2003 History Conference - Air War Europe

The Sandgropers
Fighter Operations – North Africa And The Middle East
Peter Scully

In the short time available to me today, I thought it might be useful to focus on one small aspect of fighter operations that seems to me to be so different from the norm as to be worthy of some special acknowledgement. I refer to 3 Squadron’s activities in the early days of the North African campaign. While we all may have a general understanding of these events, significant new detail has been revealed with the recent publication of two sets of personal diaries – those of Squadron Leader John Jackson, DFC and Corporal Felix Sainsbury, an armament fitter. This is not a summary of the specific combat activities of the unit involved, but rather an attempt to convey a picture of the conditions under which this group operated because, it seems to me, they really were extraordinary.

Following 10 Squadron, 3 Squadron was the only other “regular” – that is, outside the Empire Air Training Scheme – RAAF squadron committed to the air war in Europe. The squadron, comprising about 300 personnel, arrived in the Middle East on 23 August 1940; its aircraft were to be provided by the United Kingdom. Originally intended as an army co-operation squadron in support of the 6th Division AIF, the squadron soon became embroiled in the overall air war in the Middle East as part of the Middle East Command.

To set the scene I need to remind you that Italy declared war on 10 June 1940 and signed an armistice with France two weeks later. This dramatically changed the balance of power in that theatre: in Libya, Italy was no longer restrained by the French presence on her eastern border and Britain was no longer free to use the Mediterranean unhindered. At that time Britain was also much more interested in home defence as the Battle of Britain had yet to be fought. The British forces in North Africa were vastly outnumbered by the Italians, who had easy access to reinforcement from home while the British resupply position was tenuous at best.

John Jackson was one of a party of 27 RAAF personnel bound for 3 Squadron: they arrived in Egypt in November 1940, barely one week after the squadron’s first operation in which they successfully destroyed three (plus three probable) Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR 42s. They also suffered their first loss: Squadron Leader Peter Heath.

The squadron at that stage was split, with two flights forward about 180 miles at Gerawala with Gladiators and one flight at Ikingi, not far from Alexandria, with Lysanders. On 26 November 1940, Jackson found himself at Ikingi and encountered his first indication of what might lie ahead. After what appeared to have been a more than pleasant sea journey – and an apparently boisterous one as Jackson was placed “on the dry” from Perth to Bombay – he was provided with a tent that he pitched on the desert sand. He found the mess orderlies sick so had to get his own tucker, which was rationed, found the water rationed as well – about a gallon a day – and commented on his new surroundings: “As rough as hell compared with ship life”.

The next morning things looked less rosy still:

The sand is now churned into a fine powder and we are saturated in it. It’s in our clothes and blankets. This desert life is not so hot. I am now sand inside and out and when I gnash my teeth can taste grit and sand. Furthermore, a wind has sprung up and it’s like a fog outside the tent.

There were no such things as operational training units in the Middle East at that time – and for a long while after – and initially Jackson and his colleagues were supposed to await the arrival of a dual-control Lysander to do a conversion course. This plan for a formal conversion course was not put into effect because the very next day Jackson revealed that he was to move forward to Gerawala to go straight into a Gladiator. Not, however, before he tested a Lysander:

[I] took the law into my own hands and authorised myself a flight in a Lysander. They are b……awful, I’ve never flown worse, as heavy as lead on the controls and remind me of a bullock wagon with wings.

Jackson arrived at Gerawala on 5 December 1940 and found the squadron located on a flat patch of desert with aircraft dispersed hundreds of yards apart and members well entrenched in dugouts in the sides of wadis. He complained that although the area was mostly sand there was a bit of rock and that it was “no joke digging dugouts”. However the effort must have been worth it because he comments, “Moved into a dugout on the side of a wadi, and it’s a beaut – a home away from home. We have earth and corrugated iron walls but it’s just paradise after the tent.”

His first attempt to fly a Gladiator was washed out by a dust storm but the next day he managed a fifty minute flight; however, a further dust storm later that day prevented his weapons training. This was achieved the next day when he wrote, “Well I’m a fully operational pilot now. Had a 20-minute flight this morning and fired the guns on a bush in the desert – great training.” With operational training as ad hoc as Jackson reports it to have been, one must only marvel at the extraordinary successes the squadron managed to achieve – or reasonably question the capability of the opposing air force, despite their CR42s being superior performers to the Gladiator. As an aside, the AOC-in-C [Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief], Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, in marshalling his meagre forces for the forthcoming offensive left the air defence of Alexandria and the Suez Canal to the care of two Fleet Air Arm Gladiators “with a mental apology to the Italians for the insult”.

