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117 Squadron

by Lesley Forsdike

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Archive List > World > Sicily

Contributed by 
Lesley Forsdike
People in story: 
Eric Forsdike
Location of story: 
Tunisia and beyond
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A6165470
Contributed on: 
16 October 2005

My introduction to operational flying with 117 Squadron, based at El Djem in Tunisia, was not a happy one. The day before my first operation my friend from Air Gunnery School, Peter Leach, was killed with all his crew at Monastir, Tunisia. Then we learned that the C.O. Group Captain Robert Gordon Yaxley, DSO, MC, DFC age 31 was killed whilst returning to the squadron from the UK on 3 June 1943, shot down in a Hudson over the Bay of Biscay. His name is recorded at the R.A.F. memorial at Runneymede for those with a known grave.

About a week later our new C.O. arrived. He was Wing Commander W.Coles. He soon read the riot act to us aircrew as several aircraft had been lost through poor flying due to inexperience. A year later he returned to the UK to prepare for the 2nd Front and led the Arnhem operation. He was not only a fine pilot and leader but before the war in the Metropolitan Police became their heavy weight boxing champion and continued the same in the R.A.F. as well as leading the R.A.F. Cresta bobsleigh team. He finished his R.A.F. career around 1970 as Air Marshall with almost every gong except the VC and received a Knighthood. Soon after retiring I saw him on television as the subject of “This is Your Life”. He died soon after in the early 1970’s. A wonderful man and a leader who always led from the front. Any particularly dangerous operation he would do it. Sometimes we felt a little bit sorry for his crew. I flew with him just once.

Regarding the R.A.F. memorial at Runneymede, which is just the other side of the village of Englefield Green where I lived for nearly 50 years, it has the names of 20,000 airmen who flew from the UK but with no known grave. Being a desert air force squadron, and later operating over Burma, our losses are recorded on the Desert memorial and at places such as Imphal, Kohima, Bangkok and Singapore.

My posting to 117 Squadron occurred after El Alamein. Being a mobile squadron supporting the 8th Army under General Montgomery and the fighter squadrons we were continually on the move sending perhaps 2 — 3 weeks on an airstrip and scarcely having the time to unpack our kit bags. Conditions were very basic indeed sleeping on the sand in tents, which of course in the occasional sand storm became very uncomfortable to say the least. For a time we were rationed to a gallon of drinking water per day and the food mainly consisted of corned beef, soya-link sausages and hard-tack biscuits. In spite of these limitations we kept reasonably healthy. One of the more unpleasant hardships was the flies much larger and more persistent than we are used to in Europe. Whilst at Castle Benito near Tripoli in July 1943, one of the hottest places in the desert, I and a colleague Bill Buttle shared a two-man tent. One evening we were playing cards by the light of a candle sitting on the sand and wearing just shorts in the intense heat when I suddenly saw a black scorpion close to Bill’s bare foot. I shouted a warning and in the commotion to get out of the tent the candle was knocked over. Of course knowing the deadliness of a black scorpion we only ventured back to the tent after borrowing a torch. We never saw the scorpion again though had an uneasy sleep that night. Bill and I had another unpleasant experience together some three months later in Sicily.

After one or two supernumerary trips I was crewed with Harry Archer and we remained together during our two tours and for a short time with Kiwi our navigator. One of the few perks on the squadron was a detachment to Fez a French colonial town in French Morocco. This was like civilization for us after the desert and our crew were lucky to get two of these postings. Basically our job in a Hudson, a light two-engined bomber, was to fly fighter pilots from Fez (Ras—El—Mar airfield) to Casablanca on the Atlantic coast. After they had air-tested the Spitfires they, in loose formation with us, were escorted back to the war zone over part of the Sahara desert and Atlas Mountains. Unfortunately one of them lost sight of us and we learned later became totally lost and when running out of fuel managed to safely crash land by a French Foreign Legion fort. There he was wined and dined by the Commandant and his wife and teenaged daughter. They were getting on extremely well and he considered he would have a marvellous war there but a R.A.F. rescue party arrived a week or so later.

Just after arriving in Fez where we were billeted in a commandeered school building, our first night out on the town involved sampling a quantity of French wine. On our way back to the billet we met a couple of giant Russians from the French foreign Legion who were celebrating the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad Russia. They invited us to join them to drink vodka. We managed to communicate with them using our limited knowledge of French. We toasted Stalingrad and General Tuinashenko they responded toasting El Alamein and the 8th army under General Montgomery. On departing with our newly found friends they wanted to give us the Russian bear hug which of course we declined as they stood about 6.5 feet and probably weighed nearly 20 stone. On reaching our billet I fell fast asleep and knew nothing until the following morning.

During the night, Kiwi our navigator - in a sleep walking state - thought he saw one of us heading for the toilet so he followed this apparition who stepped off a windowsill. Some time later the Arab guard discovered Kiwi lying on the ground having fallen some 20 feet. In a way he was lucky not to have fallen on his head but he suffered two broken ankles. That was the last we saw of him as he was invalided back to New Zealand.

His replacement was a South African from the squadron of Bisleys having been disbanded whilst waiting for their new aircraft — the Boston I believe. Although we were a R.A.F. squadron some three-quarters of the aircrews were Australian and New Zealand with a sprinkling of Canadians and South Africans.

