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Life as an RAF Pilot: Chapter 5a - Air War in Italyicon for Recommended story

by flyingBunny

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Bill Bundock
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
23 June 2004

Bill and his Spitfire

It was a cold June morning when I found myself waking up on Foggia railway station on the South West coast of Italy lying on all my possessions, three kitbags and feeling very stiff from sleeping out, waiting to be picked up by the Squadron gharry.

I had been stuck in the transit camp at Portici just outside Naples for six weeks, waiting for a posting to an operational squadron and couldn't have been more keen to start operations. The past two years of training seemed to have lasted forever.

There were three of us arriving to join the squadron, all of us felt the same excitement at the thought of getting into action.

We had been posted to 87 Squadron, Desert Air Force, but had no idea as to its operational role.

Eventually, after making a fuss with the Railway Transport Officer, a truck arrived to pick us up. Little did we know how familiar we would get with these trucks after a while on the Squadron.

After a rough ride we arrived at Foggia Main Airfield, where the Squadron was based. As they were a fully mobile Squadron, the accommodation consisted of a series of six man tents and three marquees for messes.

We stashed our kit in the tent allocated to us and went to report our arrival to the Commanding Officer, who told us that the next day we were moving up behind the front line to support the Eighth Army.

The Squadron aircraft were Spitfire Vs and I was expected to fly an aircraft up to the new base.

We were going to fly dive bombing sorties in close support to the Eighth Army, attacking any target which seemed to be blocking the progress of the Army up the Italian country.

There was a great upheaval in the Squadron the next morning, everyone was packing their kitbags and after breakfast all the tents came down, were packed up and put into all the 3 ton lorries which seemed to have suddenly appeared. After this had been done the last to be dismantled were the Mess marquees, these seemed to come down with remarkable ease, it was only later that I learned how often this was done that I appreciated why it seemed to happen so easily and quickly.

The next thing was a general tidying up of the camp site. As we were doing this the first flight of our Spitfires took off and headed for our next base right up close to the front line. Having seen the first road party set off with about half of the Squadron's gear, we went to our aircraft, started up and followed the first flight to our new base. This was just outside Perugia, a medieval hill town in the centre of Italy.

We landed at the new airfield at lunchtime, and sat around waiting for the first party of lorries to arrive. We were allocated a field near the temporary runway in the middle of a big area of ripening tomatoes. After about an hour the first trucks arrived and feverish activity started setting up the mess marquees, as without these the cooks couldn't prepare any food. In a remarkably short space of time the mess tents were up and food was being prepared. As the tomatoes were all around us we naturally made full use of them, much to our stomachs' discontent!

Later that day the rest of the Squadron arrived and we set about making ourselves as comfortable as possible. Foraging parties went out to see what could be bought from the local farms as our supplied rations were not of the best!

We managed to purchase some poultry, vegetables and a couple of demijohns of the local wine, so by sunset the whole squadron felt well refreshed. We didn't stay up too late as we were due to fly the next morning on a Sector recce.

The idea of a Sector Recce was to familiarise ourselves with the country surrounding the airfield so that we could find our way back to base again. We didn't stray too far North in order to keep out of the battle zone.

The next day we were required to provide an escort to some bombers, but because of the small amount of fuel carried by the Spitfire, we flew to a forward base to refuel before joining the bombers. These operations were repeated for the next few days, so we soon acquired a good knowledge of the area.

After this we were brought into the battle and all had our first attempt at dive bombing. The results were not too encouraging and we didn't have a lot of success. We found that the Spitfire V was a bit too unstable a platform for accurate bombing, but were assured by other pilots on the wing that the Spitfire IXs which we had been promised were much more suitable for this type of work.

True enough about a week later the promised Spitfire IXs started arriving and after a flight to gain experience on the new aircraft we were ready to start our work in earnest.

Our intelligence officer gave us a briefing as to the role which we were to play in support of the Eighth Army. Our job was to provide close support to the troops on the ground, clearing a way for them to advance past enemy troop concentrations, threatening heavy guns, tanks, fortified positions etc.

