James Francis Edwards was born in Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1921. His youth in the depression-era prairies was fairly typical of the time. He grew up with sports, primarily softball in summer and hockey in winter, hunting, trapping and work. When he was nine he started his first job delivering milk in the early mornings with his brother Bernie. In winter they jogged alongside the milkwagon to keep warm. The dairyman paid them in milk, for money was in short supply. At home he did chores, primarily a lot of wood chopping to keep the stove going and the house warm. It took a lot of wood to heat a house in the Saskatchewan winter when temperatures could easily hit -40 C for weeks at a time. On the weekends he checked a trapline he ran along the Battle River for muskrat, beaver, fox and especially ermine.
He starting plinking at birds and gophers with a .22 in the fields when he was nine. Before that he made due with slingshots and home-made bows and arrows. By the time he was twelve he and Bernie were using the family 12-gauge pump shotgun for hunting Hungarian partridge, prairie chickens, ducks and geese. By the time he was eighteen he was known around Battleford as a good shot. As with many other aerial aces, this form of hunting was probably crucial to understanding how to lead a bird, or an aircraft, so that he could hit a rapidly moving target.
In the summers, he and his brother worked on a dairy farm. The cows were milked twice daily, once at 4:30 AM and again in the evening. By 7 AM they were in for breakfast then a full day of mowing or raking hay. By 4:30 PM they were milking again, then it was in for supper. Following this was a milk-run for local customers. The hard work ensured that they slept well at night.
By High School Jim was an excellent hockey player. His love for the game nearly got him a try-out for the Chicago Black Hawks, but the war interfered with those dreams. In 1939, he and his friends spent hours discussing the early war activities and all agreed that the RCAF was where they wanted to be, despite never having been close to an airplane. All of them became fighter pilots. Of his two friends one completed two tours on Spitfires and ended the war as a Squadron Commander, the other was lost in the sea off Sicily.
In 1940, he graduated from grade 12 and hitch-hiked the 100 miles to Saskatoon to the RCAF recruiting station. He passed the physical easily and broke the time record for holding his breath. After the tests and forms he was sent home to wait for his call-up notice. That summer he worked on a friend's farm in northern Alberta, returning to the Battleford area in time to drive a team of horses during harvest. Finally, he got his call-up notice, a rail warrant and meal tickets and was instructed to proceed to Manning Depot, Brandon, Manitoba.
By October he was in the RCAF as a Leading Aircraftsman. The first weeks were spent at Manning Depot with orientation, indoctrination, etc.... Then he was off for six weeks of guard duty at the MacDonald Bombing and Gunnery School. Eventually he starting training to be a pilot at Initial Flight Training School in Regina, Saskatchewan. He graduated to No. 16 Elementary Flying Training School in Edmonton, Alberta where he started flying on the venerable de Havilland Tiger Moth. His first flight must have been a chilly one on January 30, 1941. His instructor drilled into him that a stall meant loss of control and that was bad. They showed him how to maintain speed and control the aircraft in tight turns, and in landing, two of the most critical times when stalls will occur. He logged 83 hours on Tiger Moths and graduated to Service Flying Training School (SFTS). In April, 1941 they got to No. 11 SFTS at Yorkton, Sask. to start training on North American Harvards. SFTS introduced the men to the more complex topics of flying, particularly navigation, gunnery, and formation flight. By June 20 he had another 102 hours in the air, with 17 at night. Because everything at Yorkton was new, including the instructors and the curriculum, they got more flying time than would occur later in the war. He graduated as a Sergeant Pilot in the RCAF and was posted to overseas duty, departing for Scotland from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The troop train took five days and nights to reach Halifax, with only a few unscheduled stops along the way. The billet in Halifax was a stone warehouse along the docks. Halifax was a totally new experience, the ocean, the buildings, the rank smell of fish on the wharves. By the middle of July their convoy had formed up and they were embarked on the troop ship Ausonia. Several squadrons of Canadian pilots and Australian groundcrew who had completed their training in Canada were embarked together. It was a fast, armed merchant cruiser that was excellent for ferrying troops. They stuck with the convoy for three days then split off for a fast run to Iceland. There they spent ten days waiting for another ship to get them to Scotland. They tried to teach the Aussies softball but it usually resulted in confusion and hot tempers as the Aussies thought they were just making up the rules as they went. Eventually an old steamer, the Leopoldville from the Belgian Congo, took them to Greenoch, Scotland. There they boarded a train for Leamington, England and a Pilots Pool Depot. At Leamington they waited for their assignments to an Operational Training Unit (OTU) in either Fighter, Bomber or Coastal Command. He was posted to No. 55 OTU at Usworth, Durham. He would fly Hawker Hurricanes for Fighter Command.
OTUs were the last training stop for pilots prior to operational flying. With Fighter Command they were introduced to fighter aircraft, albeit obsolete and clapped-out Hurricane Is, but they were a far cry from Harvards. These aircraft had survived the Battle of Britain, so they were well worn by time they were shipped to an OTU. On October 1st, 1941 he was on his fifth flight of the day in a Hurricane when he made his first serious error. The engines of their Hurricanes had been cutting out on take-off. The mechanics and instructors figured out that if they used the 35-gallon reserve tank on take-off, rather than the main tank, the aircraft could get airborne. Once up the instructor would call out "switch over to main tank". Jim didn't hear the order as he was concentrating on flying formation with his leader in a dark cloud bank. Suddenly his engine cut out and he started down. Keeping his head he radioed his predicament to base and came down slowly through the cloud. He had only 500 feet of air left before he hit the ground so he side-slipped the Hurricane towards a farmer's small field. He cleared the stone fence and slid to a halt within 75 yards. This was good as the field was only about 100 yards across. The Hurricane suffered less damage than did Jim's pride. The CO made sure he understood what had caused the failure and that it was all good experience and hoped that he learned from it. He was back in the air the next day. Jim completed the course on October 20 with 40 hours on the Hurricane I. There was no training provided on actual combat drill, and it likely wouldn't have helped much, as the RAF flight drill was also outdated. But there was also no mention of what to do when your flight was bounced by Messerschmitts, how to counter the enemy's moves in the air or how to get into a good firing position. All crucial points for a successful fighter pilot.
He was shipped out in a convoy for the middle east. To get there they took route down the west coast of Africa due to the likelihood of being spotted by U-boats or aircraft and sunk in the Mediterranean. Their destination was Freetown, Sierre Leone and then by aircraft to a dirty little town on the coast of Ghana called Takoradi. There existed an RAF Ferry Unit base where the pilots were familiarized with the Hurricane IIb fitted with long range tanks. Their mission was to ferry the Hurricanes, and themselves, to Cairo via a string of small bases across the heart of Africa and up the Nile River. If an engine failed or a pilot became lost, his death was almost a certainty in the thick jungle of central Africa or the blistering heat and sand of the Sahel. Little help was available. His first day took him to Accra and Lagos, Nigeria. Next stop was the town of Kaduna in the uplands of northern Nigeria, then to Maiduguri near the border of Chad. There his Hurricane was declared unfit for further duty, which must have made him feel good about making it that far. He returned to Takoradi on a commercial DC-3. His second trip across Africa was as a second pilot in a Bristol Blenheim IV, despite not being checked-out on twin engine aircraft. This trip went better with stops at Kano, Nigeria; El Geneina, El Facher and Waidi Sadena, Sudan; Wadi Halfa on the Egyptian border and Luxor, Egypt. In Cairo he again entered a pilot pool waiting for assignment. Here he met up with his comrades from the ship, it had taken them all two weeks to get to Cairo.
|The middle east air war was not as glamorous as battling with the Luftwaffe over France, but it was equally dangerous, and more brutal. No pilots trooped off to the local pub to lift a pint, and their spirits, after a day in battle in the middle east. All they had were meager rations of water, and bulley beef, and all of the sand they could eat. Scorching hot by day, nearly freezing at night, the north African desert was unforgiving, featureless and omnipresent. At least their Landing Grounds (LGs) were usually built back from the coast to avoid the hordes of flies that infested the inhabitable areas.|
|A major hindrance to flying, and living in general, in the western desert were the frequent sand storms. They were vicious in their intensity and power, they flipped aircraft, scoured the Perspex wind screens, and filled any open orifice on the aircraft and the men with fine grit. They made flying impossible for days at a time. Engines had to be covered at night, special sand filters were used and still, the average life span of an aircraft engine was only 40 hours before the sand wore it out. Ground crews spent countless hours rebuilding aircraft engines under primitive conditions.|
Cairo was the main detachment centre for the western desert forces, and for the RAF forces in Burma and India. It took Jim two weeks of waiting for an assignment. Eventually, he was posted to 94 Squadron flying Hurricanes from an anonymous spot in the desert called Antelat. He and a bunch of replacement pilots were unceremoniously loaded into an ancient Bristol Bombay transport plane and flown to a dusty LG near Tmimi on the coast to find out where 94 Sqdn. was located. Then it was on into the desert at only 50 feet altitude to avoid enemy fighters. They landed at Antelat in the middle of a raid, with AA guns barking at a pair of Junkers Ju-88 light bombers. They loosed their bombs over the airfield and left with no real effect. No Hurricanes raced off to intercept the bombers as they were all mired in mud. As well, the pilots were a sorry, demoralized lot as 94 Sqdn. had lost some men and many aircraft in the past few days. There were only four Hurricanes left. Everything appeared to be in a shambles. There was little in the way of equipment, food or resources.
|Their losses came at one of the periodic climaxes of the desert war. During Britain's "Crusader Offensive" of Nov. 1941, the 8th Army relieved the siege of Tobruk and forced Lt. General Erwin Rommel's troops across Cyrenaica to El Agheila. Rommel's men fought back stubbornly and gave ground up slowly. Eventually, British supplies were severely hampered by the increased bombing of Malta, attacks on the port of Alexandria and the presence of U-boats in the Mediterranean. Conversely, this meant that the Axis improved their supply position. With increased supplies the German and Italian forces rebounded in January, 1942. The RAF's Desert Airforce (DAF) fighters were mauled, losing 13 in several days. In attempts to bomb the retreating British forces German and Italian Ju-87 Stukas and Macchi MC-200s were, in turn, badly shot up by DAF Hurricanes and Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks. The 8th Army retreated to a chain of primitive, dug-out fortifications for tanks, artillery and infantry known as the Gazala Line and waited.|
|Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel||The Luftwaffe commander in the Mediterranean, Feldmarshal Albert Kesselring thought that the ground advance should be halted so that Malta could be subdued and so ensure the supply routes across the Mediterranean. Then North Africa could be taken. Malta's position south of Sicily made it an excellent location for Allied forces to launch planes against German and Italian convoys heading to Tripoli. Without Malta the entire English presence in the Mediterranean was seriously threatened. It was a sound strategy, except that it didn't include Erwin Rommel.|
Without orders and with few supplies Rommel had his men probe the British positions in front of him and found that they were lightly held and gave way immediately. In a gamble he swung some armour across the desert to Mechili while the bulk of his forces took Benghazi completely by surprise. The British forces fell back in confusion. February and March saw Rommel's forces advance to Tmimi and take up positions west of Gazala. But his troops were too weak to start an assault on the British so he began building supplies for another advance. All of this activity merely distracted Hitler's attention away from Malta, the key to the Mediterranean. Eventually Rommel's successes and his ability to convince Hitler that his was the right course, diverted enough men and materiel away from "Operation Herkules" that Malta was never taken by the Germans. Rommel was an excellent tactician, but a poor strategician. He didn't, and wouldn't, understand Kesselring's superior plan.
