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A Quiet Desert Harasser
Little has been written about the small band of men who flew ground support missions in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and North Africa during World War II. They came from Great Britain, Canada, United States, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia to fly with Royal Air Force (RAF) Squadrons, and lived like nomads in tents on the desert landing grounds. Flying conditions were dangerous and aircraft maintenance was difficult because of the hot, dusty, windy conditions and the rough surface of the dirt runways. Food, water, aircraft spares and fuel were in short supply as the ground crews struggled to keep up with the aircraft moving from landing field to landing field, sometimes only hours ahead or behind the German Afrika Korps. Often aircraft and supplies were abandoned when the squadron was unable to return to the landing ground they had left in the morning.
When the British Eighth Army retreated across the desert to Egypt the Germans occupied the old RAF landing grounds. Later in the war, when the Germans were pushed back and evacuated the landing grounds, the Allied pilots and ground crew rushed in to occupy them again and search for valuable supplies and prized souvenirs of Leica cameras, binoculars and Swastika flags. It became a deadly game as the retreating side set “booby-traps” amongst the stores. The fighter bombers of the desert squadrons performed air defense, bomber escort and ground attack support roles in aircraft that did not match the high altitude air combat capability of the German fighters. The newer and more advanced British fighter aircraft had been assigned to the Europe theatre so the older aircraft were sent to North Africa. Later they were replaced by the sturdy and effective ground attack Curtis Wright P-40 aircraft. The squadrons and their pilots became known as “Desert Harassers” because of their valuable air to ground support role keeping supply routes open and harassing the German and Italian armies.
One unlikely “Desert Harasser” was a quiet and dedicated young school teacher named Des Cormack who married my mother’s younger sister just before he went to war. Like many others being rushed into WWII he had limited training but passed the course. After thirty-three days his Assessment of Ability was rated as: Just Average… Aerobatics poor… (and) generally careless of details. When he arrived in the Middle East Des had less than six months of flying training, only 90 hours as a pilot and two hours experience flying at night. He had little cross country instrument and formation flying, air to air and air to ground gunnery practice and high and low level dive bombing training. These skills were acquired in the Middle East and North Africa where he learned on the job. Des arrived in Cairo in July 1941 and three months later was posted to 450 Squadron at Rayak, a newly captured airfield in Syria, for training on the Hurricane fighter aircraft. He was sent to Khartoum, Sudan to learn to fly the Mohawk and Tomahawk aircraft and one month later, with no operational experience, was posted to the RAF 250 (Sudan) Squadron in Libya.
In January 1942, Des completed his first flight in a tired old Tomahawk from the squadron airfield at Antelat. When the British captured Benghazi, five days later, the squadron moved to Msus as Rommel launched a counter offensive against the Eighth Army. The squadron was forced to move eastward towards Tobruk, ahead of the advancing German Afrika Korps who occupied Msus the following day. Des had his first experience of war conducting fighter sweeps and ground attacks along the Msus-Antelat Road. Despite the heavy allied air attacks the Germans advanced at great speed across the desert and along the coast road towards Gazala and Tobruk forcing the fighter wing to retreat further to Gazala about 30 miles from Tobruk. The Germans captured Benghazi and continued to advance across the western desert in pursuit of the Eighth Army which had withdrawn to a line at Gazala. Des’ log book recorded that he was then flying patrol and interception sorties from Port Said first in a Tomahawk aircraft and then in a Hurricane. Further entries showed him flying shipping patrol, interception and patrol between Port Said and Ismalia on the west bank of the Suez Canal.
Des flew his first Kittyhawk in March 1942 and continued to fly patrol missions throughout April in both Tomahawk and Kittyhawk aircraft from Port Said to Ismalia, the port of Damietta and to Wadi Natrun, 80 miles west of Cairo. He flew to Sidi Heneish and returned to the Western Desert at Gambut for the defense of Tobruk. His log book described one flight in April when he became lost and was forced to land at a dirt strip in Egypt to get directions. On May 8 Des, now flying his Kittyhawk from Gambut, patrolled the Crete-Derna track to intercept Junkers bombers and provide escort for the RAF Beaufighters. Two days later he flew to within 40 miles of Crete but after not sighting enemy aircraft returned to strafe trucks and cars on the Derna Road. On May 22, when Des was escorting bombers to Martuba, his squadron was attacked by the superior Luftwaffe Bf109s. The squadron lost one aircraft and pilot but shot down one of the Bf109s.
The Battle of Gazala commenced on May 26 with the Afrika Korps advancing with 560 tanks around the southern end of the Eighth Army’s position towards Tobruk. On the 28th and 29th Des was escorting RAF bombers and bombing and strafing the German armored column advancing on El Adem south of Tobruk. On the 30th, during a sweep of the Afrika Korps defensive positions in the El Adem area, his squadron was attacked by four Bf109s and lost two aircraft and pilots. The Kittyhawk was most vulnerable to the Bf109 while flying low and slow during bomber escort and close air support missions but their dive speed was excellent which made them deadly in a ground attack role.
