trench right alongside us so we could jump in when the 190’s come over with the dive-bombers. But it was fun. I enjoyed it. The big difference between that and Malta was getting back to having 4 walls around you because we were in tents in North Africa.
How did you keep clean, and shave and so on?
You made do.
Didn’t you get fed up with all the flies etc?
Oh you just shooed them away!
What was the work you were doing in North Africa?
Sweeps around Tunis, Gulf of Tunis.
Was there much action?
Oh yeah. Quite a bit. We just kept moving on up. Souk al Camas was there east of Algiers. Then our last place was an aerodrome called Matier just west of Tunis and that was the leaping off place to go to Hal Far on Malta.
So you knew the invasion of Sicily was brewing at that stage?
Yeah. We were escorting ships that were heading for Sicily, Gala Beach I think it was.
When you got to Malta it must have been heaving with ships and planes.
Yeah all those aerodromes were swamped. Also Gozo was too. We were down by Kalafrana Bay. There was a big ship there and when I went out there a few years ago it was still there. We were billeted at Birzebbugia near Kalafrana. We took over some apartment house or whatever.
The RAF air sea rescue boats were at St Paul’s Bay.
I convalesced from Malaria there.
The Germans in Sicily used airplanes to pick their people up. They had Heinkel 126’s, seaplanes which came down on the water while the British used the air-sea rescue launches and nobody messed with those.
Did you ever see anyone get shot down in a parachute?
So you were billeted in Birzebbugia. Were you doing sweeps over Sicily
And I guess there was a lot of activity during the invasion?
Could you tell me something about Raoul Daddo-Langlois?
Raoul had fought in Malta earlier on, Feb to June 42. Daddy Longlegs. He came back and was attached to my flight. I was at A flight with 93 squadron and he was supernumerary and one of those mornings we went out and got shot down and that was it. He was a nice guy. I don’t think they ever recovered his body.
No they didn’t. He came down and smashed his head and got transferred…he was still alive…was being taken to a hospital ship in a launch and the launch got bombed and he drowned.
Was he in 249?
Yes he was, before you got there. He would have left a couple of weeks before you got there. He kept all his diaries and letters. His handwriting was beautiful but a year later it was just a linear scrawl and he’s complaining about everything, nothing’s going right.
He was a good looking chap.
It sounds to me like he could have done with a rest but he wasn’t given it. But you found him pretty personable?
Well, he was attached to my flight. He was supernumerary which meant he’d done his 2 years and was a flight lieutenant.
The thing about Malta was there was a lot more to it than just Spitfires. The guys that flew these Beauforts and went out and sunk these ships, those guys need to be talked about too. A lot of those guys didn’t come back. The Wellingtons that went over at night and attacked the convoys and went all the way down to the North African coast. And the Swordfish and the Bullfighters that were there that would shoot them in addition to…and the PRU outfits…there was a lot in that team as well as us!
Did you ever come across Adrian Warburton?
No. The only reason we were there at all was so these other guys could operate.
It occurs to me that I met him in the Officers Mess, but I was never based with him.
Malta pre-war was the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet anchorage and when Malta got too hot they had to move it all down to Alex. But the only reason they even needed it was so the bombers could prevent Rommel’s supplies getting through because if he ever took Egypt, he could’ve gone up through Iran, Iraq, Syria, which was all British controlled, into the Caucuses, into the oil fields……We had to make sure these guys could operate…there were the submarines too. Those big cargo submarines they supplied all our fuel, all the petrol that was burned in the Spits.
I’ve spoken to a Swordfish guy and a Beaufort guy and submariners. I am going to do the offensive and defensive.
……that’s where Woodall came in. By that time when I came back he was a group captain then which he really deserved. He was a great controller, he was the voice that we heard at all times but he was great because he wouldn’t bother you in the air. So many controllers in England they would do everything except actually fire your guns and sometimes they got to be a nuisance but he would give you the basic information. He’d tell you what they had on radar, its position and the altitude, the info you needed to know. But he didn’t tell you how to do it he left that to the flight commander.
So the nuisance controllers were the ones who ordered you about from the ground?
Yeah. In some instances that was resented. They might tell you to go one way, but strategically we might decide it was better to go another way. He didn’t do that. You could ask him for information and he’d give it to you but he wouldn’t say, better this way, better that way.
What happened to you after Malta?