Jackson was on patrol the next day – 9 December 1940 – when General Wavell commenced the Allies’ first push westwards. Such was the introduction to operations in this new environment; you might agree that it could reasonably be regarded as a shock to the system.

The squadron moved forward with the army – offensive patrols and escort duties mainly – with marked operational success. However the aircraft re-supply problems were acute, with the squadron’s Lysanders being replaced by cast-off Gladiators from 112 Squadron RAF, which Jackson described as completely unfit:

In shocking condition and should be scrapped as unfit for further service. It’s damned near criminal that we should have to use such kites, but I suppose if there is nothing better available we have to use them and not growl.

Just to prove his point, on the delivery flight Jackson suffered an engine failure on take-off, ending up upside down in a wadi, fortunately unhurt.

The RAF exerted every effort to provide reinforcements to their meagre resources and by early December 1940 had managed to establish a re-supply route by shipping aircraft in crates to Takoradi in the Gold Coast – the east coast of Africa – where they were assembled and flown across Africa to Egypt – a ferry flight of about 4,000 miles. As a result of this successful undertaking, 3 Squadron was re-equipped with Hurricanes toward the end of January 1941. Once again, Jackson reported, the conversion course was more than a little abbreviated:

Yesterday afternoon a pilot gave us a bit of a talk on Hurricanes. Flew them today and they are great. They cruise along (zero boost) at about 200 mph and I believe when opened up will do 280-300 mph – poor Dagoes. I feel much happier now that we have Hurricanes.

On 8 February 1941, the 6th Division AIF entered Bengahzi. This first Allied offensive had been a brilliant achievement. A force of never more than two divisions supported by an average of 200 aircraft in a period of two months had utterly routed nine Italian divisions and 400 aircraft, capturing 130,000 prisoners at a cost of less than 3,000 casualties. On no single occasion were the Allied troops held up by enemy aircraft. The Italian defeat prompted a parody of Churchill from Anthony Eden, then Minister for War: “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”

However, British RAF historian Denis Richards commented that “months of disappointment and disaster were now to follow and all that had been won in Cyrenaica was to be cast away in the vain effort to sustain Greece.” Churchill’s policies in this regard denuded Africa of men and resources – indeed, only four squadrons were left there, one of which was 3 Squadron. There was also a new player in the “Desert Stakes”.

In January 1941, Hitler announced plans for direct military support to Italy; in February, Rommel arrived in Tripoli and soon after launched his offensive. By 25 April 1941, the British were back where they had started five months previously. This dramatic turn of events had extraordinary consequences for the squadrons involved. For the time being, 3 Squadron operated from its furthest forward base at Benina and on 11 February received a visit from Prime Minister Menzies. Jackson commented:

It’s good to see the blighter out here but I wish he could have seen some of our previous landing grounds, slept with us, dined on brackish water, bully beef and dog biscuits and seen a few decent sandstorms … I hope he experiences a decent bombing (without being hurt) and he will realise what war is like.

For a short period, a reasonable calm existed at Benina, with many opportunities for squadron personnel to relax and unwind in Benghazi. However, the Germans soon changed that and by the middle of February bombing raids had commenced on the airfield, with regular daily attacks on Benghazi and surrounding army positions. On 24 March Rommel commenced his first offensive. On 3 April while returning from a patrol, Jackson learned that Benina was to be evacuated immediately. Then started the rout. The first move was back to a landing ground at Got es Sultan for a late lunch of “tea, bully beef and dog biscuits – men can’t fight far on this sort of tucker.” After another patrol, landing about sundown, Jackson wrote, “Everybody out under the stars, no time to rig tents”.

Later that night, the squadron received a signal to evacuate Sultan immediately as the Germans were expected to arrive at any moment. This would have meant burning their Hurricanes as it was impossible to establish night landing facilities elsewhere. However, the squadron decided that they wouldn’t be “worth a cracker without aircraft” in Jackson’s words, and so while the rest of the squadron packed up and moved out at about midnight, the pilots slept by the aircraft before getting away at dawn. They arrived at Maraua tired and hungry for a late lunch of bully beef and tea and awaited the arrival of the rest of the squadron. Of major concern to Jackson was that “three lorries tipped over in the dark and one was our mess lorry with eighty pounds worth of beer (an absolute tragedy)”.