The English rail line from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh had been pushed forward to Tobruk and supplies were being brought forward by road and rail. Tobruk was a key port on the Cyrenaican coast and had to be held against Rommel in order to resupply and rebuild the 8th Army. It would also enable the RAF to retake the airfields in order to intercept German and Italian convoys to Benghazi. This was the situation when Jim "Eddie" Edwards joined the Desert Air Force. The English tradition is to make a nickname from a person's last name, hence Edwards became Eddie.
|Eddie and the rest of the Squadron pulled up stakes and moved east to Mechili and then to a bare patch of desert called LG 110. Here they received new American-made Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk I fighter-bombers for their Hurricanes and got a new Squadron Leader, S/L Ernest "Imshi" Mason.|
|He had 17 victories over the Italians during the Libyan Campaign with 80 and 274 Squadrons. He also had experience over Malta, was shot down and wounded, and spent time in Palestine and Iraq before moving to north Africa. A month later he was posted as S/L to 94 Sqdn. By the middle of February S/L Mason and some experienced pilots flew to another LG to begin ops with the Kittyhawks while Eddie and the rest continued training. The day after, Mason led 18 aircraft of 94 and 112 Sqdns to bomb the German airbase at Martuba.|
Their raid was not a total surprise and a single Messerschmitt 109 got off the ground piloted by Oberfeldwebel Otto Schultz. He succeeded in shooting down five Kittyhawks, including Mason's, killing him. 94 Sqdn. was pulled from the front lines and ordered to regroup for training. Their new S/L was Ian MacDougall a survivor of the Battle for France and the Battle of Britain. He immediately undertook a serious training program on desert fighter tactics. For the next three weeks he briefed the pilots on what operations were all about. In the air they practiced air firing, flight and battle formations, and finally the basics of dog-fighting with other aircraft. By the end of March they were declared operational and sent back into the front line joining their companion, 260 Sqdn.
Both the Axis and Allied air forces were tasked with interrupting the other army's supply lines and with protecting theirs. Any major disruption could have an important impact on the armored columns that meant victory or defeat in the desert. The DAF operated Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks for interceptors and ground attack, while Hurricanes and P-40 Tomahawks were used mostly for ground attack, although they were all used for interceptors on occasion. Facing them were the Luftwaffe flying Messerschmitt Me-109Fs and the Regia Aeronautica in Macchi MC-200s, and MC-202s as interceptors. They also used Me-110s for transport escorts. Unfortunately, for Jim and the rest of the DAF the Kittyhawk was no match for the Me-109F, let alone the Tomahawks or Hurricanes.
The Allies had several squadrons of Douglas A-20 "Boston" and Martin "Baltimore" light bombers that they used as their principal offensive air weapons. Most missions that the Kittyhawks flew were to provide cover for the bombers that were attacking ground forces, aircraft or installations.
The Axis used Me-109Fs, Me-110s, Ju-87 "Stukas", Italian Macchi 200s and obsolete Caproni CR-42 biplanes in the ground attack role. Under good aerial protection the Stukas were excellent dive bombers, but if there was any significant opposition they lost heavily. The Axis had no bombers as good as what the Allies could field. The best they had was the Heinkel He-111 but they had too few and they were easy targets for fighters. They also used Ju-88s, and Italian BR20s but both of these aircraft lost heavily if there were Allied fighters to oppose them.
94 Squadron's first day of full operations was a standing patrol over the Gazala-Tobruk lines. They were bounced by Me-109s and lost a pilot. Two days later they escorted South African Airforce (SAAF) bombers to Martuba, the nearest Axis air base, in the hopes of tying down their aircraft so that an Allied convoy could get past them.
|Martuba was a complex of airbases that was home to several Italian Gruppos of Macchi 202s and the fearsome German Jagdgeschwader-27 "Wustengeschwader" (Desert Wing). A Geschwader was roughly equivalent to a British Wing and was composed of three Gruppen, rough equivalents of Squadrons, in all about 90 aircraft.|
|The great German ace Leutnant Hans-Joachim Marseille (on right), at that time an "experten" with 52 confirmed victories, was among them, and would eventually account for many of their losses. Other major aces in JG-27 were Obfw Otto Schultz with 46 victories and Oberleutnant Gustav Rodel (on left) with 32 victories.|
In severe contrast to the normal scenery, was the desert floor. Seen from above, it offered no evidence of habitation or life. There were shades of sand, brown and darker spots or lines were intermixed and, to the novice, it was described as the "bundoo". There was nothing of note for miles in the vastness below. Some pilots had more trouble than others finding their way around; novices could be right over an airfield and not recognise anything at first glance. Then, the sun would glitter off an aircraft perspex or something else on the ground, and the entire camp would come into focus. It would become obvious an airstrip lay in the centre.Then there was the blinding sunlight of the desert.
"Sometimes annoying, sometimes a hindrance, it was helpful when attacking or navigating. The desert was the sun. It was common practice to go down on the deck sixty to eighty miles from home base and, with the aid of a compass or directional gyro aligned with the position of the sun, set course and arrive over our field. The sun was an important factor in all navigation and operational flying in the desert."
He eventually found the base by following his excellent sense of location and timing. The raid turned out to be a fairly successful one as experience would show. Unfortunately, the bombers made the mistake of flying at 6,000 feet, the perfect altitude for light Flak, and they lost three, as well as a Kittyhawk pilot for two Me-109s destroyed and one damaged. They came off lucky. The Wing Commander nicknamed Jim "the Hawk of Martuba" for his shooting that day. It was to be prophetic.
Operations were constant, roughly every second day 94 and 260 Sqdns escorted bombers of the SAAF. They frequently lost pilots and every trip saw more damage on the Kittyhawks from fighters and Flak. The Me-109s were in constant flight over Martuba and had the upper hand by flying higher than the Kittyhawks. They would dive on the Allied bombers and fighters and zoom up to regain altitude, position themselves and dive again. Generally, they contented themselves with shooting down the escort fighters, rarely penetrating the layers of Kittyhawks to get at the bombers. Operations became a continuous series of fast passes, and quick shots. For several days Allied fighters and bombers kept the Martuba base hopping to distract German aerial attention away from an Allied convoy heading from Alexandria to Malta. It would be one of the last successful convoys to Malta for some time. The Allies also kept standing patrols over the strategically important area outside of Tobruk called El Adem. It would later become a hotly contested piece of desert by the armored columns of both sides.
Edwards and his leader had another close brush with the Germans of JG-27 when they were bounced on an escort mission. His leader turned them into the attack just right so they both fired at an approaching Messerschmitt. It exploded in a ball of flame and fell to the desert. Eddie didn't claim a partial as he was sure his leader had hit it. He found that close escort on bombers was more frustrating than flying in the upper or middle layers of the protective escort fighters. He champed on the bit when their Kittyhawks in the top-cover were dog-fighting with Germans and all he could do was fly his position and watch the action. "It might have been a little safer from the 109's than flying top cover, but it gave me the jitters. I felt helpless because I couldn't do anything. But, that's what the air force calls discipline, or formation discipline - doing what you are told to do and not what you would like to do."
"I never thought much of being anywhere else. In fact, I was having the time of my life. Little things didn't matter; only the important things counted. Uniforms and parades were unheard of and not necessary. Only rank insignias were worn with any regularity. There was no such thing as a social function or party or special gathering that might pro rate anyone's rank or position."
When he wasn't on flight duty he practiced "shadow firing". He flew south of the base for several miles and found an unused area. At low level he flew parallel to the sun so that the plane's shadow was on his wing tip. When he turned towards the shadow it moved forward. He would then lay off some deflection and fire. If he used the correct deflection his bullets would hit the shadow on the desert floor. This also developed his ability to fly low and fast and not become mesmerized by the ground. He also had to concentrate on firing and to always keep a lookout for enemy aircraft. The WC also took them up to practice the finger four formation with two lead aircraft being followed by two wingmen. This was learned from the basic German formation called a Schwarm, and is still in use by fighter pilots.
Despite training courses their losses continued to be heavy, although not much heavier than other Kittyhawk/Tomahawk squadrons. On May 9, 94 Squadron received a shock. They were posted to the Nile Delta, the backwater of the war. They handed over their Kittyhawks and were ordered out of the western desert, except for Edwards and six others who showed some promise. They were ordered to cross the airfield and join 260 Squadron. It didn't seem to be any better than 94 Sqdn. as their operations were one shambles after another.
"260 still flew the stupid Hurricane formation with six aircraft in a flight. There were three section leaders and three weavers flying behind. Everyone looked after their own tails and no one coordinated anything when the 109's showed up. It seemed that everyone was for himself and the weavers had a hell of a time trying to keep up with their leader while weaving and watching behind. As a defensive formation, it was a confused glob of aircraft that could be turned into a confused shambles by a small number of 109's attacking from above, out of the sun. No wonder the 109's shot down so many! With their superior speed and height, the Messerschmitts had the superior initiative to engage or disengage at will."
|He had the distinct impression that the Kittyhawks were there just to divert the German's attention from the bombers. When the 109s attacked it became every man for himself. In order to combat the 109s they had to turn in to the attacker, but to do so was to isolate oneself from the Squadron. No one came to your aid. But in 260 Sqdn. no one ever discussed tactics to more effectively combat the Germans. It drove him to distraction, he could see that they needed tactics and practice, but as a Flight Sergeant he was too low down the pecking order in the Squadron to be able to do anything about it.|
From February to mid-May, 1942 a lull existed in the western desert as both sides renewed their strength, received more tanks and men and built up stores for a renewed offensive in June. The Desert Air Force consisted of only 320 aircraft, with only some 200 operating in the Tobruk and front-line areas. Facing them were just over 700 Axis aircraft, 500 of which were in the operational area, with a slight preponderance of Italians over Germans. Rommel was planning a knock-out blow to General Ritchie's 8th Army. Ritchie on the other hand was planning his static box formations around Tobruk as a base for further operations.