I went off to Sicily as Flight Commander on 322 Wing. Generally it was a 324 wing and we became the first tactical airforce and I stayed with 322 for the whole rest of the war and I became CO of 232 squadron which was part of 322 wing, and squadron leader. 324 and 322 went through Sicily into Italy at Salerno and then after a while in Italy they sent our wing to Syria, to Aleppo which is right up on the Turkish border. That was because Churchill was trying to get Turkey into the war on our side and he wanted a presence up there. We didn’t do anything up there. We sent a flight to Cyprus and that’s All we did. It was miserable up there. But then they sent us to Palestine to Haifa. They re-equipped us all with Spitfires.
You’d been on Spitfires had you?
Yes, all the time. Then from there we flew all the way round the coast and operated on Corsica. 324 stayed in Italy and we were covering the north of Italy escorting B25’s and 26’s, the French had a wing of Magnum B26’s and we also did ground strafing. Then we went in in the invasion of the South of France. People talk all about D Day but there was another invasion! In August 44.
Was there much air activity then or did we have air superiority by then do you think?
We called it the Champagne campaign! We spent more time in Cannes than in the air! It was a piece of cake. The Germans had very little presence down there and the army under Clarke came up so fast that by the time we took off and went up to ?? we were out of fuel so we had turn round and come back and eventually they discarded our wing in the South of France and we turned all our aeroplanes over to the French airforce and we went back to Italy and I went back to England and I went to Fighter Command to look for a job. Unless they needed you somewhere you had to find your own job. This guy…he was in charge of individual postings. He didn’t have the authority to move whole squadrons, that was a staff matter but you’d go to him and see what he had open. If you fitted the bill, he’d send you. That’s another thing I liked about the RAF, you had a choice. He said â€œThere are 2 things you can do. You can go to a tougher fighter squadron on the Continent…
But you didn’t fancy fighting Tempests?
It wasn’t that. It was that it was all ground attacks and I’d had enough of that. â€œOr he said â€œyou can go on jets. I said â€œI’ll take that! and I was on the first Meteors that came out and I went to what was called a T35 conversion unit at Collarne down in the West Country, a nice place. That was formed to train people converting from Spitfires to Meteors. Then I went up to Bedford until August 46. The RAF offered me an extended service commission which was 4 years. Then if they still needed you they kept you on, if not that was it. But I would’ve had to have taken out British Citizenship and I wasn’t prepared to give up my American citizenship just to stay on the RAF.
Then you went back to California? You saw your family for the first time in years?
I had had leave in December 45. A month’s leave over Christmas. I’d left the US in April 41 and didn’t get back until December 45.
But you kept in touch with you mother and sister by letter?
Oh yes. We wrote a lot. A couple of times I asked for leave to go home and the answer was. â€œThis is your home! The RAF! You are home!
What did you do when you got back to California?
I became a soldier of fortune for a while. Delivered airplanes, then went to College and took a degree and became an airline pilot. Then I inherited a family business, a talent agency in Hollywood, when my stepfather died. I did that til I sold it about 10 years ago. I still work now, in a sort of offshoot of the agency. I have to work as I’ve no pension.
You got your DFC after you were shot down?
That was what prompted it, but there were other things.
To go back to your childhood, when were you born?
April 12 1921.
You were brought up in Chicago? What did your father do?
I don’t remember him. Apparently when I was very young they ran a candy store, and my mother was a dramatics teacher. Then I guess they got divorced…I don’t remember anything about him.
Was your sister older?
She was 3 years older and during the war she went into the USA navy and became a flight training instructor down at Corpus Christie. Then my wife later on was in the US army. I met her on Miami Beach when I was a soldier of fortune. We were married for 41 years. She died….
What prompted the family move to California?
We moved in 1934. The only reason we were in Chicago…my grandfather was a newspaper man. My mother was born in Orange Texas. My grandfather was the editor of a paper. Then they moved to Houston just before I was born. He became managing editor of a trade paper called American Lumberman and the offices were in Chicago, so he took the family there. I was born there. Then we moved out to California…
Do you know what your total tally was of enemy aircraft?
I say 4,3 and 2. 4 destroyed, 3 probables and 2 damaged.
Were there any periods where you felt really frightened? Like when you were shot?