The next day – 5 April – they were up at dawn for more bully beef and tea before proceeding on patrol. On return they were told to evacuate yet again, without even waiting for fuel. At Derna there was such chaos that it was again impossible to re-fuel or re-arm and they were told to leave again immediately for Matuba, about 15 miles away. Jackson reports that:

We arrived just about dark, tired and hungry and in for a cold and sleepless night as most of our convoy had been sent on further to Tmimi. Some of us haven’t had a wash or a shave for three or four days and we’re filthy – you wouldn’t recognise us.

The next day was more of the same:

Up at dawn, cold, tired, dirty and fed up. We found a dog biscuit and about one third of a cup of crook tea each, breakfasted and flew off to Gazala – Tmimi has been washed out. A couple of lorries were smashed up last night – our transport drivers are just about done in. They have been driving all night and every night for days. We are all done in and dog tired – have reached the stage of being nearly too tired to sleep.

By 21 April, the squadron was back to where it had started – near Alexandria. At one stage they had operated from seven different aerodromes in six days. They had been involved in continuous fighting for six months, and with great success despite the many extraordinary difficulties – adding a further 34 confirmed enemy aircraft to their total while flying Hurricanes in addition to the 16 while flying Gladiators. ACM [Air Chief Marshal] Sir Arthur Longmore, the AOC-in-C ME [Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East], in his official despatch covering the period had this to say about 3 Squadron:

The work of No 3 Royal Australian Air Force, under the command of Squadron Leader I.D. McLachlan, DFC, was outstanding. They were continuously in the Western Desert or Cyenaica for six months, first with a mixture of Gladiators, Gauntlets, and Lysanders and later with Hurricanes. Their high morale and adaptability to desert conditions were remarkable.”

In May 1941, 3 Squadron moved to Palestine (near Tel Aviv) into pleasant surroundings that stood in stark contrast to the desert. They were to convert to Tomahawks, although while they waited for their new aircraft to arrive many squadron members were detached to Cyprus in borrowed Hurricanes to patrol the approaches to Syria and the Turkish coast, with the one and a half hour flight across the sea being none too popular. Nevertheless, the squadron enjoyed its well-earned rest from operations and commenced training on the new Tomahawks in early June. Surprisingly after such a smooth transition to both Gladiators and then Hurricanes, the squadron encountered more than a few difficulties with this new type. Even the new AOC, Air Marshal Tedder, wrote pessimistically to Air Ministry:

I am afraid that No 3 with their Tomahawks will not be ready for operations. The Australians are unexpectedly making very heavy weather over the Tomahawks, but I have applied a little ginger which, I hope, will have the necessary effect.

It did and they were ready for operations the next week, joining in the Syrian campaign when it began on 8 June 1940, supporting the 7th Division AIF against the Vichy French.

The aircraft problems encountered were not well explained but seemed to be part mechanical and part aircraft handling, and the CO was reported to be furious as it reflected badly on the squadron’s ability. Jackson commented three weeks into the campaign that “no more Tomahawks have been pranged lately – we have pranged nineteen and shot eighteen enemy aircraft down with them, so at the moment we are minus one.”

Nevertheless, the squadron enjoyed a most successful campaign, with attacks on enemy airfields (made less effective because no incendiary bullets were available), on troops, and transport and escort duties. The squadron tally was 24 enemy aircraft destroyed with no pilot losses when a truce was signed on 12 July 1941 – almost 12 months since the squadron sailed from Sydney: it had been a busy year!

It was about this time that Felix Sainsbury arrived at 3 Squadron, into a relatively benign operational environment – although that was soon to change, as we shall see.

One of his early comments related to “souveniring” which the powers that be occasionally called “looting”. As an aside, 3 Squadron had earned some nicknames – “phantom” (because of its ability to get out of tight corners) and “clifty” or “hydraulic” (would lift anything) for obvious reasons. Apparently General Dentz, the Vichy commander, landed to discuss truce terms and parked his aircraft in front of 3 Squadron:“[H]is first mistake”, observed Sainsbury. Much equipment mysteriously disappeared, including clocks, compasses, and wireless sets. “Some bloke even pinched the lavatory seat”, confirmed Jackson. The CO took the matter seriously, with penalty parades and leave stopped, but Jackson observed that “If HQ want the stuff preserved, it should provide adequate guards”. He went on to mention that he’d scrounged a few souvenirs himself, including a chute and a sperry panel. The matter had a considerable life as the MP’s were later reported to be searching every tailor shop in the area for silk from parachutes. Although it was a court martial offence with imprisonment, Jackson’s only comment was that “the whole squadron will be out of action for a few years doing time; I don’t know an officer who hasn’t got a piece of silk.” One might be excused for thinking that Jackson could well have been the ringleader in these activities, having earlier recorded that he had obtained a car in Benghazi from a bloke who had pinched it from outside HQ. He registered great disappointment when the true owner managed to identify it “even though I had it painted three different colours.”