"Eddie" had joined 260 Squadron just as Rommel was kicking off his last major offensive of the desert war. 260 Squadron were posted to Gasr El Arid, south of Gambut, about 20 miles from Tobruk and 30 from the front. On the evening of May 25 a large German air raid on Gasr El Arid intending to knock out as many of the RAF planes as possible, started Rommel's "Operation Theseus". The next day saw a series of large duels in the air with the Luftwaffe generally coming out ahead. Rommel's troops moved forward the night of May 26 in long columns. The Italians attacked Ritchie's troops around the coastal road as a diversion while Rommel and much of the German armour headed south in an end-run of the English positions. The German Panzers hit them hard from the flank at Bir Hacheim and got behind their west-facing formations. The Desert Air Force was tasked with intercepting and destroying as many armoured vehicles as possible. This left the Kittyhawks open to attacks from the Axis fighters and they paid heavily in downed aircraft. Eddie didn't see action until May 29 when Rommel had halted his troop's initial foray and regrouped them in an area to be called the "cauldron". 260 Sqdn. escorted Boston bombers on a raid to the area. He took up number two position in the flight behind the bombers. The first group of armour they came upon didn't return the machine gun fire from the bombers so they assumed they were Allies (it was difficult to tell one column from another from the air). Another four miles on a concentrated column of vehicles started shooting at them so the South African bombers let them have it. Eddie could see the bombs exploding in and around the column with pretty good effect. The bombers put their noses down for speed, with the Kittyhawks following them closely. As usual 109s and Macchi 202s attacked from above. Eddie banked right and put some bullets into the nearest 109 with little obvious effect. The entire Squadron did little better, with two pilots killed, one was the WingCo, for only two damaged Axis aircraft.
Air raids were continuous night and day on the airfields. The ground crew and off-duty pilots had everything loaded into the Squadron trucks, ready to evacuate at a moments notice should the Africakorps break through the 8th Army stronghold of Gazala. The Luftwaffe was trying hard to snuff them out.
|Now they were to meet a new Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader-53 the "Pik-As" (Aces of Spades), lead by Staffelkapitane Franz Gotz, with 33 victories. They were a highly experienced and dangerous Gruppe with many "experten" with more experience than all of 260 Squadron put together.|
A new, and deadly, problem cropped up for the Kittyhawk pilots. Under the high-g forces of dog-fighting and severe dust conditions their six .50 caliber guns would often develop stoppages. They would get in a few bursts and then nothing. In the middle of a dog-fight they would be left without guns. No doubt, many Kittyhawks and pilots were lost because of this problem. The problem never was completely fixed on Kittyhawks, the guns were always unreliable in the desert.
On June 1 the 150th Brigade holding out in a key position on Rommel's left flank was attacked. General Ritchie's strategy of static boxes was faulty as they were too far apart and could not provide each other with interlocking fire. Also Ritchie committed his armour piecemeal, whereas Rommel learned to commit armour en masse with anti-tank guns supporting them with devastating effect. Early in the day Stuka dive-bombers took to the air to inflict their own brand of havoc, with devastatingly accurate bombing. The Desert Air Force could do nothing, they were grounded with heavy sand storms around their bases inland, while the Stukas had clear sky on the coast. Once the sky cleared enough to take off 1500 sorties were flown, with equally disastrous results for the Stukas and the Kittyhawks. But 150th Brigade and 50 of the DAFs 250 operational aircraft were lost. Low level attacks were called off as being too hazardous. On June 2nd the DAF renewed their heavy attacks on the German armour around Bir Hacheim and put a key player, General Westphal out of action with shrapnel wounds. This fortified patch of desert was a crucial part of the Battle of the Gazala Line, for General Pierre Koenig and his Free French Garrison now held the British left flank. The continuous aerial battles over Bir Hacheim prompted the French to send the message "Bravo, merci a la RAF". The RAF radioed back "Bravos a vous. Merci pour le sport". But it wasn't sport. They were steadily losing aircraft and men, and had not broken the Italian forces surrounding the Free French.
On June 6th the SAAF Squadrons and 260 Squadron had to move back to Bir El Baheira in Egypt to avoid being overrun by Axis armour. June 8, Rommel turned all of his attention to the destruction of the Bir Hacheim box. Ritchie hesitated, confering with his subordinates about the best choice of action and did not commit his armour en masse as was required by the situation. Both air forces redoubled their efforts, turning the skies over the area into a continuous battle zone, as the Luftwaffe bombed the French and the DAF tried to fight them off and bomb the artillery and tanks surrounding them. The Allied pilots flew 500 sorties that day but waves of Stukas continually hammered General Koenig's forces.
|That day Eddie got his next confirmed victory. They were sent out on a sweep to destroy any Axis aircraft they encountered. Thirty-six P40s joined up and headed over Bir Hacheim. As they expected the 109s and 202s attacked from above pulling up sharply to avoid the Allied aircraft and to regain their height advantage. The Allies concentrated on defending each other and were not such easy targets as previous. Eddie was flying in the top cover when they were attacked from high and behind. His leader waited until the Germans were committed in a dive when he called a turn-about into their attack. The lead 109 pulled out but his wingman missed the move and continued his dive right into Eddie's sights. A long burst hit his spinner and propeller from almost head-on. The German aircraft fell to the ground in long, trailing clouds of black smoke. It hit a mine on crashing and blew to pieces.|
By June 10th the French could take no more and slipped away at night. Rommel's armour continued to advance. The DAF flew 600 sorties on the 11th, but could not slow them appreciably. Eddie flew escort for Bostons that made six separate attacks near El Adem and were quite successful, but the Kittyhawks had a bad day. They resorted to frantic turning and firing with no coordinated defences and no real effect on the Luftwaffe. The next day was the climax of this phase of the battle. Axis aircraft sortied in a group of over 100 with Ju-87 and Ju-88 bombers escorted by Me-109s and MC-202s. They met the Allies over El Adem. Eddie's Squadron, returning from an escort mission ran into the melee and lost two Kittyhawks and a pilot. The DAF lost 11 aircraft that day and the 8th Army no less than 138 tanks of a increasingly small force. Rommel's Panzerarmee took El Adem on the 13th. General Ritchie, in command of the British 8th Army ordered the retreat from the Gazala Line to Tobruk. Rommel out-foxed him with Ritchie's inadvertant assistance.
June 14th saw the DAF back to bombing German airfields and trying to provide escort for a badly needed convoy bound for Malta called Operation Vigorous. It had just entered "bomb alley" between Crete and the African coast and was being mauled by Stukas and Ju-88s. 260 Squadron was providing escort for SAAF Bostons raiding the German airfields. On their return they ran into a gaggle of Me-109s escorting Ju-88s back from their convoy raid. Immediately the escorting aircraft of both sides turned towards each other and a large series of dogfights broke out. Five aircraft flashed by Eddie, a 109 closely followed by a Kittyhawk, followed by a 109, another Kittyhawk and another 109, all of them were firing at the plane in front of them. Edwards and his section approached part of the battle zone and he could see 109s diving, attacking Kittyhawks and pulling up. It became apparent that two 109s that had dived would pull up right in front of his aircraft. The first 109 stalled in the top of a wing-over about 150 yds. in front of him. He squeezed the firing button and the 109 disintegrated. The second 109 stalled immediately after his leader and Eddie gave him a long burst from his six "50s". He hit the engine and tail section and briefly saw it fall out of control after the remains of the leader. Back on the ground he was credited with a probable and a damaged. The convoy was badly damaged with two freighters sunk that day. On the positive side the Allied forces in the Gazala area, with several thousand badly needed vehicles, got out by carefully driving down the narrow escarpment passes with few air attacks on them.
|The next day saw a new role for Edwards and the rest of the 260 Squadron fighter-bombers. They received modified Kittyhawks that could carry 500 lb bombs under their bellies. They were tasked with double-duty providing cover for Boston bombers attacking German armour and dive-bombing armour with their own bombs. Up to now they had been restricted to level bombing with 250 lb bombs. The remnants of the 8th Army were still retreating from the Gazala Line.|
Eddie's log for June 15 read:
"First show, 260 squadron carry a 500-pound bomb slung on bomb racks between the undercarriage, provided close cover to Bostons bombing Panzer division east of Acroma. No enemy aircraft were encountered on this mission."
After seeing the bombers safely on their way home, 260 returned to the target area. Concentrations of vehicles were selected from approximately 7,000 feet and peeling off in sections of four aircraft, the Kittyhawks dove at approximately 60 degrees to 1,500 feet and commenced a slight pull-out, releasing the bomb at the same time at a target just above the nose of the aircraft. By then groundfire and Flak would open up so it was best to continue right down to deck level, strafing targets before turning for home.
"Second trip. Took off on bomber escort carrying 500-pound bomb. Squadron formed up over base, then we were informed that the bombers were delayed. Squadron landed with bombs on - another first - seemed safe enough, but everyone attempted an extra soft landing".
"Third trip. 260 squadron again close cover to Bostons over Panzer division. 109's attacked over the target area but 5 SAAF Squadron flying as top cover engaged them - 260 turned back, dive-bombed and strafed enemy concentrations, returning home on the deck".
The Germans recorded severe bombing by the hour on their armour as it advanced, but they did not slow down appreciably as the tanks were nearly immune to damage from anything but a near hit by a 500 lb bomb. As the German armour headed towards 260 Squadron's base at El Adem the Squadron slept beside loaded vehicles, when they had time to sleep. The ground crew worked tremendous hours readying and repairing aircraft, only to have them return shot up, low on fuel and ammo. Then the cycle repeated itself. On the evening of June 16 the Allied troops around El Adem retreated, leaving the DAF as the forward troops. They eventually loaded up their lorries with equipment, men and AA-guns and left for Gambut 2 with the aircraft providing cover.
On June 17, Jim Edwards made a definite impact on the capabilities of the Luftwaffe at this time by killing one of their top aces. F/L Wally Conrad of 274 Sqdn was returning from a "delousing" sweep of the Tobruk area when he spotted four 109s high above his flight of four Hurricanes. He called a break and headed up for the Germans. He discovered too late that the rest of his flight had not heard his call and that he was on his own. Too late to turn back, the Messerschmitts spotted him and headed his way. They were lead by the German experten Oberleutant Otto Schultz now with 50 confirmed kills. He had developed the reputation of being a dare-devil and a remorseless fighter who insisted on strafing his downed opponents. He earned the nickname "ein-zwei-drei-Otto" for his shooting abilities.