June was a busy month as the battle raged for control of Gazala and Tobruk. Des flew daily missions and escort reconnaissance sorties in an unsuccessful attempt to hold off the rampaging German Panzer Divisions. His log book recorded that he was involved in a “dog fight” with 12 enemy aircraft and forced to escape from the Bf109s by executing an inverted spin from 5,000 feet (and) pulled out 200 feet over enemy camp. He was lucky to survive the maneuver and recovered to shoot down a Macchi 202. Following the fall of Tobruk the squadron moved further east to Sidi Heneish in Egypt, about 70 miles west of El Alamein, constantly returning to bomb and strafe the Germans who had captured Sidi Barrani. By June 27 the squadron had moved again, eastward to El Daba and on to Amariya, about 50 miles east of El Alamein and near to Alexandria. In the five months between January 21 and June 29, 1942 the squadron had operated from twelve desert landing grounds in Libya and Egypt. In the nine days following the fall of Tobruk it had moved 325 miles east to Amariya returning each day to harass the Germans.
Rommel began his final attempt to break through the Allied lines at El Alamein on August 31 and the squadron stepped up its activities. Des was involved in another “dog fight” with a Bf109 on September 5 (no damage), with 15 Bf109s on the 13th and two days later with 42 Macchi 202s and Bf109s. He shot down a Bf109 before he was attacked from behind by another German aircraft. On October 23, the Second Battle of El Alamein began with a 1,000-gun bombardment by the British and dive bombing attacks by the Allied squadrons. The Eighth Army gained ground across the whole front. Des wrote: ack ack plentiful and accurate. Attacked by enemy fighters. No damage. Tonight we attack!! On the following day he wrote: Dog fight with 20+ enemy fighters. The Army has begun to advance… and on the 25th he wrote: The push seems to be going well 1,400 prisoners taken. On the 31st Des’ log book recorded a dog fight with 15+ EA escort bombers, fired at Bf109 but at over 420 mph in a dive still couldn’t catch him. This confirmed the speed advantage of the German Bf109 over the Kittyhawk, whose dive speed was considered excellent, and the dangers of engagement with the superior German aircraft. A final counter-attack by the Germans failed and when Rommel issued his orders for retreat the Germans had only 12 tanks left. Almost 11,000 prisoners had been captured and a further 20,000 followed by November 6. As the British army pushed the Germans back from El Alamein the squadron moved back to their old bases in the west, re-occupying El Daba and Sidi Heneish.
Des’ log book recorded that his landing at Sidi Heneish was: …. uneventful. Later injured by a mine explosion. The explosion was from a land mine he ran over in a jeep, borrowed from the ground crew, as the pilots searched for “souvenirs”. In the rush to search the abandoned tents Des was still wearing his parachute and it saved his life. He was sitting on the chute when the jeep ran over the land mine and it absorbed the blast. He and the three other pilots were out of action for several days and the squadron banned further “souvenir hunting”. Des never did get his Swastika flag or Leica camera but he did find an Elgin clock in an abandoned Kittyhawk and a photograph of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel celebrating with his officers possibly after the fall of Tobruk. It was among Des’ photographs carefully filed away after the war.
The squadron continued to harass the Afrika Korps, as it retreated from Egypt, around Msus, Benghazi, Appolonia, Antelat and Derna and on November 20 the Eighth Army reached Benghazi. In late January 1943, the squadron made its first attack on targets in Tunisia from their new base at Castel Benito near Tripoli. Castel Benito was like an oasis for the pilots as they were billeted in houses, slept in beds and were able to take a bath after several months living in the desert.
Des left 250 Squadron on February 22, 1943 to become a flight instructor at Abu Sueir near Ismalia in the Suez Canal Zone. The war in North Africa ended in mid-May. Des’ log book listed 42 landing grounds visited during his thirteen and a half months service with 250 Squadron. Many of them were visited more than once. Interestingly he listed the landing grounds as “visited” rather than occupied which emphasized how little time was spent at each place. Des became a “Desert Harasser” through sheer courage, skill and quiet determination. He endured the harsh flying and living conditions of the desert and after conversion training on Spitfire aircraft he joined the war in South East Asia. Des’ service ended with missions from an airstrip hacked out of the jungle in the Dutch East Indies and a final Assessment of Ability (of) … Above the Average (he could) always be relied upon to do his work regardless of difficulty. Des was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a remarkable achievement for a quiet school teacher whose early flying instructors thought his flying ability was just Average. His active service in North Africa and the South West Pacific was a small chapter in his life, part of his obligation to the country. It did not overshadow his later achievements as a teacher, especially in remote communities, and as a father.
Information on the North African campaign was provided by the Australian War Memorial, Desert Warriors (author Russell Brown, Banner Books, published 2000) and Des Cormack’s log book. Extracts from the log book and photographs were provided by Michelle Cormack.