The Malta Beauforts



After the 24 July mission, 217 Squadrons OC, SL W. A. L. Davis, RAF departed for home and SL R. P. M. Pat Gibbs, DFC+bar, RAF, as the senior officer became the acting OC of the combined Beaufort Squadron, 39 and 217. However, the OC of the newly arrived 86 Squadron, SL James Robert Hyde, DFC, RAF, being of equal rank, claimed his right to lead alternating strikes. As such, when a new convoy of one merchant ship and two escorts was sighted off Cephalonia by a PR Spitfire of 69 Squadron, the mission was his.

While it was believed that that this was the same ship attacked three days earlier, in fact this was a new convoy bound for Tobruk from Taranto consisting of the new 16-knot motor ship Vettor Pisani (6,339 BRT), escorted by the torpedo boats Orsa and Calliope. Hydes striking force was limited to six Beauforts in two sections, Hydes three from 86 Squadron, and three from 217 under FL Stevens. Gibbs was extremely apprehensive about Hyde leading the strike as this would be his first strike in the Mediterranean, all his experience having been in gained on night operations in the UK.

The striking force departed at first light, escorted by eight Beaufighters of 235 Squadron, and sighted the target at 0930. Hyde, unfamiliar with the standard tactics developed the Mediterranean, attacking in loose formations at virtually wave top height, adopted an extremely tight formation at an altitude of 300 feet. This formation, coupled with the dark UK paint schemes his aircraft still retained, silhouetted the lead vic, something the Italian flak gunners were quick to capitalize on. While the Beauforts were still a considerable way out, a direct hit shattered Hydes AW355:G, fragments of which sliced through his number two, PO D. L. Furphys AW 308:H. Seconds later, FS L. C. Thompsons AW356:Z was fatally hit, erasing the entire lead vic long before they reached dropping distance. Meanwhile, having brought his loose vic down to the customary 25 height, FL Stevens led his 217 section in a devastatingly accurate attack, hitting Pisani twice, then escaping back whence they came. Covered throughout by the Beaufighters, from much higher up, they noted that the entire flak barrage was thrown up in front of the torpedo bombers while they orbited above, totally ignored. This fact, coupled with the loss of Hydes entire vic (although eight up the 12 aircrew had been rescued by the Italians) would cause have a considerable bearing on future strikes.



28 July 1942: The Malta Beauforts

The disastrous mission of the 21st had seen, for the second time, the Italian flak gunners blown an entire vic of Beauforts out of the sky on their attack runs. With 86 Squadrons OC, SL Jimmy Hyde gone, all of the Beauforts of all three Squadrons on Malta (39, 86 and 217) were consolidated under the newly promoted WC Pat Gibbs, commander of 39 Squadron. It

was now apparent to all concerned that the Italians had become too adept at defending against the Beauforts, particularly during the final run in to the target when they were forced to bore in straight and level. In fact, the Italians had become so familiar with the British methods that the flak gunners totally ignored the escorting Beaufighters, instead

concentrating every barrel on the torpedo planes. Clearly, a revamping of tactics was in order. Gibbs was up to the task.

First, Gibbs proposed that their next effort include a section of Beauforts armed with bombs in lieu of torpedoes. The bombers would climb for altitude after sighting the target, then dive in ahead of the torpedo bombers and make a high speed glide bombing attack, hopefully diverting the flak gunners during the torpedo bombers final run in. But that was not

all. Working with his counterpart in 235 Squadron (Beaufighter), WC Ross Shore, RAF, they formulated the concept of a Strike Wing. On prior operations, the heavily armed Beaufighters role had been restricted to that of a fighter. No longer. Gibbs proposed, and Ross agreed, that some of the Beaufighters adopt the role of flak-busters, diving in ahead of

the Beauforts to strafe the intervening escort vessels with their devastating 20mm cannon. Thus agreed, there only remained a convoy on which to try out the new tactics.

At 1515 on 27 July, the new Italian motorship Monviso (5,322 BRT), heavily laden with fuel, supplies, and equipment for Rommels PanzerArmee, escorted by the DD Freccia and TB Calliope, departed Brindisi intent on making for Bengasi. Discovered off Sapienza shortly after dawn by a PR Spitfire from 69 Squadron and, at 0910 Gibbs led off a full strike: nine

Beauforts from all three squadrons (six armed with torpedoes, three with four 250 pound bombs each) and six Beaufighters, two to operate as high cover, four to act as flak busters, and a 69 Squadron Baltimore to take photos of the results.

The enemy came into few just before 1200. At Gibbs signal, Shores four flak busters, operating in pairs, dove in and hammered the two escorts. Diving in behind them, and just ahead of the two sections of torpedo planes, was 86 Squadrons bombing section, led by FL Donald Charles "Hank" Sharman, RAF. Last of all came the two torpedo sections, led by Gibbs

and FL A. T. Tony Leaning, RAF. The results were excellent. The strafing Beaufighters virtually silenced the two escorts flak batteries; one torpedo hit and several near misses by the bombs stopped Monviso and left her afire. Though the fire was extinguished and the escorts managed to tow her into Navarino, her cargo would never see Afrika. After making

emergency repairs, she would be sunk by the Royal Navy submarine HMS Thorn on 3 August shortly after putting to sea.

While the attack had been a spectacular success, the Beauforts did not get off scot free. PO R. J. Dawsons AW296 was shot into the sea after the drop (three of the crew were rescued by Calliope) while Gibbs number two, South African Lt. Edward T. Strever was forced to put L9820 in the water nearby, his entire crew being picked up by the convoys air escort,

a Cant Z-506B.

What followed is the stuff of legend. Brought initially to Corfu by the Cant for the night, they re-boarded the Italian aircraft the next day bound for Italy and captivity. Unwilling to accept their fate even though one of the Italian aircrew was covering them with a pistol, the British foursome (Lt. Strever, SAAF (P), PO William Martin Dunsmore, RAFVR (N),

Sgt. John Aston Wilkinson, RNZAF (WO), Sgt. Alexander Raymond Brown, RNZAF (G), endeavored to take the aircraft "by storm". About 45 minutes out Strever gave a pre-arranged signal, Wilkinson pointed out the window shouted Spitfire, terrifying the Italian crew and, in the resulting confusion, the Brits seized control of the aircraft! Thereafter, using the

Italian charts Strever flew their new aircraft to Malta, where they eventually made a safe landing off shore and were towed into port and a heros welcome by an air-sea rescue launch , though not before receiving a thorough hosing by a Spitfire patrol sent up to bring the crazy wop down! With no operation on, most of the Beaufort crews spent the day at

play. Returning for supper, they were all more than a little bit taken aback on finding four living ghosts waiting for them outside the squadron mess!