At this time Edwards was escorting Boston bombers southeast of Tobruk. Their entire formation was bounced by a large number of Messerschmitts and had been broken up. Their only defensive move was to turn quickly and often to make themselves more difficult targets. One of his attackers overshot him in a dive. He quickly lined up his sights and gave the German a long burst that caused an explosion in the engine. The 109 dropped to the desert floor. Edwards didn't see it, he had turned to the west and found himself alone and out of the fight. He dived for the deck at full throttle and turned towards his base.
Meanwhile, Otto Schultz attacked Wally Conrad wounding him and putting his engine out of commission. Wally crash landed and leapt out of his dead Hurricane when Schultz made his first strafing run, then soared back up to come around for another. At this time Edwards spotted Schultz coming up from his dive with his three squadron mates high above watching the fun. He was about half a mile away and angled his Kittyhawk slightly to intercept the Messerschmitt. Schultz came out of his second dive about 300 yds. in front of Edwards at a angle of 60 degrees. Eddie gave Schultz's 109 a long burst from his machine guns, hitting it solidly in the fuselage. The Messerschmitt thundered into the ground killing the German ace immediately. Edwards was gone as quickly as he had appeared on the scene, but not before Conrad got a look at the call letters of his Kittyhawk. Upon landing back at Gambut 2 Eddie didn't claim the kill of Schultz's Me-109 as he hadn't seen Conrad or his Hurricane and knew that two unsubstantiated claims from a new pilot would not be accepted. He claimed only "one probable Me-109 at low level", and so got the Squadron's revenge for the loss of many pilots. The loss of Otto Schultz was a severe blow to JG-27, he could not easily be replaced with another pilot so experienced.
Wally Conrad eventually got back to his base and reported to Wing Intelligence the destruction of the Me-109 and the letters of the Kittyhawk that had shot it down. He wanted to buy the pilot a case of whiskey. But no one had claimed a 109 shot down in the area, and the aircraft that had done the shooting had been lost the week before. Their Squadron Intelligence Officer hadn't received notice that the numbers had been reassigned to a new 260 Sqdn Kittyhawk. It wasn't until 1970 that the information was all pieced together when Michel Lavigne did his research for "Kittyhawk Pilot".
260 Sqdn. were forced to withdraw early on the 18th.
"The RAF squadrons carried out an organized retreat, leap-frogging back, so there was always a number of squadrons in position to strafe and dive-bomb the advancing forces as well as protect our retreating army. In most cases Squadrons would operate from an airfield with skeleton crews until the enemy came into sight and began to shell the field. Then we'd evacuate. The battle front was rapidly moving east and communications with the army were broken - everyone was in retreat."
The Germans surrounded Tobruk on June 18 and set to pounding it into submission while 260 Sqdn. was setting up on a landing field in the Sidi Barrani area half way between Tobruk and Mersa Matruh. Shortly after they retreated again to the Sidi Haneish area further east of Sidi Barrani. There they were partially re-equipped and started escorting Boston bombers using long-range tanks instead of bombs on their centre-lines. They flew mission after mission attacking the Germans at Tobruk, and then protecting the retreating remnants of the 8th Army. Tobruk fell on June 21 with the loss of 33,000 men, 2,000 trucks, 5,000 tons of food and, most importantly for the Germans 2,000 tons of fuel. General Ritchie was relieved of his command, his superior General Auchinleck took over. The capture of Tobruk was the climax of Rommel's Operation Theseus. For his success he was made a Feldmarshal.
The next stroke in the Nazi plan for the Mediterranean Theater should have been the completion of Operation Herkules, the capture of Malta. However, Rommel changed all of that. He pointed out in cogent arguments that the 8th Army was beaten, out of equipment and men. If he could push on and capture the Suez Canal zone then the British on Malta would be neutralized as supplies could arrive in Tobruk via Greece. All he needed was more supplies and men. This appealed to Hitler who convinced Mussolini. They ignored the plans of the senior Lutwaffe officer in the Mediterranean, Feldmarshal Albert Kesselring, for Malta and gave Rommel permission for a "reconnaissance in force" east to tackle the 8th Army. However, the Luftwaffe was exhausted and could field few aircraft on a continuous basis so they would not be available to provide air cover for the advance. Few replacement aircraft or pilots were available, as Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa", the drive into Russia, was consuming every available aircraft and pilot.
"The salutary effect this service was having on the enemy was indicated by the German air force's effort to disorganize the Bostons. On six of the thirteen raids, enemy fighters intercepted our formations but did not prevent them from bombing."The DAF bombers flew 118 sorties, fighter-bombers 178 and fighters 310.
Edwards was flying as No 2 to the leader in the top section covering a flight of bombers to the Sidi Barrani area. Over the target the Me-109s attacked, seemingly from out of no-where. He spotted a pair of 109s on the tail of a Kittyhawk, so he turned towards them and got a long burst off at the 2nd German. Pieces flew off the target and it started to pour black smoke as it headed down. Eddie had just enough time to weave and dive away from two more 109s. The escorting fighters paid a high price, but the mission was a success with bombs falling on the German troops. They slowed the advance, but by the end of the day Rommel's forces had Mersa Matruh surrounded. German armoured columns south of Mersa Matruh were after the British 1st Armoured Division, and were also uncomfortably close to the airfield that 260 Sqdn. was operating from. The Squadron pulled back again. The next two days were relatively quiet for 260 Sqdn. but the Germans and Italians relentlessly moved east taking the town of Fuka and threatening the LG that 260 Sqdn. now occupied. No sooner had they set up than they had to evacuate to another LG further east. The ground crew and pilots gave up setting up camp and remained near their planes and trucks in order to be fully mobile. They were only 30 miles from Alexandria, but they were finally behind the British lines at El Alamein. Now the pendulum swung away from Rommel. His men were far from their supplies, they were weary and worn out. A significant component of his forces were Italian, who were, in all honesty, poorly trained, and poor fighters when it became rough (with notable exceptions such as the Folgore Division). The Allies on the other hand had very short lines of supply, had dug in around El Alamein in a strong defensive position, were staffed with tough, experienced troops from Australia, South Africa, India, Nepal and England and General Auchinleck was in charge.
July 1st saw Rommel's next move with a small (he had only 55 tanks left) armoured swing to the south that ran into tough opposition from artillery. With the Luftwaffe virtually out of the picture (the Panzers had outrun them) the Desert Air Force began intensive bombing. Eddie made his first sortie as a flight leader that day providing medium cover to Bostons. They didn't see any enemy aircraft and the mission was a complete success.
|July 2nd saw incessant air attacks on supply columns, front line troops and "thin skinned" vehicles near the front. Every 30 minutes the Afrika Korps was subjected to another air attack. Their morale sagged with the heavy resistance on the ground and in the air. 260 Sqdn. was pattern bombing with the Bostons, dropping their 500 lb bombs at the same time. On July 4th, Auchinleck ordered the 8th Army to attack, but they did so over-cautiously as they were justly wary of Rommel. Even with his Italian Sabratha Division fleeing in panic following a heavy artillery bombardment, his German troops held and were even reinforced. The Stuka dive-bombers re-appeared with their deadly accuracy. The war in the desert became a stalemate, with neither side being able to defeat the other.|
|Heavy action followed with the DAF trying to keep Rommel's supply routes closed. On July 5th, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica finally showed up in serious numbers, downing a large number of Allied planes. Allied bomber flights were increased from 12 to 18 bombers, usually a mixture of Bostons and Baltimores, escorted by three squadrons of Kittyhawks, with the bottom two squadrons carrying 500 lb bombs. Some HREF="spitfire.htm">Spitfires even made an appearance flying an extra high-cover. Eddie managed to damage an Me-109 on an escort mission, but generally the free-wheeling dogfights didn't result in a definite destruction. Their purpose was to keep the Axis pilots from interfering with the bombers.|
On an escort mission the next day the 109s intercepted the top flight. Watching for an opportunity, in Kittyhawks you couldn't just rush into a fight, Eddie positioned himself to intercept an Me-109. As it came into position he fired two long bursts that shuddered the German plane. Re-positioning his aircraft, Eddie pressed the firing button again, but nothing happened. His guns had packed it in. Now he was in trouble. He banked steeply to port and continued in a semicircle to the east. The German banked with him and held his fire. This wasn't a good sign, the German was experienced. After two circles Eddie had to try something else before he was blown out of the sky by the Messerschmitt's 20 mm cannon. As the 109 pilot came around for an attack Eddie cut his throttle and dropped his flaps while turning as steeply as possible in a short radius arc. When he levelled out his Kittyhawk was face on to the Messerschmitt. In seconds they passed each other the German within feet of the Kittyhawk's canopy, but he didn't fire, as he was too busy avoiding Eddie. Both pilots turned for their own bases, having had enough for one mission.
|Within hours Eddie was back in the air flying number three in the top cover to Boston bombers. Again 109s intercepted the gaggle of Allied aircraft and Eddie's squadron was embroiled in dogfights as the Germans broke up the Kittyhawk formations. There were so many attackers that it was hard to draw a bead on an Me-109 before the Kittyhawk pilots had to weave or dive to avoid an attacker. In a tight turn Edwards saw a 109 come up 90 degrees to his aircraft and level off. He continued his turn right into the 109 and fired from 150 yards. The 109's front end exploded in a white and black cloud of glycol and motor oil. Eddie squeezed the firing button again but nothing happened. Twice in one day his guns had jammed, and now he was harmless and defenseless in the middle of a large melee. He turned and dived out of the battle area and made it back to base. He claimed a probable but a bomber crew saw it crash so he was awarded a full victory.|
On July 10 they were ordered to operate from Amriya South for the next three months. The ground war entered a period of stalemate, but the air war continued unabated as the Desert Air Force not only flew bombing and escort missions over the German troops, but also concentrated on intercepting German supplies coming across the Mediterranean. Now the Luftwaffe were either absent or were not aggressive. They were easily scared off with a few bursts of machine-gun fire. Even so, 260 Sqdn. lost their best pilot on July 14 while raiding the Luftwaffe main base at Daba. He was shot down by Lt. Werner Shroer, the second highest scoring German ace. By the end of the month they were back to dive-bombing the German positions and Motor Transport (MT) columns. While enemy aircraft were not as evident or as aggressive, the problems of guns jamming and engine failures while airborne provided a lot of stress for the pilots. The ever-present danger of Flak and enemy aircraft was part of the job, but having to invade enemy airspace in aircraft with unreliable guns and motors was asking a lot of them. Edwards had to return to base twice in July with seized engine bearings caused by sand. Fortunately, he wasn't in combat when it happened.