The interlude in Palestine and Lebanon came to an end early in September 1941 when the squadron again moved back to the desert in preparation for the second Libyan campaign. Felix Sainsbury noted that the squadron overcame transport shortages by “scrounging” vehicles in the local villages, repainting them and applying the squadron markings. Having arrived with 28 trucks they managed to depart with “66 good trucks and a Lincoln Zephyr V8 top-of-the-line sedan for the CO, Peter Jeffrey”. This last vehicle went right across North Africa.

It was a five-day drive for the ground crews from Rayak to their new base at Sidi Haneish over difficult terrain; they lost two trucks to accidents on the way – the officers and airmen’s kitchens. The new location was one of the dustiest encountered and Sainsbury reported that after a dust storm the aircraft ailerons, flaps, and rudders were seized up with dust and had to be washed clean with 100 octane because water was too scarce. To give some idea of the water rationing imposed, Sainsbury recorded that he and his tent mates had a wash in an ammo tin, each putting in a bit of water from their water bottles and “tossed to see who went first. I lost so am last to go through the dirty water. A bit muddy but wet!”

Another perennial problem for all was the enemy bombers that seemed to be over most nights. While their intentions were to stay in bed and not let the bombers interrupt their sleep, when the bombs started falling “we all crashed in a heap getting out of the tent flap and into the good old slitty”. Sleep deprivation was just another ongoing problem. Conditions were primitive at best.

In recognition of this, the then-CO, Squadron Leader Peter Jeffrey, arranged for some tents to be erected on a nearby beach, far enough away not to be worried by the bombing, and supplied food and a cook. (The CO even donated some beer, which was lost in the surf while trying to cool it down). This innovation did absolute wonders for the troops’ morale.

Another of Peter Jeffrey’s radical ideas at this time was the merging of the officers and sergeants’ messes to ensure all flying personnel could be together as much as possible. This idea was initially resisted by RAF squadrons but was approved by the AOC, Air Vice Marshal “Mary” Cunningham, and soon spread throughout the desert Air Force.

Another significant organisational change, made in recognition of the requirement for rapid squadron mobility and based largely on the experience of the “old” desert squadrons like No 3, saw squadrons divided into three parties. Two were self-contained servicing parties that would leap frog, and a reserve party containing the squadron HQ, transport workshops, and stores. With the resupply route through Takoradi now firmly established this allowed allotted aircraft numbers to be increased to 18, with 7 in reserve with the HQ element. This organisation was absolutely essential during the months ahead.

November was a hectic month operationally, with another offensive begun on the 13th. While it is not my intention to address specific air activities, I feel I should make mention of 22 November. On that day the squadron not only reached its century in enemy aircraft destroyed but also suffered one of its blackest days: nine pilots – nearly half the squadron strength – failed to return. Although two returned the next day and two were confirmed as POWs, the loss of five was a severe blow.

In recognition of the squadron’s sterling achievements, it was selected to receive the command’s first Kittyhawks; by the end of December the changeover was complete.

For Sainsbury, a member of the advance party at that time, the year ended with little celebration and while the “ack ack” boys let go with a barrage on Christmas eve, he reported on Christmas day, “No chance of a hangover, haven’t seen any grog for weeks, so long I can’t remember. Nothing unusual happened today, wish I was home.” To emphasise the continuing problems with water, Sainsbury and his tent mates entertained the crew of a visiting aircraft on Boxing Day, “Used some of our valuable ration of water and made them some coffee (from a Christmas parcel), dog biscuits, and jam. Top of the menu stuff.”

They were also bombed again.

In late January 1942 Rommel advanced again.