I was just concentrating on getting back to Malta. After my encounter with the guy who hit me, I realised I was in trouble but I thought I could get behind this guy’s tail. I thought I could get him. It made me mad. It never should have happened. I wasn’t watching my tail and if you don’t watch your tail, you’re going get it…I had to take it out on something…but I didn’t panic…he’d been in the hospital too. His name was John William Guy Turnbull (?) Graham Palmer (?). He was rosy cheeked. Looked like a high school kid. He had bailed out of a Spit…pulled the rip cord right away, broke his arm and pulled his shoulder all out…he was on the plane with us, he came in on the raft with us and he sat on a bench waiting…then the shock came over him. I got one of the orderlies to wrap him in a blanket…but the shock when he realised what had happened to him…
People come and go, people get shot down…did you find it easy to deal with that?
Well yes, cos you didn’t see it. It wasn’t like being an infantryman where you see your buddy without their head or you see intestines hanging out, with a mortar shell…all sort of terrible things happened in front of their eyes. But with us, they just didn’t come back. You don’t know where he is or how he died. He may be a prisoner, he may have died a horrible death…you just don’t know. You might see the plane shot down, but it’s not close up, it’s far awaynightmares…we didn’t see it.
Was Malta an exciting period of your life?
It was a change from what we were doing! It was a good experience. There’s the people of Malta too you know. They went through a lot.
I don’t think they were as well fed as the RAF!
They sure as hell weren’t. They worked around our quarters. They were used in various housekeeping jobs. Anything so that service personnel didn’t have to do it.
Service personnel had to be kept to a minimum. Presumably when you were re-fuelling there were no petrol bowsers and things like that?
Yes there were. They had to re-fuel quickly. When you got on the ground, the first thing that happened was that they were re-fuelled, then the armourer came on and the guns were cleaned and re-loaded.
Did you always have the same fitter and rigger?
As long as you kept the same airplane…
They were attached to the plane rather than the pilot.
In England it was easier to hang on to an airplane cos there were more of them…you didn’t have your own airplane…but the thing is that in October when the big push came…in 40 and 41 the AoC was Lloyd and then in July Keith Clarke came who had been AoC… Battle of Britain. He had a Hurricane and a white flying suit and he used to fly around. He used the same premise… Mallory and Bader would send everybody up, but Clarke would only send a few up at a time, never committing his whole force, which was good.
The ground crews must have done amazingly well to keep those Spitfires going.
Oh yeah. We didn’t have supplies or parts they just used to rob bits from here and there. Things were replaced and then re-used and used again. The army had to be there too to fill in the bomb craters. They were constantly bombing the airfield. It wasn’t grass, it was hard.
There must have been loads of dust. How could you see?
You didn’t, If you were the first ones off you were ok.
Did you take off in pairs?
No, you just went straight across. There was no runway you take 12 airplanes. As many as you want. One time we took off on a scramble and I blew a tyre and the aircraft did a 180 And I was facing back the way I’d come from and right behind came another one through the dust, luckily he pulled up and staggered and his wing clipped off my VA antenna which is right behind the cockpit. The edge of his wing came right across. It was close! They came out and changed the tyre. I think this was one of those defensive sweeps. I don’t remember what happened about the radio. It all happened so quickly…I would’ve been scared if I’d known that was going top happen.
What was Takali airfield like?
All the blast pans were all around. There was dispersal and 249 had one over there. There were canvas tents. That’s where the mechanics kept their stuff. There were no buildings apart from dispersal. There were no runways, no perimeter track. It was just like gravel or stone. It wasn’t grass. Earth maybe.
Did you have a problem with unexploded bombs?
No. The Sappers would come and deal with those right away.
Did you get to look around the island?
A couple of times we went to Valetta.
How did you get from the billet to the airfield?
We had transportation. A truck I think…I couldn’t raise my arm…I couldn’t even comb my hair. They sent me to Loughborough and there was a squadron leader there who used to be a Davis Cup coach. Tennis was a bit much, but he used to make me play badminton about 6 hours a day. He used to make me reach and reach a little more. He was terrific with the physical therapy he administered. I got out of there. Then I had to go to the central medical board to get approval to fly again. I was attached to fighter command and they sent me around factories giving pep talks and did that for 2 weeks and talking to the workers was fine but every night there was a big piss up. I’d be staying in a hotel and they’d bring all their friends in and there’d be a big party and finally I went to my posting commander and said â€œIf you don’t get me out of this, I’m going to be back in the hospital. I’m going to be an alcoholic! So he got me out and sent me to Boscombe Down to do standard flying on Spit 12’s. Then I went to the CMB and passed my physical and all they could give me was a flight in 165 squadron in Peterhead. I said â€œWhere the hell is Peterhead? He said â€œNorthern Scotland. You know where Edinburgh is? Well it’s north of there. You know where Aberdeen is? well it’s north of there! One night there was a night raid on Aberdeen and they sent us up at night. The CO was….so I was in charge. I was just glad to get them all back on the ground again. A section was sent down to Dyce. I had a Canadian pilot as my number 2 and we got scrambled. This was in May and it was light til midnight. It was rainy and cloudy and we intercepted a JU88, a night fighter…………………..