On July 19 he was given the important honor of leading the top section on a bomber escort mission. This meant that he was recognized as an effective and reliable fighter pilot.
"On bomber escort, the only place to fly as far as I was concerned was in the top four in the top cover. Everywhere else was confusing. Dogfighting would be going on above and behind and it was most difficult to tell what was happening. Consequently, from July '42 on, F/L Cundy and I always asked for the top cover and most always got it. Here we had room to manoeuvre; we could fly faster and climb as high as possible above the other formations, even without oxygen. A number of times the 109s came in below us, seeing the large gaggle of aircraft below. In that position, we had the opportunity to jump them."
August on the ground saw the German Panzerarmee worn down from fighting off an 8th Army tank offensive, and from battering against the rock-solid 9th Australian Division. The Germans were exhausted, depleted in men, ammunition, fuel, food and water. Everything that an army needs to fight. The Allies were gaining in strength and had ample supplies from Egypt. Now they also had a new commander. Churchill sacked Auchinleck and put General Sir Harold Alexander in charge of the Middle East Forces. Alexander chose General Gott to command the 8th Army, but while returning to the front lines his Bombay transport aircraft was intercepted by German 109s and shot down. Gott died in the flaming wreck.
|Lt. General Bernard Law Montgomery was sent out from England to lead the 8th. Montgomery immediately started to whip the 8th Army into a tough fighting machine. He also knew how to effectively coordinate his troop's activities with the DAF's and co-located his HQ with the DAF's. It was a turning point in the desert war. With an attack impending the DAF was ordered to unceasingly attack the Germans and Italians, especially in ways that would impede their abilities to break through to the Nile Delta. Enemy airfields, roads and the railway became prime targets as the only means of resupply for Rommel's Panzerarmee. On August 20 the Axis forces started an armoured movement to the south so the DAF concentrated on battlefield targets, especially non-armoured ones as they had little chance of knocking out the heavily armoured Panzerkampfwagon IIISs or IVs with their bombs. But anything else were prime targets, 88s, trucks, half-tracks, staff cars, and Panzer IIIs.|
Eight days before the critical attack by the Axis Rommel became too ill to continue. He suffered from several intestinal complaints caused by the poor German field diet and bad water, and also had circulation problems. But his request to be replaced by General Heinz Guderian was rejected by Hitler due to Guderian's failure in Russia, so he had no choice but to struggle on himself. Up to three days before the August 30 attack Rommel didn't think they had enough fuel for the Luftwaffe or for his 200 tanks (there were also 220 Italian tanks, but they weren't worth putting fuel into). Feldmarshal Kesselring promised 5,000 tons of fuel by sea and 1,000 tons by air. But most of the fuel destined for North Africa sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean, and although the fuel sent by air arrived, little of it made it to the tanks. It was used up by rear area troops and on transporting supplies to the front.
On August 30 Rommel started his last great tank battle. But, before his troops could start off they were bombed by Wellingtons of the Desert Air Force at night by the light of flares. That day Edwards and 260 Squadron were escorting Boston bombers, on their return they spotted a monster target of some 3,000 vehicles all pointing east. They were not to be spared a moment without air attacks during their advance. Rommel describes in "The Rommel Papers" the ceaseless and remorseless air attacks, the severe casualties suffered by bomb-bursts intensified by rock splinters, and the fact that no fewer than seven officers of the Afrika Korps staff were killed. "Between 10 and 12 o'clock (Aug. 31, 1942) we were bombed no less than six times by British aircraft. On one occasion I only just had time to throw myself into a slit-trench before the bombs fell. Swarms of low-flying fighter-bombers were coming back to the attack again and again, and my troops suffered tremendous casualties. Vast numbers of vehicles stood burning in the desert".
With diversionary attacks on the 9th Australian and the South African Divisions near the coast, Rommel swung the bulk of his armour into the Allied line to the south. His intention was to take a position on Alam el Halfa ridge where he could challenge the English armour. But his Panzers ran smack into a deep minefield guarded by artillery and 30 Wellington bombers that cost them dearly in tanks and commanders. Once through the mine field they hit soft sand that used up more fuel than they had predicted. In trouble already he turned the tanks north to aid the fighting along the coast, but they ran into heavy opposition from the 22nd and 23rd Armoured Battalions and stalled. The DAF bombers attacked all night long. Sept. 1 Rommel worked the 15th Panzers east of the 22nd Battalion and dug in behind a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns, but his 21st Panzers were out of fuel, only 60 miles from Alexandria. His support vehicles were strung out for miles and, caught that day in the open, were slaughtered by air attacks. 260 Squadron flew successfully that day but the rest of the Kittyhawk squadrons took a beating. The German ace Hans-Joachim Marseille claimed 17 victories on Sept. 1, but no bombers were lost to the Luftwaffe, which made the difference. The Luftwaffe were powerless to halt the flood of DAF bombers attacking their precious supplies and rear areas. The War Diary of the Afrika Korps noted "The enemy air forces carried out extremely widespread and successful operations throughout the day. The German Afrika Korps was attacked at least seven times by bomber formations of twelve or more aircraft. The Luftwaffe and flak could not prevent these attacks... Losses, especially of vehicles, were considerable. Comand became difficult at times owing to the loss of several signals vehicles of the Corps Signal Detachment, and frequent interruptions in telephone communications". Bombing combined with massive, well-coordinated artillery bombardments shattered the German resolve in front of El Alamein.
On Sept. 2 Rommel ordered his remaining troops to withdraw to positions on the Axis side of the minefields. That day an expected German fuel tanker was sunk by RAF bombers from Malta, putting an end to expectations of fuel for the advance. Air attacks were incessant all day. 260 Squadron exchanged their Kittyhawk Mk Is for the recently arrived Kittyhawk Mk IIs, sometimes called "Goshawks" and "Warhawks". They were a definite improvement over their previous Mark, being better to handle in the air. They made two escort missions in their new aircraft with no losses. The next day saw further retreat of the Germans and continued air attacks by the DAF. Edwards was in the air providing medium cover for bombers. Over their target they were bounced by Marseille and his Gruppe from JG-27. A wild melee resulted with Messerschmitts and Kittyhawks swarming around each other, with the Kittyhawks turning madly to avoid German bullets and trying to position themselves to fire in turn. Carefully watching the action Edwards saw his chance as a 109 swept past his flight. He pulled a turn and put a few holes in the wings of the 109 before it got away. The Germans were outnumbered, the survivors were eventually persuaded to leave with their aircraft full of holes. Marseille and Stahlschmidt shot down three aircraft each, the Allies shot down four, had three probables and damaged one other. 260 Sqdn lost one pilot. Lt. Stahlschmidt of JG-27 wrote of this encounter
"Today I have experienced my hardest combat. But at the same time it has been my most wonderful experience of comradeship in the air. We had a combat in the morning, at first with forty Hurricanes and Curtis's, later some twenty Spitfires appearing from above. We were eight Messerschmitts in the midst of an incredible whirling mass of enemy fighters. I flew my 109 for my life, but although the superor strength of the enemy was overwhelming, not one of us shirked our duty, all turning like madmen. I worked with every gramme of my energy, and by the time we finished I was foaming at the mouth and utterly exhausted. Again and again we had enemy fighters on our tails. I was forced to dive three or four times, but I pulled up again and rushed into the turmoil. Once I seemed to have no escape; I had flown my 109 to the limit of its performance, but a Spitfire still sat behind me. At the last moment Marseille shot it down, fifty metres from my 109. I dived and pulled up. Seconds later I saw a Spitfire behind Marseille. I took careful aim at the Spitfire, I have never aimed so carefully, and the enemy dived down burning. At the end of the combat only Marseille and I were left in the dogfight. Each of us had three victories. At home we climbed out of our planes and were thoroughly exhausted. Marseille had bullet holes in his 109, and I had eleven machine gun hits in mine. We embraced each other, but were unable to speak. It was an unforgettable event."The Desert Air Force was slowly becoming much more expert at this version of aerial warfare. It was the desert war's peak period of aerial warfare for both sides.
Lt. General Montgomery sent the following message to ACM Tedder on Sept. 3
"We know quite well that the results so far attained could not have been achieved unless the RAF had put forth so great and sustained an effort. It is quite clear to me that such magnificent cooperation can produce only one result - a victorious end to the campaign in North Africa. Let nothing divide us."The DAF dropped 750 loads of bombs in three days on the Afrika Korps.
The German withdrawal continued. On Sept. 6 the Luftwaffe mounted a large mission to intercept some of the Allied armour to give their troops some relief. Me-109s ranged in front to intercept the Allies and Stukas came in behind as flying artillery. German super-aces abounded in the formations, including Marseille with 130 victories, Stahlschmidt with over 50, Shroer with over 40, Stumpf with 40 victories, Steinhausen with 40 and Sinner with 35. Allied squadrons, including 260, were scrambled to intercept the German formations. Edwards was leading a section of four flying top cover for the other fighters. Over El Alamein they spotted the German formations. Shortly their top cover was swarmed by Me-109s and immediately a 260 Sqdn. Kittyhawk plunged down in flames. A group of sixteen 109s took position over Edward's section and began attacks by peeling off in pairs. He turned his section around to face the attackers who pulled up to avoid the fight. Two more 109s attacked from behind and the Kittyhawks commanded by Edwards repeated the procedure flying with rigid discipline. Then the 109s began attacking from both directions at the same time. Edwards responded by flying his section in tight 360 degree turns to avoid attacks. He started flying in a north-south direction so the 109 pilots couldn't get into the sun and make blind attacks on them. Keeping his eyes on the higher-flying Messerschmitts he positioned his section right below the Germans so they had a more difficult time seeing them. As they continued the battle worked over the Allied lines until they were close to Alexandria, far from the German lines. One Me-109 pilot got fed up and pressed home an attack that badly damaged a Kittyhawk. Edwards pulled back and lined up the enemy aircraft and fired a short burst from below. The German made off for his own lines with smoke and glycol streaming from his engine. Over twenty minutes had passed and they were exhausted, but the Germans couldn't get organized well enough and ran low on fuel. They were forced to turn for home. After landing Eddie's pilots
"Walked slowly to the ops tent - no one said a word. All of us were completely wrung out and exhausted. At last, Sgt. Sheppard broke out in tears; it had been too much. We had been overwhelmed, beaten up and humiliated past description. True, we had thwarted the Me 109s and all had returned safely together. It was a show we would long remember but never talk about."
