17 December 1940

17 December 1940

Northern Front

The bombing continued in the morning over Port Sudan. The day started at 09:20 with a formation of three Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 at an altitude of 1 500 metres, whose bombs fell on the airfield. Three Hawker Hurricanes Mk I of No.1 (SAAF) Squadron and two Gloster Gladiators Mk II of K Flight take off against the Italian bombers. The second of the formation is damaged (right engine on fire) by Major Lawrence A. Wilmot (No. 285), but is able to escape into the clouds.[1]

A second formation of four aircraft of the same type is reported at about 10:50. Two Gloster Gladiators Mk II and two Hawker Hurricanes Mk I oppose it, but again without success. Two other formations are reported shortly after, but the bombs are dropped before reaching Port Sudan. In general, a very heavy cloud cover is reported, which strongly limited the action of the belligerents during these action.[2]

Southern Front

Following the temporary occupation of the Italian fort at El Wak and the gradual withdrawal of troops during the days of 17 and 18 December, fear is now likely to result in night bombings by Regia Aeronautica. This situation poses a certain problem as the Hawker Hurricane of No.2 (SAAF) Squadron are not allowed to take off (or land) at night so as not to risk the low number of aircraft. Curiously, the Hawker Fury, of the same unit, are not deployed on the spot. This order requires to postpone the takeoff of the Hurricane after daybreak.

Consequently, three Hartbees (Captain Murray-Gardner, Major James T. Durrant and Lieutenant Johan D.W. Human) of No. 40 (SAAF) Squadron took off at 04:30 to provide parol while awaiting the take-off of the fighters. They arrived, however, too late to prevent three Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 from bombing the fort. They are immediately followed by three Caproni Ca.133 of the 8a Squadriglia BT under the orders of Capitano Raoul Gamba. According to a South African soldier :

« There was no place to run. We put our Brens up. The company lay flat. It was our first experience of bombing, but there was no panic. To our incredulous delight we saw a flight of three Hartbees climbing to meet a Caproni. From the ground an Aldis lamp winked a message : Caproni north-east ».[3]

After dropping the bombs, Capitano Raoul Gamba orders his wingmen to return, while he performs a reconnaissance to assess the results of the bombing. His aircraft is, however, intercepted soon after by Captain Murray-Gardner, who opened fire from the rear. White smoke is soon seen escaping from Caproni Ca.133, possibly a fuel leak. Major James T. Durrant also participated in the attack, after dropping his bombs to lighten his Hartbees. At the same time, Lieutenant Johan D.W. Human is forced to break off the fight. The seriously damaged Caproni Ca.133 made a forced landing in the vicinity. Captain Murray-Gardner took the opportunity to drop his medical kit and cigarettes to the Italian crew. Capitano Raoul Gamba is injured in the right leg, as were two other crew members.

The Italians can, however, set fire to the wreckage, then flee to join their troops.[4] Raoul Gamba’s version differs slightly as he indicates that he is the victim of a Hawker Hurricane.[5] However, the ORB of No.2 (SAAF) Squadron clearly indicates the absence of its aircraft, whose takeoff is delayed by an hour until dawn.

Hartbees on patrol over Kenya’s border. Collection : SAAF Museum, via Tinus le Roux.

Two additional Hawker Hurricanes (Flight Lieutenant Robert S. Blake and Captain Alfred Q. Masson) join El Wak’s airfield. They are joined by Captain Frank J.M. Meaker and Second Lieutenant Adrian M. Colenbrander. The conditions are quite harsh and they have to spend the night, with only three liters of water available, and sleeping under their aircrafts.[5]

[1] SCHOEMAN, Michael. Springbok Fighter Victory : East Africa (1940 – 1941). Nelspruit : Freeworld. p.48 — 49.

[2] No.14 (RAF) Squadron, ORB. The National Archives (Kew). AIR 27 / 192 ; K Flight, ORB. The National Archives (Kew). AIR 29 / 858.

[3] BROWN, James Ambrose. Springboks in Somalia and Abyssinia. Ashanti Publishing, 1990. p. 92.

[4] BROWN, James Ambrose. A Gathering of Eagles : The campaigns of the South African Air Force in Italian East Africa (1940 – 1941). Purnell, 1970. p. 102 et 103.

[5] SHORES, Christopher ; RICCI, Corrado. Dust Clouds in the Middle East – The Air War for East Africa, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Madagascar, 1940 – 1942. London : Grub Street, 2010 (Reprinted). p. 85 et 86.

[6] No.2 (SAAF) Squadron, War Diary. The National Archives (Kew). AIR 54 / 2. SCHOEMAN, Michael. Springbok Fighter Victory : East Africa (1940 – 1941). Nelspruit : Freeworld. p.48 – 49.

One Response

  1. a gray says:

    Your posts are always fascinating.

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