…all of a sudden it looked like rivets were flying by and I was being shot at and I brought it back with holes in and we had an American flight engineer who got really pissed off if you came back with any holes. He wouldn’t speak to me for about a week and going back through the records you see Struck off Charge – SOC.
Can you remember feeling scared or were you too busy concentrating on flying?
You don’t think am I about to die or am I scared…you don’t have time for that.
You just look around and see that no-one’s getting on your tail or you’re trying to get on someone else’s tail and try to shoot em down You’re too busy in the cockpit to think of much else.
So how did it come about that you were sent to Malta?
When the time approached I knew the transfer was coming they were going to transfer the squadron over to US Air Corps
Unites States Army Air Force
I was pretty sure they’d give us a physical and I knew I couldn’t pass that. I wasn’t 20/20, I had a stigmatism. That’s why I was in the RAF. You had to be 20/20 uncorrected in the US forces. In the RAF you could be 20/20 corrected. You could be posted at any time so I asked to be posted.
It was easy to go to London and pull strings.
I didn’t pull any strings I just got posted with no idea where we were going and the next thing I knew I was on an aircraft carrier. We were on the Furious, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier which was commissioned before world war one. It wasn’t until we were pretty well along before we found out where we were going.
You didn’t stop off at Gib?
You were part of the Pedestal convoy weren’t you?
Yeah. Then we flew off and we had 25 or 30 Spits. Roger Churchill was in charge of that. He had been a first CO. He was a group captain in charge of the contingent. He knew of me although I’d never met him before and he gave me a section of flying aircraft to take. They were split into groups of 5 with a leader to each group and each 5 had to go their own way in case we did run into opposition, then we wouldn’t lose everybody. We were unarmed then, no ammo in the machine guns at all. So I went high…
Was it worrying taking off from an aircraft carrier for the first time?
We just went! There was no problem. It was the first time the Spits had taken off from the carrier. They tried it out. We steamed up the Clyde…
The Spits had no intermediate flaps to pull down or pull up. You put the blocks in so you could get 15 or 20 degrees of flap to take off and as soon as you were up you lowered your flaps and the blocks fell out …
Did you see the Eagle get hit?
Oh yeah. I was getting ready to start up and the Eagle was steaming right alongside and I saw 4 spots on the ….? side. Its starboard side was closest to me….Then it was time for me to take off and just as I took off and went over the front of the deck and got over the bow there came a torpedo wake and I went right over the wake. I could see the damn thing it was just creaming along there was a submarine out there somewhere. I was glad to get off that ship. There might have been a couple more coming.
So did you look back and see it sinking?
No, I wasn’t paying any attention to that. I told my Group that I would make a big circle over Furious and they could cut inside and if they didn’t join up with me, I was leaving. They joined up! There were a couple of tight turns! We landed in Luqa. Luqa was the main airfield.
Hal Far was the one we went into…right on the edge of the cliff!
When I was there 985 Squadron and previously it had been a Fleet Air Arm base. We had 249 and 229 at Takali and 126 and 1435 at Luqa. There were 5 squadrons of Spits. 1435 was originally a flight, a detachment, then they made it a full squadron.
Can you remember your first impressions of Malta?
When we landed at Luqa. The erks got all my gear out and I’d brought along 4 cartons of cigarettes and they had disappeared! They’d been whipped. We went into some building and they fed us and I was exhausted. A big air raid came just about then and I slept through the whole thing. Then they sent us back out to patrol a convoy coming in and the first time I went out I was in action all day. Italian SN79’s, they were coming in to attack the convoy and I was flying number 2 and we attacked them. The section leader shot one down and I damaged one and we broke the formation up and they turned back and didn’t bomb the convoy. Then a couple of days later I got transferred to Takali and got promoted to flight commander and I took over 229 squadron.
Where were you billeted?
In M’dina in a big monastery.
Did you have your own room?
No, I was roomed with Hetherington. He was a flight commander in 249 squadron. Beurling was in Hetherington’s flight. He was a great shot but not a tactician. So Hether would lead him and put him in position and tell him to do his stuff. He was like a bull in a china shop. 109’s in all directions!