|The Desert Air Force had taken a beating that day, but the Luftwaffe had exhausted much of their fuel supplies. After that mission they were forced to patrol in small groups that were more easily overwhelmed by the Allies inferior fighter aircraft. They were also continually losing experienced fighters. That day they lost Ofw. Gunther Steinhausen with 40 victories to 127 Sqdn Hurricanes. The next day they lost Lt. Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt with 59 victories and the third ranked desert fighter and Karl von Lieresund Wilkau with over 20 victories.|
|Feldmarshall Kesselring exhorted them to provide complete aerial protection for the retreating Panzerarmee from the raiding Bostons, Baltimores and now the new American B-25 Mitchell bombers. But they couldn't do the impossible. Finally, three weeks later super-ace Hpt. Hans-Joachim Marseille died in a flying mishap. Returning from a mission a reduction gear in the engine failed and the engine caught fire, filling the cockpit with smoke. He was forced to bail out. He jettisoned the canopy and flipped the plane over allowing himself to fall out, but as he could not see what he was doing the plane had gone into an inverted dive. He hit the tailplane with his chest and fell to his death, presumably unconscious as his parachute didn't open. The entirety of I Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 27 had to be pulled out of the desert due to mounting losses from stress and fatigue and were sent to Sicily to regroup. All of the Luftwaffe units in North Africa were being mauled. They were losing their best aces and the few new-comers at a fast rate. Even though they knocked down plenty of Allied aircraft, the Allies were winning a war of attrition in the air and on the ground.|
To keep the contribution of Allied air power in context, it is worth recording the extent of Afrika Korps losses to air attack up to 4 September, by which time the worst was over. These amounted to 406 men and 170 vehicles destroyed, a high proportion of the overall total; but, of the vehicles, only three were tanks. Thus, indicating that armoured vehicles still provided their occupants with a high level of protection from air attack, and that the main function of air power was the disruption of supply lines and, perhaps above all, the destruction of confidence and morale - Rommel's included. His withdrawal from the field was careful and complete, with the Luftwaffe putting in a strong appearance to hold off the British air attacks. These efforts were largely unsuccessful, but the Allied air attacks did not deter the Axis forces greatly in withdrawal.
Allied air tactics changed to daylight fighter sweeps. On Sept. 14 Edwards led the Squadron for the first time in a fighter sweep. It was uneventful, except for Edwards who was thrilled. He again led the squadron while providing newly arrived American Warhawk pilots with an orientation to desert warfare. The commanding American Lt. Colonel flew as Edward's No. 2, while he was still a Flight Sergeant. He conducted them safely through the Daba area without serious encounters with German aircraft and got them all back safely. He considered this a successful mission. The next day he shot down an Me-109, but despite two confirmations from squadron mates was not credited with a victory. On the ground AVM Arthur Coningham was visiting. When he found out that Edwards as a Flight Sergeant had led the Squadron he retorted "This sort of thing isn't done, old boy! Sergeant pilots just don't lead RAF Squadrons." Shortly after he got an interview for his commission. Three days later a new squadron leader showed up to lead Eddie's B flight. He did so until the next Friday the 13th when the new S/L refused to fly, even after having been ordered into the air. Eddie resumed command of B flight, still a Flight Sergeant.
The air and ground war came to a lull in late September so that 260 Squadron could be pulled out of the line for a week of rest. Back on their operational base they started intensive training with long-range fuel tanks and dropping clusters of 40 lb anti-personnel bombs. They also had new pilots to initiate and train before the next offensive. This they did with a passion with the hopes that they would survive for a time in the severe proving ground of North Africa. Interspersed with training were their share of operational sorties meeting their old foes. But the German pilots were different, not as aggressive as they once were. "While they still shot down our pilots, their aggressiveness seemed to be missing - except over their own airfields. I thought they were becoming a little more cautious, or tired, or both. Maybe they were gaining a little more respect for us". Much of this lack of fight was due to continuing losses in the Luftwaffe units. They had lost a considerable number of highly experienced fighter-pilots who could not be replaced. Since the end of August they had lost Marseille, Stahlschmidt, Steinhausen, Hoffman, and Krenz. All were aces with more experience than most of the experienced hands in the DAF. Throughout early October the Luftwaffe fought furious battles with the outclassed Hurricanes and Kittyhawks of the DAF, but they lost heavily in experience. In that month a major ace Werner Stumpf was killed as were the aces Schofbock, Tingerding, Seidel and Kronschnabel. Several others, like Rosenberg, were made POWs. The DAF may have been outclassed in equipment, but they had more men, more fuel and were much closer to supplies and rest facilities. The Germans didn't rest their pilots very often, and they never rotated them to easier duties, they moved entire Gruppes to easier duty. Their aces flew and fought until they died, cracked up, or were made POWs.
The 9th of October saw a major effort to bomb the airfields at Daba and Fuka as a heavy rainstorm the day before had turned the fields into lakes. Unfortunately, that was the day before. The desert drains and dries quickly, so that by the time Eddie and 260 Sqdn. arrived with the bombers they were jumped by Italians in their Maachi 202s. He quickly turned his flight of four and the Italians raced by, going too fast to follow the turn. Eddie spotted his chance and turned back quickly and blasted a Maachi. It was last seen pouring black smoke, but still climbing. The raids became known as the "Daba Prang" and cost each side dearly. The best estimates are that the Allies lost 38 aircraft to the combined Axis airforces and flak, although the Allies claimed 10 destroyed in the air, with 10 destroyed and 20 damaged aircraft on the ground. The Spitfires lost only a single plane while downing four Me-109s. Without a doubt more Spitfires in North Africa would have turned around the air war in no time.
To operate more efficiently in the upcoming offensive the DAF was reorganized into two groups, Forces A and B. Force A would be the fighting spearhead with the finest equipment and pilots available, while Force B was a supplementary group to maintain the fighting strength of A. The Luftwaffe also prepared for the coming battle by moving as many aircraft from Crete as possible into the theater.
Feldmarshal Kesselring made an astute observation based on the timing and increasing strength of the Allied bombing attacks on airfields, the Allies would attack on October 23, 1942. He was right.
Preparatory to the ground assault the Desert Air Force was to knock out as many aircraft and airfields in the forward area as possible. The airfields around Daba were heavily attacked on the 19th with fierce aerial battles over the airfields. The DAF squadrons were determined to neutralize the landing grounds closest to the El Alamein front and the Axis pilots were just as determined to protect them. Each side lost eleven planes in the air that day, but the Axis forces lost an additional fifteen on the ground. The Allies made continual attacks the next day as well. On the 21st Eddie got his turn over Daba flying top cover to Baltimores and Bostons. Leading B flight at 15,000 feet they came at the Daba airfields from over the sea. As they crossed the coast a large formation of enemy aircraft intercepted them. Diving from above they swept through the Allied formations seeking out the bombers. As they pulled up from their initial dive to preserve some altitude for the next attack several leveled off at Eddie's altitude. He turned hard and fired into a MC 202 from 200 yards and watched as black smoke and flames shot from the fuselage. The pilot bailed out before the aircraft went into it's last dive. More aircraft were coming up so Eddie led his flight into the attack. The Spitfires from high above joined the fracas. Between the lower layers and the upper layers of Kittyhawks the Axis aircraft were badly out-numbered and outmaneuvered. It wasn't long before they were forced to withdraw from the battle. Eddie remembered "Since there were Macchi 202s and Me. 109s amongst the attackers I could appreciate the mix-up and confusion. From the start it appeared a race with no leader - a shambles." The next day they were back at it, bombing Daba. This time a flight of Me 109s rose to intercept the Kittyhawks and didn't see the higher flying flight led by Edwards. They pounced on the Germans with Eddie closing to 150 yards before firing into his next victim. It poured smoke and plunged straight down into the desert. The rest of the flight drove off the others with another Me 109 probably destroyed. The 23rd was a particularly hard day for 260 Squadron with maximum effort given by all pilots. Still, they lost some of their best fighters that day.
Montgomery had arranged his 230,000 troops in a strong defensive line 40 miles long from the sea to the impassable salt-marshes and sands of the Quattara depression. His supply line from Alexandria was only 60 miles long. They faced 27,000 Germans and 80,000 Italians with a supply line up to 1,000 miles long. It was the repeated history of the North African war, the further one got from base, the harder it was to supply the troops until a point was reached where the opponent became strong enough to push back. British tanks outnumbered German tanks 6 to 1, and they had an overwhelming number of artillery pieces. However, the Axis forces were strongly entrenched behind thick minefields and had dug in well. It would be a hard battle to dislodge them. Bombing and strafing such entrenched troops was not very effective, but it kept their heads and morale down. The British spent a considerable amount of effort to make it look like the attack would be in the south. They constructed fake armoured vehicles, tent cities, supply dumps and even a fake water-line into the area. Tank concentrations were disguised as trucks with troops billeted in trenches underneath them. While Kesselring expected an attack on the 23rd, Stumm did not, so that when Montgomery's massive artillery barrage began in the early evening it took Stumm by complete surprise. All lines of communication on the Axis side were cut, minefields were being attacked by artillery and British sapper units, and front line troops were hit hard in the heavy rain of 150 mm howitzer shells. In order to get a clear picture of the attack General Stumm left his command post and went up to the front in an armoured car. They ran smack into an Australian machine gun company who killed Stumm's assistant. While his driver was frantically trying to back up Stumm fell over, dead from a heart attack. No one on the Axis side knew where he was and it was a full day before Rommel was rushed back to the front to hold the line.
The mine fields proved to be harder to penetrate than Montgomery planned, his sappers and tanks forced their through at great cost to both, but Montie knew that he could afford to lose a lot of tanks and still have enough to take on the Panzers. 260 Squadron was in the air all day escorting bombers over the lines, but no Axis aircraft came up to challenge them. It was a curiously quiet day for the fighters and bombers, especially compared to the noise and carnage of the ground battles. The next day saw a lot more action both on the ground and in the air. Three British armoured divisions went forward in the middle of the line to force their way through the Axis forces, but the 88 mm anti-tank guns and Panzers took a heavy toll of them. In the north the 1st Armoured Division took a small rise of ground called Kidney Ridge.