After all the dust, on 16 January 1942 it started to rain and as if to celebrate, Sainsbury reported they received an issue of one bottle of hot beer, two chocolates and two packets of cigarettes – the first for months. The beer was put into a hole in the ground and 100 octane poured over – the evaporation cooling the bottle enough to make it drinkable. It continued to rain for the next four days, the worst rain for ten years. Sainsbury’s party was placed on two hours notice to move from their forward location at Antelat and the trucks were packed and ready but when it came time to move they became hopelessly bogged, particularly the armament trucks loaded with ammunition and bombs. Fortunately the “ack ack” parties had tracked vehicles, which managed to pull the squadron vehicles free. The armourers scattered bombs on the runway to slow up the approaching tanks and most of the aircraft managed to get away, although it was necessary to burn two.

After a difficult drive to Msus they stopped for a day to continue operations. Sainsbury records, “No tents, no slit trench – no time for those luxuries”. Sainsbury is one of a few asked to stay on to see the aircraft away while the rest of his flight continued the retreat. Once again they managed to get away as the German tanks approached the aerodrome, heading into the desert and not stopping for seventy miles or so. Then they realised they were lost. They managed to navigate back to Mechili, an aerodrome they had used during the advance, where they were fortunate to catch up with the rest of the flight but were immediately ordered on the move once more. This time they managed to get themselves into a minefield and then, by driving through the night without lights, somehow managed to find their next aerodrome at El Gazala. They found some caves and decided to sleep. Wrote Sainsbury, “I’m bloody tired and glad to stop for a while.” It was 25 January.

The squadron paused for a few days but by 2 February was on the move once again, this time to El Adem (near Tobruk) where they stopped for another few days, moving back again to Gambut on 7 February. While all this frantic movement took place the ground, crews were subject to the never ending problems of sand and enemy attention. As Sainsbury records, “We huddled in our slit trench all night…. It’s pretty terrible and our nerves are beginning to fray a bit…incessant bombing and most importantly, lack of sleep, plays havoc with your patience and nerves….” He speculated that Jerry stooged around all night just to interrupt sleep and affect work efficiency. Furthermore, Sainsbury wrote, “After practically no sleep we are out servicing our kites for most of the day.”

The second retreat halted the following week and the squadron continued operations until late March when a well earned break was granted. But in May 1942 there was yet another German offensive to bear.

Perhaps the following note from Sainsbury is typical of the ongoing struggle:

A hell of damn night last night. We were bombed and machine gunned for twelve hours. All night. No sleep. We are weary and tired as hell. Bombs screamed down everywhere. I spent the night in the slit trench with my tent mates. Up before dawn, rearming and bombing up kites ready for a dawn sortie of dive bombing. We take pride in how many times we can rearm and bomb up in a day’s ops.

Perhaps that last comment reflects the spirit which earned the squadron such esteem. However, I hasten to add that while these diaries and my narrative refer to one squadron, the same experiences were encountered by the many other Australian airmen serving in the fighter squadrons of the Desert Air Force, both RAAF and RAF.

By the end of June the squadron was once again back where they started: just outside Alexandria.

Of course the squadron was to continue right through to the end of the campaign in North Africa on 11 May 1943 and then on to Sicily and Italy – operational until the final German capitulation in Italy in early May 1945. It achieved an enviable record: about 200 confirmed enemy aircraft destroyed, including 16 on Gladiators, 34 on Hurricanes, 65 on Tomahawks, and about 75 on Kittyhawks. Approximately 1,000 Australian airmen served on the squadron; 84 lost their lives.

That it performed such Herculean tasks under such adverse conditions is, in my opinion, truly remarkable. The revelations contained in these two dairies add a new dimension to the squadron record – a record that seems to make a significant contribution to the “per ardua” part of the RAAF’s motto.

As a postscript, John Jackson arrived back in Australia in November 1941 after a year’s tour with 3 Squadron. With barely a month’s break, he found himself in New Guinea as CO of 75 Squadron. He was shot down and killed just three months later. The airfield at Port Moresby is now named after him.


Air Vice Marshal Peter Scully was raised in New South Wales and in 1952 entered the RAAF Academy at Point Cook, in Victoria, where he was awarded the Queen’s Medal and the Sword of Honour. A fighter pilot, he flew Vampires, Meteors, Sabres and Mirages in a long career, which included several postings to Malaya. He served as a flying instructor at the Central Flying School and commanded RAAF units in Thailand, Malaysia and Australia before moving on to senior air force and defence positions in Canberra and London. He retired as Assistant Chief of Defence Force in 1990.