What did you make of Beurling?
He was ok. A bit of a wierdo! Bit of a nutter. He and Nomis used to throw stones at the cats. He got shot down the day after I did. We were in hospital together. Their formations were all broken up. The Spits had broken them up. The whole idea was to try to intercept them in the channel between Sicily and Malta, break them up before they got to Malta. Then if they got through, they had the flak to contend with which was pretty fierce.
Tell me about life in Malta, everyday life. Where did you mess?
In the monastery. There was a big staircase from ground level where we got off the transport. then there was a little room just off the staircase and that’s where Hetherington and I were. Then you went on up to the next level and that’s where the mess was and we ate and there was passed as an ante-room. If we weren’t there, we were at dispersal.
What was the dispersal hut like?
It was like a stone plaster hut. There were windows with nothing in them and that’s all there was to dispersal. All the aircraft were in blast shelters.
Were there chairs?
I guess there must have been. But there were no comforts believe me!
What did you do while Beurling and Nomis were chucking stones at cats?
Well, mostly you’d just rest or read, if you could find anything to read. Or go out on the big balconies and watch the air raids on Valetta. You were on readiness all the time you were there, but you weren’t on readiness at dispersal. At the mess you were on call or you were on readiness at dispersal or in the aircraft. You had to be airborne in 15 or 20 seconds as soon as the red flare went up. I was there in October and it was very hot so the airmen would fix pieces of cardboard or cloth to keep the sun off. It was just like being in a sauna. You couldn’t get out, if you were scrambled you might be there for hours. September was a quieter month and we had the chance to go into Valetta. But petrol was scarce. We hitched a ride on something that was already going in. We wandered around Valetta which was pretty much rubble and we visited some of the flak gunners. They’d been there for a couple of years. Their skin was the colour of that table and like leather. They didn’t know about skin cancer in those days. They just wore a helmet and shorts. They had those guns polished and the ammo stored and they brewed tea…we had some interesting chats with them. There were little tea houses in Valetta. You could always get tea but there wasn’t much of a menu.
Did it feel pretty desperate at the time?
I don’t think we paid much attention. The aircrews got the best of what there was. We knew times were hard. One day I remember we went over to Gozo on a fishing boat and spent the day over there swimming and fishing. It was like a different country over there. Later on they put some B38’s over there. Then they tried in late August or early September they even tried some offensive work. This was Churchill and Donaldson’s idea and one of the first ones was a fighter sweep over Sicily. There was no flak…nothing. Then we did a ground strafe, going in low. Plenty of flak then and that’s when Churchill got a direct hit in the Bofors, right in the fuel tank. He just went right up in flames. But there weren’t any airplanes there. They’d pulled them all back out of range. Intelligence, spies whatever had told them. Then they tried one more and about half way across we ran into a huge cloud formation and I was flying as Wingco Donaldson’s number 2, I don’t know why, and my deputy was leading my flight, and I noticed my air speed was going down and down. I
hadn’t put the Peto heater on. In England you put the Peto heater on automatically if there were any clouds in the sky because of moisture but Wingco Donaldson obviously hadn’t done it. He thought we had nice air speed but in fact we were losing it. We were supposed to keep radio silence but I thought I can’t keep silent any longer. I came on the radio and said Peto heat and he got it straight away and put it on. and we climbed and climbed and came out at about 30,000 and we were in a valley and the cumulus were towering above us and he said â€œLet’s go back so we did. In the meantime the rest of the wing had either turned back or spun out accept Donaldson and myself. The guys thought we must be lost. We finally broke out underneath and came in and landed. What a waste of time that was.
Losing Churchill must have been a blow.
Oh yeah it was. He was a hell of a nice guy.
Did you lose many pilots at that time?
No, not many.
Didn’t Ripley Jones go out on the boat with you? He was chasing a JU88 and crashed into him. I think he was a Navy pilot.
I don’t recall him.
In Beurling’s autobiography he says he knew something big was brewing and the Germans were going to make a big attack…those big October raids. Did you get a sense of that?
No. I don’t think we were aware. We did know that Rommel was at the gates of Alexandria. We knew something had to happen.
You knew what was going on in North Africa at the time?
Oh yes. Upstairs in M’dina there was an intelligence room and a big map on the wall and spy was up there and he kept it up to date and we’d go up there and they had the latest intelligence reports. But the only thing really going on then was in Russia. We were watching North Africa. Monty was surrounded by the axis. The canal zone had fallen. The only way out would’ve been Gibraltar.