The Desert Air Force was fully committed bombing supply columns and concentrations of tanks and guns, but now opposition was encountered and their losses rose too. Eddie flew twice that day, the first time on a dive-bombing mission in the southern sector against the support columns. His second flight was leading the top cover escort for bombers. Four German fighters flashed past heading for the bombers. Eddie dove his flight after them and cut off the leader. He put a long stream of .50 caliber bullets into a Messerschmitt and watched it flip over and head for the ground in a stream of smoke. Now the rest of the Germans were attacking his flight. Pulling a tight turn he attacked another 109 who was shooting chunks off of his No. 2's Kittyhawk. He drove off the German and then had his flight escort the badly wounded Kittyhawk pilot back home. The score that day for 260 was 6 to 3, they knocked down six Axis aircraft for three of theirs. It was considered a successful day.
|The Luftwaffe was considerably reinforced on the 27th with I/JG 27 returning from Sicily accompanied by III Gruppe/JG 77 led by the impressive Hauptmann Heinz "Pritzl" Bar with 120 victories and the Knight's Cross with Oakleaves. Also in his unit were super-aces Hpt. Fritz Geisshardt with over 90 victories, and Oblt. Siegfried Freytag with over 70. The Kommodore of JG 77, Major Joachim Muncheberg with over 100 victories joined them on the 28th. Also in III Gruppe was Hpt Kurt Ubben with 95 victories. Obviously, Kesselring was loading the desert Luftwaffe with highly experienced men in the hopes of stemming the DAF.|
The 27th was a crucial day for the ground forces. Rommel's Panzers had little fuel and could not rush about the battle field, so it was with deliberation that Rommel pulled tanks out of the southern sector where the action was not too heavy and pushed them north for a full-out attack on Kidney Ridge. The DAF concentrated all of their effort into this area dropping 500 lb bombs on concentrations of Axis tanks. Eddie wrote in his log simply "Bombing panzers. Big battle on the ground." By nightfall the Panzers were stalled. They were low on fuel and ammo and had not made much headway against the British on the high ground. The next day saw the Aussies push forward north of Kidney Ridge with some solid gains.
The Panzerarmee tried to form up for a resumed attack on Kidney Ridge but the DAF flew non-stop against them. Every 20 to 30 minutes another wave of bombers and fighter-bombers swept over the area blasting it with bombs and strafing with heavy machine guns. The attack was canceled.
Sensing that Rommel was on the ropes, Montgomery developed a plan to crack open the El Alamein battle. It was obvious that the bulk of Rommel's armour was in the north fighting the Australians and the British armour on Kidney Ridge. This left the middle guarded solely by Italian forces, whose troops did not have the same fortitude as the Germans. With a hard punch to the middle Montgomery hoped to crack the Italians and force his tanks into the gulf that would form in the middle of the line. This he named "Operation Supercharge". The DAF was given new targets, the Italians in the center.
On the 29th Eddie and his flight flew a dive-bombing mission against the Italians and then flew a top-cover mission for other Kittyhawks bombing German armour. And on it went, with the aircraft of the Allies providing support for the 8th Army while the ground troops and tanks fought it out in the sweltering, dirty desert below. The third mission in the late afternoon was another dive-bombing. They were escorted by Kittyhawks of 2 SAAF Squadron. Over the target they dove and dropped their bombs from 1,500 feet into the swirling dust of a massive tank battle. Leveling off at 100 feet in thick dust someone reported over the RT Messerschmitts in the area. Eddie couldn't see them at first, then out of the dust he spotted a group of enemy fighters crossing the battle zone in front of them. Now it was pay-back time. The fighters of JG 27 had taken their toll of many machines and men of 260 Sqdn., now they would taste some of their own medicine. The speeding Kittyhawks closed the gap in seconds. Overtaking a pair on the left Eddie had his section come in behind the other 109s. These two were his. At 150 yds. he fired at the first 109 and blasted it into the ground, engulfed in flames. In seconds he fired into the second 109 and saw it blow to pieces in front of him. Moving fast he ordered everyone out of the area. He wanted to avoid any unnecessary losses. Back at base they tallied their score, three destroyed, two probables and a damaged with no losses of their own. The probables almost certainly crashed on the battle field amidst the tanks, but the Kittyhawks had been traveling so fast that no one could confirm it. The German records reported the loss of four fighters in the area, one pilot killed had been one of Marseille's wingmen.
Rommel knew he was beaten by the end of October. He was nearly out of fuel, ammo, tanks and men and he couldn't dislodge the Australians in the north. The British armour was making solid gains in the centre after the Italians fled the field. Only the timely arrival of fresh German forces saved the center of the Axis line from breaking totally. By Nov. 2 the British had broken through south of Kidney Ridge. Rommel pulled back to El Daba in an effort to get his remaining Panzers out of the battle zone. Many of his Italian troops were captured as there were no trucks with fuel to take them out. Air activity never let up. Stukas made their appearance again but were badly mauled by Hurricanes, that were in turn hammered by III/JG 77 in their first big battle in the desert. Six Hurricanes were lost, but the Allies had a massive supply of fuel and bombs with a large back-up group of replacement aircraft and pilots. Day after day they bombed and strafed the enemy and flew against the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica. On November 4th Rommel ordered a general retreat as the Aussie, Indian and New Zealand Divisions broke through and advanced westwards. The Italians in the south were rounded up by the acres, as they were only too happy to stop fighting.
During the Battle of El Alamein the Allied pilots downed 150 enemy aircraft, with 18 going to 260 Sqdn. Eddie increased his personal tally to 10 destroyed, of which 7 were confirmed, with 7 probables and five damaged. The Germans recorded downing just over 100 aircraft with the Italians an unknown number. In all, the scores were pretty even, but by the end of the battle the DAF had done considerably more to win the battle than had the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica. The Axis airforce was intent on intercepting the Allied aircraft who were intent on destroying ground forces. That was their prime mission, to interrupt the Axis supply routes, to destroy anti-tank guns, to destroy light armour and to kill ground troops. The Axis forces had a few ground attack aircraft, but no dedicated bombers and their numbers did not equal those of the Allies. The Jagdgeschwaders contented themselves with attacking the escorting DAF fighters and failed to stop the bombers from their missions, so that, although they inflicted heavy losses on the Hurricanes and Kittyhawks, they eventually failed.
Rommel's forces were in full retreat in November heading west through Cyrenaica to their bases in Tripolitania. The Allied forces pursued them led by the Desert Air Force. The fighter-bombers were moving forward at such a fast rate that the bomber squadrons could not keep up. They needed special bases that required more infrastructure than the Kittyhawks, Hurricanes and Spitfires, whose pilots only needed a roughly level surface cleared of large stones from which to fly. The Kittyhawk squadrons became the main bombing force. 260 Squadron had been allocated as escort fighters for SAAF squadrons on strafing missions, now they also began strafing the retreating Germans and Italians.
|"Strafing missions were flown right on the deck where surprise and accuracy in locating targets depended solely upon the leadership of the experienced desert pilots. Experience could only be gained by actual close contact with the environment in hours flown, time in the area and combat."|
|While this was going on bad weather allowed Rommel's forces to largely escape through the constricted areas west of Mersa Matruh. There was only one road to travel and it wound torturously through Halfaya Pass (known as Hellfire Pass to the British infantry). As Kesselring stated "It was fortunate for us that the RAF was not sufficiently trained to bomb a retreating enemy out of existence." However, this was only a matter of time, for on November 8, 1942 American and British forces were landing on the beaches of French-controlled North Africa in Operation Torch. Now they had the Axis forces caught between two large nut crackers and would apply the pressure steadily.|
The Luftwaffe pulled I and III Gruppes of JG 27 out of the desert. They had accounted for 748 victories since April, 1941. They left air defence to II/JG27 and I and III/JG 77. From then on Eddie recalls that the 109 pilots seemed to be a different lot, not very aggressive and reluctant to engage in dogfights. He was attacked only three more times until the end of the North African campaign in Tunisia. However, other Squadrons were not so lucky, in particular the novices in the newly arrived British and American Squadrons, as the personal scores of Bar, Muncheberg and Geisshardt rose quickly in Algeria. Both Germans and Italians had withdrawn many fighters from the east and moved them to the new threat facing them in the west in Algeria.
Days later the 8th Army re-occupied familiar territory. They captured Sollum, Capuzzo, Bardia, and Halfaya Pass while the DAF took the Gambut airfields. This last action exposed the main Axis airbases at Tobruk to bombing raids. November 11th saw Eddie flying top cover to other Kittyhawks on their first raid to Tobruk. Forty-three aircraft raided Gambut 2. Edwards spotted a pair of Ju-88s on the ground and put his bomb down between them. They were burning wrecks when he left. On November 12th Rommel's forces abandoned Tobruk, while 260 Sqdn. bombed the harbour. They concentrated on barges before flying off to strafe vehicles. The next day the 8th Army occupied Tobruk and Eddie destroyed a pair of Me-109s on the ground with his first pass over their airfield. The day after they were on a dive-bombing mission against a convoy of MTs. They dropped four bombs into their midst and strafed them before heading northwest. Another enemy airfield appeared out of the dust, and there were two Me-109s refueling from a truck. Eddie took his flight down and left the area with burning wrecks on the ground. On the 15th he destroyed more Me-109s on the ground. They were heading back to the previous airfield for a strafing attack when they passed Marawa airfield. There were three 109s parked close together, refueling. He came around in a wide circle with his flight, dropped down to the deck and fired into the juicy target. They erupted in flames. On five occasions he destroyed 11 German aircraft and had become one of the most successful pilots in the Desert Air Force.
|The Desert Air Force had advanced 450 miles from El Alamein to Martuba in only three weeks. They frequently operated in advance of ground forces due to their superior mobility. They would strafe and dive-bomb a field one day and occupy it the next. The Luftwaffe was pulling back so fast that they were forced to leave an amazing amount of equipment and food behind. One of 260 Sqdn's acquisitions was a perfectly working Heinkel He-111 bomber. Several pilots climbed in and took off to check it out. It worked fine so they painted English roundels on it and the letters HS? and flew to Alexandria for mess supplies. It's amazing that it wasn't shot down just out of suspicion. 260 Squadron's popularity climbed fast in this period as they were the only mess around with cold beer in a hot desert.|
Air activity dropped off rapidly throughout November of 1942. They met few enemy aircraft and managed to strafe only a few small columns of vehicles. On November 19th Edwards came as close as he had ever come to dying in his aircraft. He was leading his flight with several others on a sweep when his wingman developed engine trouble and returned to base. He buddied up with the other flight leader. Then they hit dirty weather. A vicious storm swept into the area with heavy rain and dark clouds. Soon his aircraft was straining to hold position with his throttle wide open. On a wide turn he lost power, stalled and spun violently towards the ground. He fought hard to regain power and control and managed to wrestle the plane back into flying when only 200 feet from the deck. Alone he fought through the dirty weather at low altitude and eventually made it back to base.
