- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Richard Griffin
- Location of story:
- Various countries.
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 February 2005
Once again back in Dekhalia we were soon back in the swing. Dekhalia was the old Egyptian Airline field; there was a large hangar a mess hall, canteen and a few other buildings. There was no living accommodation and we lived in tents, which we dug in to protect against possible air attack. The air was warm, and the field bordered on the bay of Alexandria, so it was a pleasant enough location.
There were occasional raids on the fleet in Alex. There was an AA battery at Agamy Point adjacent to the camp and this made an awful clatter at times but it was more noisy than dangerous.
After a little while, we had orders to move to Cyprus to operate against the Vichy French. Some of us flew in an old Bombay Bomber.
We located at Nicosia civilian airfield. Apart from a contingent of Green Howards, we were the only English on the island. We were accommodated in a 1st class hotel in Nicosia each with en-suite bathroom and shower, it was like being on holiday.
The meals were a little exotic too: roast pigeon with stuffed cucumber etc. When we arrived at first, an old RAF corporal appeared from some where bearing a large map and after the officers duly studied this with a bit of a conflab, a number of Cypriot workmen arrived and proceeded to dig at X marks the spot ! Then lo and behold, up came 250 lb bombs and other clutter, the only snag being that this magazine was all WW1 vintage and had probably been there ever since.
The bombs were all MK 1 GP. They had a hollow tube through the middle and needed a special arrangement of exploders and detonators to prime them for use. No one had a clue what to do with them - that is except me.
I remembered one of the old army instructors at the training school at Eastchurch describing these types and we had taken down all the details. I had kept all my notes and they were in my kit over at Alexexandria, so I was flown over to pick them up and subsequently we were able to assemble the armament as required.
We were operating against the Vichy French forces in Syria, Lebanon and other targets within range of our Swordfish.
One time we had orders to locate and destroy a ship in the area that mustn’t reach it’s destination. Eventually it was located inside a Turkish port and one of our planes attacked it there but I believe the torpedo ran on into the town causing a bit of mayhem. I wonder if that little episode ever found it’s way into the history books?
After a little while air attacks on Nicosia air field caused us to be moved to an emergency field in the olive groves near Limasol where we set up our own tented camp.
There were no facilities, we lived on tinned rations but there was plenty of water, the weather warm and sunny. Quite a pleasant way to run a war. There were no places to visit ashore but we did manage to visit the local cafe from time to time and partake of the local brew.
As always we had orders to move; went down to Famagusta to board a navy sloop. Leaning over the side was my old mate Arthur who I joined up with. That was good for a tot or two of rum below.
We lost a plane or two on Cyprus, other wise it was a fairly quiet interlude
apart from one of the nights it was my turn to stand guard.
Aircraft were sited around half a mile from our tented accommodation. They were dispersed around the perimeter of the field in sandbagged bays. The routine was to have a patrol throughout the night around the airfield.
On the night it was my turn for duty I was a leading hand and in charge of the watch. I elected myself to the midnight watch 12-4 am.
Some time during the watch I was sitting on an oil drum thinking of nothing in particular, when away in the distance from the direction or our tents came the sound of footsteps. It occurred to me that this was one of the officers coming to check out the sentries, so I got ready to show him I was on the ball.
On came the footsteps at a steady pace. It was a brilliant moonlit night you could read a newspaper. I peered, the steps were like boots on tarmac, yet there were only dirt paths! The steps come closer, I couldn’t see anything then suddenly they turned and came towards me, coming it seemed quite close. I was by this time, apprehensive. I shouted ‘Halt who goes there?’ no answer, there was no one to be seen. I challenged again, the footsteps seemed almost upon me ‘Halt or I fire!’ Feeling a bit stupid I opened fire, all 5 rounds in the mag. The steps came up to me - through me - and disappeared in the distance. A voice in the distance shouted ‘No one’s here.’ I didn’t know of any other units around, none of my watch or anyone else heard a thing. To this day I still don’t know whether it was an Hallucination.
Back at Dekhalia we were soon organised; since we were in support of the desert army we traveled up and down all the time operating against submarines and surface craft.
I think through all the campaigns we sank some 150,000 tons of enemy shipping. Quite a bagful.