You had come from England, controlling when squadrons took off, doing offensive stuff. But when you went to Malta you were doing all defensive stuff. You must have had to change tactics.
Oh yes. Our flight formations were all different. In England we flew the v formation but in Malta we flew the finger 4 the same as the Germans did in Europe because we didn’t fly for the most part in 6’s we flew in 4’s and flew the finger 4. We should’ve done it long before in England. The leader in a v formation is the only one can look around. In this one everyone can and there’s no tail-end-charlie. It’s a question of trying to manoeuvre into an attack position without being seen instead of â€œbeware of the Hun in the sun it was â€œbeware of the Spit in the sun If you could ever get above them.
Could that happen?
Oh yes. It happened to me one time. We got a big warning And it was late afternoon and we climbed up, there were 4 of us And we climbed up and finally ended up on top of some 109’s. We were actually looking down at them and thought Oh boy! This is heaven! It had never happened before. It was just like stair steps. There 12 or 15 JU88’s downhill of the bomber. There must have been a good 30 or 40 (??)..and there were 4 of us so I thought we should at least get one each. Each peeled off. They were just flying straight, not weaving. Not expecting a Spit at that height. Then I suppose someone must’ve said â€œAchtung Spits! They all broke. I had to leave off from him and I looked around…….
But you’d got 2 already?
Yes, but not confirmed. You had to have confirmation. We thought where the hell are they, There were all these 109’s swarming around and I was all by myself at 27,000 feet. So I just stirred the pudding and corkscrewed down and got the hell out of there. I think I hit something but I didn’t stick around to watch. I let all my ammo go. But I never was touched the whole time. Then I landed and we’d gotten some new pilots in by transport and one had had an oil leak and it had covered his windscreen and couldn’t see, number two had an engine running rough and had to turn back, number 3 was the only honest one who said 4 against 50, he couldn’t take it and they had left me all alone. Those guys were gone very quickly after that. They were sent to Cairo, to a hell whole where they deserved to be.
The big October battles, they must’ve been pretty hectic. How many times a day were you up then?
A couple of times a day in October, sometimes 3 times. But back in September maybe once maybe twice, some days not at all. I know you had a very lucky escape when you were shot down. Oh yeah. I don’t remember anything about it. These 2 airmen dragged me out. I’d been shot through the shoulder but I managed to shoot down the plane that got me.
How did you get on his tail?
An instructor at OTU had taught me something at the Battle of Britain… pull the throttle all the way back, kick on full rudder and…. yard (?) and rudder. The plane practically stops, from the speed you’re going. The 109 behind has either got to run into me or detour round me. So he detours round me and suddenly he’s in front of me….
So you’re going at 300 miles an hour and you virtually halve that speed?
Yeah. So I hit my cannons. He was 50 yards in front of me and I didn’t miss. Then I realised I was hit. I was out in mid channel. On the way back I was bounced again and I never did see the guy. He must have been coming out…
TURNED TAPE OVER…some seems to have been lost
He died last week. He was flying Wellingtons out in Malta. He wrote several books.
It’s a shame there was never any cine filming done historically.
Well, everything that was taken over meant risking a life. I suppose it wasn’t essential.
The Military had a cameraman that went right along with them, but there was nothing like that in Malta. It would have been another mouth to feed. They got rid of everything that wasn’t necessary.
I would like to know how you both got into the RAF.
The US wouldn’t have us and the RAF would, at least in my case.
I couldn’t pass the physical because I had a deviated septum. I don’t know what that had to do with fighter pilots. The Navy turned me down because the roof of my mouth wasn’t big enough to hold the gag you needed for high altitude flying. I did fly with United Airlines later and learnt from guys who’d been in the Navy that you needed the gag to conserve oxygen.
There was a desire to fly hot pursuit ships as they called them in those days. I had the opportunity and went for it.
As a kid had you always been interested in flying?
I found a book in my local library called Heroes of Aviation all about world war one flying and that excited my interest and I formed a club with others who felt the same. It was a natural step to join the RAF.
Most of us had built model aircraft and read novels about world war one pilots, fighter pilots. That’s what we were interested in. I soloed when I was 16 in California. We were private pilots. The RAF did not teach us to fly. You were supposed to have 250 hours before you went in.
They lowered that 80 hours later.
Some had a lot of hours, thousands.
You did it just for the love of flying? You weren’t crop dusting or something?
Oh no. We worked in exchange for flying time. Washing planes and sweeping up and so on. Just to build up time.