We had a rather unfortunate time with our South African navigator who seemed intent on getting us lost. His training, probably in the near perfect conditions of South Africa, was not suited to the sometime difficult visibilities we had to contend with in the desert. Before rejoining our squadron on our second detachment to Fez we had to fly to an American air base south of Casablanca called Berichide where their crews were being trained for operational flying. As we approached the airfield at about 6,0000 feet in perfect weather conditions Harry said we would do a shoot up driving down at almost maximum speed for a Hudson. This sort of flying we could get away with in those days. After switching off a crowd of Yankee pilots ran over to us and I remember one of them asked, “ Gee what kind of pursuit ship is this?” They were surprised to hear from us that it was a light bomber of American make — Lockheed. Later we received our briefing for an urgent flight to Gibralter, our only visit to Europe for some three and a half years. Our instructions were to approach the Rock from the west where we would be challenged so had to be ready with the colours of the day and to reply with the recovery code using the Aldis lamp from the cockpit.

As part of our briefing was not to fly over Spanish mainland - or Spanish Morocco the other side of the Straits - we had a problem. Right in the middle of the Straits was a large convoy and knowing how trigger-happy the Royal Navy were we very quickly replied to the challenges from the escort destroyers. Later on our return to the squadron we routed via Gran and Algiers. At the former we had engine trouble and spent the night at USAF transit camp where I celebrated my 21st birthday consuming mugs of tea and eating peanuts with the rest of the crew. When serviceable we flew visa Biskra and Setif. At the latter with a stifling night temperature of perhaps 1000 degrees Fahrenheit I lay in an iron bath of so called cold water to try and cool off and escape from the mosquitoes that were breeding in the oasis.

Soon after rejoining the squadron at Tripoli we were preparing for the invasion of Sicily, code named “Operation Husky” which proved a shambles as far as the glider force and parachute force were concerned. Several times we flew into Malta though the worst of the bombing was nearly over. On one occasion, 28 June 1943, we were the first aircraft to fly into a non-airstrip on the island of Gozo to the west of Malta. Incidentally, many years later, 1971, on holiday with our respective families, Reg Graynoth — my old RAF chum who was an experienced scuba diver — and I did a bit of diving in the crystal clear waters. When I mentioned I had landed on Gozo in 1943 Reg was a little puzzled, as there was no sign of the wartime airstrip.

As I have already mentioned things really went wrong at the initial attack on Sicily. “Operation Husky” as far as the glider force was concerned was rushed forward and insufficient training given. Added to incorrect forecast winds this resulted in many of the gliders not even reaching their targets and finishing in the sea. 117 Squadron was not involved in the glider force but again we were supporting the 8th army under Montgomery attacking up the eastern side of Sicily whilst General Patten’s American army attacked to the west. From our base at Tripoli our operations took us to numerous airfields in Sicily. My squadron for a month or more was based at the airfield at Catania, the base located in tents on the lower slopes of Mount Etna the volcano being slightly active whilst we were there for the month of August 1943.

I did little flying whilst based at Catania being grounded firstly for health reasons. On a flight back to base I almost lost consciousness with severe head pains and thought that perhaps I had a brain tumour. It proved to be a severe case of sinusitis. The squadron doc grounded me and put me to bed with a temperature of around 102 degrees. This trouble was caused by flying with a bad cold but additionally, as our campsite was some 5 to 6 miles from the airfield the crew truck used a track that had been churned up by the tanks. In the hot dry weather this was inches deep in dust, which of course covered us in the open truck and caused the problems with my sinuses. With no improvement after menthol inhalations the doctor sent me to the British Military Hospital in Catania that was still equipped with German and Italian bedding. My first night there was a nightmare, not only suffering with my head pains I was being bitten by bed bugs. In the early hours I tried to sleep on the floor to be away fro the bugs. Later in the night the Medical Corporal on his rounds discovered me on the floor and tried ordering me back to bed, which of course I refused to do. He said I could not try pulling rank as at that time I was a sergeant and that he would be reporting me to the army medical officer in the morning if I still refused to use the bed. Later the medical officer having had the report from his orderly asked for my version. He examined the mattress, at first seeing nothing, but after having some DDT powder sprinkled on it, he accepted that it was unusable as thousands of bugs appeared from the seams. Later that day the German and Italian bedding was replaced with equipment that had just arrived from the Middle East so I was able to get a reasonable night’s sleep. My treatment was for 3 or 4 menthol inhalations each day for the week I was there before being discharged back to the squadron for non-flying duties. My improvement came just in time before the required unpleasant sinus operation at that time.

The day after my return to the squadron, feeling a little better, but still weak, with my friend Bill Buttle, we went for a stroll through the vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna. Bill saw an object under a bush and picked it up. We knew that the enemy often left booby traps. I told Bill to throw it away against a tree. There was an explosion and I found myself with blood flowing from my arms and legs. Of course during that time we were only wearing khaki shorts and shirts. The object proved to be an Italian hand grenade. I caught most of the shrapnel but Bill, a few yards away, got off Scot-free. Back to the medical officer again, who for the second time sent me back to the BMH. I was not there long. The surgeons removed the bits of metal from me apart from one small piece lodged in a joint in my finger. He said it would work its way out. Almost exactly ten years later it came to the surface.

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