The first place we settled at was Mersa Bagush, about a 150 miles west from Alexandria, the Cyrianatian desert wasn’t big rolling dunes, it was sand and dust on rocky ground with some sparse vegetation intermingled.
Occasionally when the Khamsine wind blew it was pretty hellish for the dust got into all the body orifices and smothered everything and made difficulties for keeping the aircraft weapons in good trim. When we first arrived the water wells had been poisoned and water had to come up from Alex by tanker. We were only allowed 1/2 pint of water a day each and that went into the communal mess for tea and cooking. However the Italians had had a good supply of bottled Vichy mineral water and as there was a fair bit of this kicking around it made things a bit easier. We used to clean our teeth in it but we were unable to wash or clean our clothes.
Food was all tinned, even Huntley & Palmers hard tack biscuits. Still, there was tinned bacon, tinned fish & chips, we did alright.
We were plagued with flies, fleas, scorpions, huge centipedes and camel ticks which we had to burn out with a cigarette. All the same, it was a fee and easy existence, our only clothing a pair of shorts and of course the lovely warm sun.
It was at Mersa one day; I was in the cook’s tent getting a lecture on how to make scrambled eggs from our cook, who in civilian life had been a chef in the Savoy hotel in London. All of a sudden came a terrific commotion, we dashed outside, there were German Messerschmits all over the place shooting up planes, tents and everything else. There were planes on fire and blokes diving all over the place; the cook and me did a hasty scarper into the nearest slit trench until it was all over, just like on the telly.
This raid was a bit unusual, the German lines at that time were a long way to the west, but these jokers had fitted long range fuel tanks to give them the range.
We were always kept busy, I don't ever remember being bored, a great adventure really.
The next air strip on was Bagush. Same set up, sand and scrub. We were there for a little while; the first thing we did at a new location was to dig a slit trench. near where we lived and worked as there was always the risk of enemy planes diving in from nowhere.
At Bagush, I decided one time to have a go at them. I carefully dug a deep gun pit, and erected a gun mount fitted with twin Vickers Mk quick firing guns from one of the planes and made up the ammo with tracer incendiary and armour piercing bullets. ‘Ha’ I thought ‘that will give the bastards something to think about.’ Well - the next night there was an air raid. Out I dashed to have a moment of glory...My gun emplacement was crammed full of bodies cowering from the raid. I shouted and hollered but not a one would shift, so I had to find another hole to dive in.
Another night at Bagush, there was a severe raid going on against another airfield a few miles up the coast.
We had three Swordfish due to land from that patrol. The routine was for the flare path to be briefly switched on then our job was to hop out and guide the aircraft to it’s dispersal point. This night as soon as the flare path came on, the enemy aircraft up the road decided to have a go down our way. I was out on the runway to guide my plane in when all hell broke loose, bombs bursting everywhere, really pretty too, just like a huge firework. A bit of quick dashing about then I can tell you.
When the Germans were invading Greece, we were sent there to a small airfield just outside Athens. At first this was pleasant, we were able to have a couple of runs ashore in Athens. In fact I met a nice Greek girl, another budding romance. Well not quite....The Germans invaded…I had no luck!
Just before we left I was ashore with a couple of opos. We had a hotel room for the night. During the night, there was this almighty bang, huge cracks appeared in the walls, furniture fell all over the place. We made a big beeline down to the cellars serving as an air raid shelter.
I was impressed by the stoicism of the Greeks. There had been an air raid on the Piarreas [Port of Athens] that night and they had hit an ammunition ship, the train loading ammunition along the quay had also been hit and was on fire. These two had exploded causing the big bang.
The port was an absolute shambles. A few days later, we evacuated and saw all this, witness to the sombre faces of the populace who knew what we were leaving them to.
From Greece, we boarded a little steamer and travelled down to Crete. That had a sombre atmosphere. We landed at Suda Bay. The old cruiser York was sunk in the harbour from air attack, her guns sticking up out of the water.
There was this long jetty, where we disembarked. A wizened old Chief Petty Officer came up and said ‘there's two sorts here lads, the quick and the dead so you better be bloody quick.’ Quite a welcome!