That was your local airfield?
Yes and we virtually lived there when we weren’t in school. There was nothing else to do.
Jimmy Peck did that too. He and I both soloed out of Oakland Airport. Jimmy went over just before I did. Went to Malta early in 42 and he was flight commander in 126 squadron. They were almost all Americans. He then joined US army airforce and was killed in England flying a B38 near Malvern. This is a photo of his grave. The only Eagle we know was killed in Malta was Hiram Puttnam. There’s a common grave.
So James Peck was a friend of yours was he?
Oh yeah. He & I were at Oakland. He joined up a couple of months before I did and got his assignment to Polaris.. I don’t know if I ever saw him again in England.
When did you start flying?
My first lesson was at about 16 but I didn’t solo til I was about 20. Then I went to the University of California & got into the civil pilot training programme and did about 80 hours.
Was it easy to get on?
Yeah, not too difficult and then we flew out of Oakland Airport and that gave me 120 hours which was enough to get me…
Can you remember what you soloed on?
Yeah a J3 Cub.
Were your parents happy for you to fly?
I didn’t have a father to worry about it and my mother was busy working. I don’t know what her reaction was. After I got out of High School I went to work for Lockheed. Them 3 of us got together and bought a Rocket AC airplane. Then I joined the RAF and sold my interest in the plane.
Weren’t you a little worried about the fact that you were going to war?
I don’t think I ever gave it a second thought.
Had you followed the development of the Spitfire?
I remember Gerald Lewis plastered all over the front of Life Magazine in November 1940.
So what was the actual process of joining the RAF?
We went to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where they were recruiting. If you read Phil Kane’s book it tells you a lot about all the different political angles. We weren’t really aware of what exactly was going on.
At Bakersfield we were loaned US Air Corps aircraft, the DT17 and the AT6.
At Polaris, we had the Yellow Peril, the old Steerman N3N’s from the Navy that Moseley had re-built completely.
What was the name of the airfield where you learnt to fly?
The LA Metropolitan. It’s now Van Eyers Airport. When we were there it had no runways.
So you turned up at this hotel and what happened then?
They gave you papers to fill out. You had to bring in your logbook. You were supposed to take a flight check. Ours was given by Hank Cullen (?) at Vale Field,. We had a Walker UPF7 which was a pretty advanced trainer, a nice airplane. I got in the back seat and he got in the front. He did a whole bunch of aerobatics and asked me how I felt. I said â€œFine. He didn’t get me to fly just landed and said OK! Then after you got your clearance and were accepted, people went over in different ways. I went to Ottawa by train and stayed there a week then to Montreal and got on a ship to Sydney, to Cape Britain island which is up the coast. We were a big slow convoy and we went across to England. This was at the time they were trying to sink the Bismark.
It must have been cold!
We were too damn excited to worry about the cold.
I was on a banana boat out of Halifax and it took 14 days.
There were just 2 of us in a cabin and there was great food, table linen, waiters – we had a great trip.
I can see it must have exciting – the great unknown in front of you.
When we got to England we went to OTU where we went right on to fighters. I went to Sutton Bridge.
I did too. Almost all the boats that came over in 41 the people went to the same OTU. That was in September 41 and joined 71
I went over in June 41.
So you both knew each other in 71 did you?
Oh yeah. We were in opposite flights, but outside of that we were friendly!
Then I didn’t see you again until Sicily.
That’s right. You were Lantini East and I was Lantini West
Did you go to Malta before the Sicily invasion?
Yeah. We moved over to Malta in July 43 from Tunis. We went there for the invasion.
I joined 242 in August 43 and you guys were already there. Sicily had already been invaded.
Yeah we went to Comiso first before moving on up.
Tell me a bit about 71 squadron – you were on Hurricanes?
No 71 had just re-equipped with Spits at North Weald so I only flew Hurricanes in ? I stayed at 71 for 11 months doing bomber escorts, convoy patrols, they were a drag, fighter sweeps, Rhubarbs and that was about it. Whatever Group decided they wanted us to do. They’d send big fire sweeps over to try and get the German fighters up. Sometimes they’d come up, other times they’d just stay down and let us waste our fuel.
There’d be 10 Blenheims or 3 Wellingtons and we’d try and get em up. We’d bomb the marshalling yards at Lille or some place.
Can you remember what your thoughts were about joining the RAF? Was it what you expected?
Well, we didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t even sure we were going to be on fighters until we got to England and someone said you’re going to Fighter OTU. Then there was a big sigh of relief.