The method of directing us to targets was to prove fascinating. An army forward observation post called a 'Rover' gave us clear directions as to our target, sometimes laying down a smoke marker for us. These directions were given to us on the radio, so that when we took off we had no idea as to our target. Quite often there would be several Squadrons in the same area at the same time and the 'Rover' control would call us in consecutively.

The system always worked very well and after a couple of sorties our bombing accuracy with the Spitfire IXs became excellent.

Although I have said that we were at an advanced base, again because of the Spitfires' limited range, we sometimes landed at a temporary strip set up by the Royal Engineers just behind the front line. It was a bit of a gamble to land there because sometimes the Germans became aware that we were there and suddenly shells started to fall on the field. This always started a bit of a flap, everybody trying to get into the air at the same time before the runway was damaged. We could otherwise be stuck there for some time!

When the weather prevented us from flying, we would take a truck and visit the town of Perugia, this is a hill town and very old and going around the town provided a welcome change from our flying. Just up the valley we were in was the town of Assisi, which we also visited on our days off.

We were at Perugia for about a month, when partly due to our bombing efforts, the front line moved forward and it became necessary for us to move to a base nearer to the action.

This was when we began to see how the process of moving happened. The Squadron was divided into two parties, each party contained all the essential elements to keep the aircraft in the air and operational, feed us all and refuel and rearm the aircraft.

The airfields were built for us by the Royal Engineers and consisted mainly of a runway, which was made from PSP. PSP stood for Perforated Steel Planking, this consisted of a series of sheet steel plates designed to be interlocking, which were laid on a foundation. These runways were a great success and enabled temporary airfields to be established quickly and to be usable in all but the most severe weather.

The first landing on one of these runways was always a bit unnerving because they produced a huge rattle and led you to wonder which bit of the aircraft had fallen off!

So the Squadron was off again, to a new airfield, one that was uninhabited when we arrived, as the REs had moved on and we were left to sort ourselves out, find suitable places to site our tents and mess marquees. So the settling in started again, with foraging parties going out to find food and drink to make our stay more acceptable.

Washing facilities were minimal as you can imagine, our tin hats made a useful bowl for washing and shaving and about once a month a mobile shower and bath unit run by the Army would appear and we could luxuriate for a few minutes and get rid of the BO with which we were usually surrounded!

Our rations were not too good and we supplemented them where we could, we bought from local farms who were always very pleased to supply us with anything that they had.

We were well used to having the odd drink or two and supplies of the British type booze were hard to come by.

We had a monthly ration of four cans of beer and one bottle of whisky plus a free issue of fifty cigarettes and a bar of chocolate, the last three items were in prime demand with the farmers with whom we dealt to obtain our extra rations, also the Americans who were never far away would sell their souls for a bottle of scotch whisky. We acquired our Squadron Jeep in this way as when we were travelling from one base to another we came across some Americans sitting somewhat disconsolately alongside the road, we stopped and offered to help, but they said that they were waiting for a replacement jeep to arrive as they had a puncture. We asked what would happen to the punctured jeep and they told us that it would be abandoned. We said could we have it and offered them a bottle of whisky and they said yes, so our MT sergeant quickly repaired the puncture and we had ourselves a jeep.

We heard that British drinks were readily available and very cheap in Malta and we needed to find a method of getting there. To this end we eventually acquired an old Hurricane and proceeded to get it ready for the 'booze run', we cleaned out some long range fuel tanks, took out all the guns and ammunition and one of the chaps set off to Malta with all our hard won cash. He came back fully loaded with the long range wines and spirits and we had a good stock of drink for a few weeks. Unfortunately someone on high decided that we could not keep the Hurricane so we had to make do with local drink from then on.