One time we moved up to Derna, a little town there quite deserted of course and ransacked where the armies had passed through. There was an airfield close to a little bay and we operated from there.
The gear laying around was unbelievable, weapons, uniforms, etc. A good time was had by all. Plenty of firing at all sorts of targets, no drinking water, no water to wash with, we were a crummy lot.
The problem with all the Italian camps were the fleas, big and black and hungry. If you poked your head into an abandoned tent or wherever there was a zzzzzzzzzzzzz as these blighters descended on you.
There were several large wooden huts around, so we were able to use these as living quarters. Also in the huts were several very large vats of red wine; manna from heaven. By drinking enough of this brew at night it was possible to get off to sleep without suffering from flea itch too much. Otherwise it was a blanket over the head and decimate the blighters with a lighted candle.
Life on these desert airfields was much the same one from another. They were always close to the coastal road and it was possible now and again to hitch a lorry and get a swim in the sea, which enabled us to clean up now and again.
It was at Derna that Giss [Gissing] had a bad attack of Pleurisy. There was no penicillin in those days, so he was being treated with sulpha drugs, he was laid out on his bed very ill.
One night we were gathered round his bed cheering him up when we heard the sound of an enemy plane passing over. We could always recognize who was what from the sound of the engine. Anyway, this joker came back and started to circle; we knew then that he had spotted our tents and was going to have a go. There was an immediate dash for the nearest slit trench, which was about 100 yards away. Well - old Giss did the 100 yards in about 10 seconds flat, easily beating the rest of us. We were all a bit bomb happy by that time and always kept an ear upwards.
We were in Bagush when Montgomery’s 8th Army began the big retreat from Tobruk.
The coastal road ran by the airfield and for days we watched this huge column of troops and all the other paraphernalia of war moving along the road.
We had orders to pack the lorries; we put demolition charges in the ammo dump gradually the line on the road petered out.
The C.O. was waiting for orders to move out and fly the aircraft off while groups of tanks squared up and started firing. Eventually we got the order to go and we got onto the road and started back to Dekhalia.
Quite a journey that was, groups of soldiers burying their mates by the roadside, wrecks and gear cluttered the roadside. I saw a poor old dog dragging its hind legs behind him. All the detritus of a retreating army.
We got to Fuka, which was a huge re-fuelling dump; there were about 20,000 vehicles waiting to refuel, it was fortunate the Germans had no air power or there would have been mayhem.
We arrived back in Dekhalia to scenes of panic, guns were being dug in around the air field perimeter, all the buildings had been evacuated, gear scattered everywhere. ‘The Germans are just up the road,’ they said ‘well, we’ve just come 200 miles and didn’t see them’ we said but pretty soon they were at El Alamain and the next bit we were flat out.
Swordfish would carry 6 250 lb bombs and we were busy dawn till dusk arming the loading the planes. The front was only a few miles up the road, it was a quick turn around.
As soon as the army advanced we followed, eventually the army advanced past Tobruk, past Benghazi and things became fairly stable.
After 6 months in the desert you were sent back to Dekhalia to be de-loused. Scabies crabs and ticks being the worst problems. Then you were due for a two week leave in Cairo.
I had a fortnight in Cairo but I can’t remember a thing about it. There can be some awful gaps in memory.
I remember one early morning I had to fly in an old Australian Walrus push propeller aircraft. I had only had time for a weak cup of tea and I was violently air sick but I can’t remember where I went or why........Strange.
By the end of 1942 all the original squadron ratings had been drafted back to the UK and of the ones who had started at Worthy Down I was the only one remaining.
By that time, I was rated to Acting Petty Officer and it was my turn to come home. I went to Port Said and took passage on an old cargo vessel the SS Destro through the Suez Canal, down the Red sea.
We called in at Cape Town. Once back in England, I took an air gunnery course at Whale Island, I went to Dunfermline, joined 1850 squadron, then went to Jacksonville Florida to train on corsair fighter bombers.
Came back to the UK and embarked on the light aircraft carrier Venerable. After a short while, we transferred to Vengeance. We then sailed to join Indomitable, Glory and Colossus to form the 11th Air craft carrier squadron. We sailed to Malta, arriving there on VE day 1945.
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