What were the differences between the Hurricanes and the Spitfires?
The Spitfire was the fighter aircraft to fly. The Hurricane was slower and not as nice to fly.
When I first got into a Hurricane at OTU never having flown anything over a couple hundred horsepower at home, 225 horsepower that was red hot! The Hurricane was a big, strong utility aircraft. The Spit was strong too of course. In the battle of Britain the Hurricane shot down most of the Germans but the Spit got all the credit.
So you were in 71 and flying Spits, I guess that was all you wanted?
Oh yes. That and being with the first Eagle squadron. I guess that came by chance.
Well my class at Southern Bridge became the nucleus of 133.
Yeah. George Sperring and his gang.
With the exception of myself and Valley (?) we both went to 71 because they were losing people quite frequently.
They’d just been formed and weren’t quite up to strength.
Mostly when they needed more pilots they’d pull them out of 1 of the other 2 Eagle squadrons. 71 was the original and we figured it was the best. It was a whole Officers Club! It was part of the deal that Sweeney made with the Air Ministry, they should all be officers.
Well after Pearl Harbour some sergeant pilots were in 71.
I don’t remember any sergeant pilots. Maybe it was after I left. Most of the
RCA guys were sergeant pilots.
When were you issued with your uniform and wings?
In London. They gave us a clothing allowance and we had to go to Moss Brothers.
Did you enjoy life in England? Or was it too damp and grey after California?
Oh we adjusted!
Did you get to the pub a lot?
As much as possible! When we were at North Weald we’d get on the train at Epping and be in Liverpool Street in 45 minutes so anytime off, 12 hours or more, we’d go to London. Any off time, up to London.
Oh yeah. The famous Crackers Club!
I went to movies a lot in Leicester Square or the Palladium. They were showing all the US films. That in the afternoon and then drinking at somewhere like the Crackers Club in the evening.
The Knightsbridge Studio Club. Or Shepherds.
You were all a pretty close bunch of mates in 71?
Well, everyone knew each other but we weren’t all close buddies. Tommy Andrews and I hung around together a lot, and O’Regan. You had certain friends whose company you enjoyed more than others.
Can you remember your first combat?
I can remember mine. I didn’t see anything but Peterson’s tail wheel the whole trip. I was his number two and we were flying that victory formation. We were escorting bombers and nothing happened.
Did you find that once you were involved in combat flying it was different to the kind of flying you’d done before?
Oh there’s just no comparison. You don’t think about flying, the flying is secondary. You’re just thinking about bringing your guns to bare on the target. You don’t think I’ve got to give it some rudder, a little more throttle…you don’t think about that. If you did you’d be dead.
I suppose what I meant was that when it came to combat flying did you think â€œI’ve got a lot to learn here?
Well we didn’t know anything about it. We’d had no combat training. There was no top gun school then. At OTU we did high altitude flying, aerobatics, formation flying. Not much gunnery. Our flight commanders were mostly all ex
Battle of Britain fighters, but they didn’t tell us anything about how to shoot down an enemy airplane. The only thing we got was two students who’d go up and one would try and stay on the other’s tail.
We’d try the new boys out when they joined the squadron going up with them and getting them to stick on our tails….
Yeah but I’m talking about OTU……..
I led him back to Dyce…..big flap…no-one knew what to do. It was a JU88 night fighter with the latest Lichtenstein German airborne radar. The RAF had been trying to get their hands on one for ages…..the AOC of 13th group came down and said Jolly good show, jolly good show…anything you want? I said Yes Sir, I’d like to be posted out of here and two weeks later I was gone. That was my reward. It was boring there. Convoy patrols. The food was great. Best food I had in England, but it was boring and I ended up back in Malta again!
When you were in hospital in M’tarfa, was the building bombed while you were there?
No. Just the nurses home next door.
It’s a big old colonial building isn’t it?
I don’t remember. There were about 10 of us in a big ward. All the pilots were together in one ward. When I got back to England…we came back from Gib in a Hudson. We landed at Port Ruth (?) in Cornwall then by train to London and to Holton and when I got there I had the best food…a big bowl of the thickest, most delicious soup, more like a stew filled with all different vegetables, carrots, barley, potatoes, meat..it was great and I asked for another bowl and got it. It was heaven!
Have you been back to England since then?
Oh yeah. We had a reunion in 1986 and another in 1996 and I was back again in 1998. I go back whenever I can. I like it it’s a nice country.