It was while flying from this airfield that I had one of the most satisfying sorties. We were airborne and waiting for a call from our Rover control, when he came on the air and asked us to go to a small airfield right on the front line. Our controller described the situation to us. Our troops were around the perimeter of the airfield but were pinned down by gunfire being directed from the control tower. He asked us to attack the tower in order to eliminate this observation post. We carried out our normal bombing run starting at 10,000 feet and going into a dive of about 80 degrees, this allowed us to keep a sight of out target right up to the moment when we started to pull out of the dive at about 3,000 feet. We didn't have a bomb sight but dropped our bombs by judgement, as we started to pull out the target disappeared under our noses, we then released our bomb which was a 500 pounder. By this time having been in a steep dive for some 7,000 feet we were travelling very fast and the aircraft had to be very carefully handled or you could bend the wings by exerting too much 'G' force. It always surprised me that we could achieve any accuracy bombing in this way but our results were consistently good and in this particular sortie our own troops were only about 250 yards from our target, so obviously our Rover control had faith in our accuracy. Having finished our bombing run we regained height whilst our Rover control was getting very excited saying that we had successfully destroyed the observation post and that the Germans were abandoning the place. He asked us if we could come in again for a strafing run as the Germans were all easily seen and without cover. We then made a low level attack, being guided by the controller and as we came in we could see the Germans running through an olive grove. We went in turn, firing our 2mm cannon and 0.50 machine guns, each of us making several attacks until all our ammunition was expended.

This sortie took me back to my training days in Southern Rhodesia, where I completed my flying training on Harvards. There we had a bombing area where we tried to hit ground targets with little success. It was part of our training to act as bombing range supervisors, we were sent out into the bush for two weeks with a very elementary radio and were meant to control other pilots under training who were practising bombing techniques. It was OK but there were hazards from the wild life as we had to shake scorpions out of our socks. Radio contact with the aircraft was minimal as the radios either didn't work or their range was too limited to reach the aircraft at all. This sortie made me realise that our training hadn't been as useless as we thought at the time!

Life on the Squadron was now settling into a routine and as ever this was soon to be shattered. We had been at our current site for about 10 days when we were moved again this time to an old Italian army base, a runway had been put down for us by the REs, and we went into our moving routine again. When we arrived we found that we had been allocated an area on which had once been buildings which had been either bombed or demolished. When we came to put up our tents we found that the bases of the old buildings prevented us from using tent pegs to put up our tents and mess marquees. We therefore used old lumps of concrete and bricks for securing the guy ropes of our tents, and as it was getting dusk, left the mess tents until the following morning. The weather was looking very threatening when we turned in, and it didn't come as much of a surprise when at about two in the morning, the wind got up and things started to fall down about our ears.

Having struggled out from our collapsed tents, we all looked for somewhere to spend the rest of the night. Some of the tents had not collapsed so they acquired a few extra bodies, whilst about twelve of us crawled into the Squadron ambulance and managed to get some sleep.

In the morning we got up to survey the wreckage of the camp and found one of our pilots still asleep under one of the collapsed tents, he was obviously a heavy sleeper!

It was while we were here that we met up with some of the REs who had been laying our runways for buildings which were in a dangerous condition and were going to blow them up. We took great delight in helping explosive demolition.

All this time the regular progress of the war went on and we flew regular Rover sorties. One day after landing from a sortie one of the pilots came on the radio and said that he had a 'hang up', this meant that he had operated the bomb release, but the bomb had failed to detach itself from the aircraft for some reason. The drill in these cases was to go out to sea and throw the aircraft around a bit to try and shake the bomb off. This had apparently been tried without success, and he now said that he was coming in to land. The airfield was cleared quite quickly! We had the funny sight of the air traffic controllers hurriedly leaping out of their corrugated iron hut on stilts which was quite close to the runway.

The pilot came in very slowly and tried to put the aircraft down very gently. All appeared to be well, he touched down and nothing fell off but he had only gone about two hundred yards when an object was seen to drop off the aircraft and to go bouncing along behind it. There was an almighty explosion and a huge clod of dust appeared, out of which came taxiing a Spitfire, apparently intact! The aircraft only suffered a damaged tailplane, but the pilot had the shakes for a few days! Luckily the REs were still around and were quickly able to fill in the hole in the runway.

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