In early Dec. II/JG 77 arrived from Italy to bring JG 77 up to full strength and Eddie was finally promoted to Pilot Officer.
There was even some progress made in aircraft. They turned in their beat up old Kittyhawk IIs for Kittyhawk IIIs. They really didn't expect Spitfires, but it would have been nice. Still, the Mark IIIs were better in the speed and handling departments than their old aircraft so they didn't complain too much. After a disastrous skirmish with the 109s of JG 77 they disappeared for several weeks, withdrawn back to Tripoli out of range. Their faithful German bomber HS? was used to ferry in Christmas supplies and they made do with, for the DAF, a pretty good Christmas table. On Dec. 22 Eddie was officially promoted to Flight Lieutenant and given official control of B Flight, that he had led since September.
On Dec. 30 he led 8 Kittyhawks on a long patrol near the front lines at Bir el Zidan. In the distance they could see Flak puffs marking air activity. He gained altitude and headed towards the front. Shortly they could see Me-109 fighter-bombers of a Schlachtgeschwader attacking Allied troops with more 109s for a top cover. He directed FO Fallows and this flight to take on the top cover and led the charge into the fighter-bombers. Amidst cannon and machine-gun bullets from below and above he headed for the west side of a flight of Me-109s. At 100 yards he surprised a German with an accurate burst at a wide angle of deflection. The aircraft flipped over and the pilot bailed out, but he was too low and plunged to his death. He attacked the next 109 in line, but his guns packed up after a short burst. He sidled out of the way for FO Thornhill who shot down the 2nd 109. PO Sheppard attacked another of the fighter-bombers and it blew up in mid-air. Fallows and England brought down two of the top cover 109s. There wasn't a mark on any of the Kittys. At the end of 1942 Eddie's score was now 12 1/2 destroyed.
|Pilots of 260 Sqdn. Left to right are: FLt Edwards, FO Fallows, PO England, PO Sheppard, FO Thornhill and F/Sgt Brown.|
|The new year, 1943 started quietly, but heated up quickly. Intelligence reported a large number of 109s at a nearby field, with a little speed and luck they could catch them on the ground. The WingCo, Hanbury, lead them into a low level attack formation. At eight miles from the enemy airfield they started to gain altitude when they flew right over a Panzer group. Quickly the ever-present Flak guns opened up at them, albeit inaccurately. They did however notify the airfield. Eddie and the others could see they were in for a rough time as Me-109s could be seen rising quickly off of the airfield.|
The WingCo attacked a 109 just getting off the ground, Eddie was lining up his section for a ground attack when he spotted 109s coming at them from in-front and behind. He ordered a tight rising turn in order to fight off the attacking 109s, as they couldn't turn with the Kittyhawks. There were so many 109s in the air that they kept spoiling each others attacks. Eddie got one in his sights and knocked a few pieces off before it pulled away. He kept pulling around until he was on the tail of a 109 shooting at his wingman. But now, in typical Kittyhawk fashion, his guns packed up. Fortunately the German pilot didn't know that. He panicked and pulled out of his turn so violently that he lost control and thundered into the ground at full throttle. As so often happened in dogfights the sky was suddenly empty. Eddie dived to ground level and got out of the area. He couldn't raise anyone on the RT so he headed in a general direction back to base, twisting and turning to throw off any pursuing 109s. He was just getting comfortable with his escape when he spotted a 109 about 600 yds. behind him. The enemy closed the gap to 350 yds. when he began firing at long range. Eddie could see dust flying up behind and to the left of his plane. Some bullets ricocheted into the underside of his wing. He had to start a turning duel, except that he had no guns. He turned inside the 109 and avoided his shots. He would straighten out and fly east while the 109 pilot re-arranged his aircraft for another attack. Eddie waited until the 109 was in range before he turned hard again, went around and straightened out. Eventually the German began firing at long range and started to hit the Kittyhawk. Eddie pulled around and got onto the tail of the German but his guns were still useless, and now the German knew it. But they were getting far east, and the German had to be low on ammo and fuel. Eddie rolled out and got right down on the deck, the German made a last, half-hearted attack and pulled off to fly home. Eddie barely made it to the edge of the LG when his engine cut out and he dropped down rolling to a stop, out of fuel. The tally for each side in the battle was two apiece. Eddie was awarded another victory, although won at a lot of effort. This was the only time that one of his aircraft would be hit by enemy fighters in the war and it was the only time that his wingman would be shot down by an enemy fighter.
"The Squadron would operate in fours, together or spread out as need be, to meet the situation. A section of four was permitted total independence if it was necessary to accomplish the task at hand. We preferred to dive-bomb and strafe out of the sun when we were certain the 109s weren't around. We would carry on down to the deck when we knew we were safe. Otherwise, we dive-bombed and pulled back up into the sun to escape the a/a gunners. On the ground attack missions, this was our main objective. We weren't to go looking for enemy aircraft. So, unless the enemy aircraft made an effort to prevent our attacks, we carried on in spite of them."
On January 11, 260 Squadron moved forward to a front line LG to participate in the opening battles for Tunisia at Buerat. Their old friends the SAAF Boston bombers reappeared to assist. On the 12th they were ordered to provide escort for the SAAF crews. Part way to the target half of the Kittyhawks were ordered to return to base, Eddie included. This was the result of some foul-up in the rear echelons. No fewer than 11 Kittyhawks were lost on that raid due to repeated attacks by pilots of JG-77 on an inadequate Allied covering force. On the 16th the British ground troops attacked the Buerat line with ground-support from the DAF and advanced quickly with the Germans and Italians falling back to the Tunisian border. The DAF hurried forward, with 260 Sqdn. occupying yet another forward base at Sedada. The next day they were harrying the retreating enemy column. Eddie's marksmanship netted him four MTs on fire and three blown up. The Squadron moved forward every several days to keep within range of the fleeing enemy troops. A chaotic routine developed with moving one day and dive-bombing/strafing MT columns several times the next day. Throughout January they bombed airfields, MT columns, airstrips and ports. Eddie added several Maachi's damaged and a Savoia-Marchetti SM-79 bomber set on fire at the latter site.
260 Squadron had become a potent force of dive-bombers and at long last recognition came their way. At the start of February Eddie was notified that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. Shortly after he was notified that he also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of only a few pilots to win both, as the first was awarded to noncoms and the latter to officers.
The 8th Army had entered Tripoli after covering 1,400 miles in only three months. They were exhausted and out of supplies, with the usual problem of having a long and tortuous supply line from Alexandria. The only way Montgomery could continue was to rest in Tripoli and repair the port so he could receive supplies there. Rommel, Wavell, Auchinleck and others had proved that you couldn't successfully fight in the desert without a secure supply line, fortunately Montgomery learned from the past mistakes. For the next two weeks the enemy would have to wait, so both the army and airforce made the best of their enforced leave. In short order, 260 Squadron was enjoying spring beds, electricity, and hot baths nightly. There wasn't much left in Tripoli so they occupied themselves in raiding the Italian stores at the airfield and a nearby brewery.
The move into Tunisia became a series of problems for the joint Anglo-American forces that had landed in Morocco and Algeria. The terrain was nothing like the flat, parched land of Cyrenaica. Here the land was all hills and valleys, with roads and towns in the valleys occupying strategic sites. It was going to be much harder pushing the Germans and Italians out of Tunisia. They had to learn how to use their troops and armour in a totally different fashion from the desert campaigns against enemies in well prepared defensive fortifications.
Air operations started on the 6th of Feb., but were stalled by a solid month of rain alternating with dust storms. Ground fighting in the east part of Tunisia was light with the 8th Army occupying Ben Gardane and Medenine easily. They moved up close to Mareth and began to build supplies to attack the Italians holding the fortified Mareth line. Near the end of the month the DAF began softening up the enemy forces by attacking airfields to neutralize their aircraft. DAF losses were fairly heavy with some experienced pilots being shot down. Eddie was, fortunately, on a four day leave at the time. He had been doing some ground-attack demonstrations for army commanders and some routine flying jobs in the rear. The best part of the leave was in flying a captured Me-109F and their Heinkel bomber. Flying the 109 just confirmed in his mind the superiority of the aircraft over the Kittyhawk. He returned in early March. Again they started the routine of moving LGs, and attacking the enemy on alternate days. Now the Mareth line running through the mountains was only 20 miles away.
The ground forces had a tough time in March. The Germans attacked the 8th Army at Medenine and the Free French Forces at Ksar Rhilane, while the New Zealanders were repulsed as they tried to turn the German flank from the south of Mareth. The ultimate attack on the Mareth line was made by the New Zealand troops at Tebaga Gap with considerable support from the DAF. Rather than bombing and attacking supply lines or concentrations of troops, they were called on to attack well-defended guns and tanks that were obstructing Allied troops. With airforce controllers on the ground, they were the first Allied fliers to develop tactics for close ground support. Their first deployment in this role was on the 10th in close support of the Free French under General LeClerc. Rommel had, once again, returned to Europe to recover from illness, and General von Arnim had ordered a German column to cut off the French before they could position themselves to attack. The French were surrounded on three sides when the DAF was called in. The full force of the DAF hit the Axis with Hurricane "tank-busters" sporting their 40 mm cannons under their wings, three full wings of dive-bomber Kittyhawks, and several Spitfire squadrons for air cover.
Eddie led 260 Squadron in a dive-bombing mission with 250 Squadron and 112 Squadron acting as cover. The battle area was easy to find as it was a pall of dust and smoke. Hurricanes went in low ahead of them exploding tanks and vehicles with their powerful cannons in a dramatic show, although they suffered heavy losses. Eddie positioned the Squadron over a group of German vehicles being covered by a considerable number of Flak guns. They peeled off in sections of four from 8,500 feet and dropped their bombs at 1,500 feet before continuing to low level to avoid Flak. They circled 180 degrees, and watched 250 Squadron bombing and then went after 150 mm artillery guns they could see firing from the hills. Me-109s intercepted 112 Squadron and a group of four got through to Eddie's section. He turned the section into the Germans, firing at them as they climbed away. No damage done. The German ground forces quickly withdrew into the hills. General LeClerc signaled "All praise. Magnificent effort RAF!".
With proper softening of the enemy finished the full offensive against the Mareth line proceeded. The AOC, Desert Air Force deployed five fighter wings (Spitfires and Kittyhawks), three light bomber wings (Bostons and Baltimores), one recce wing (Kittyhawks), one anti-tank Squadron (Hurricanes) and two medium bomber wings (Mitchells and Liberators) against the Axis forces. The first step was to achieve mastery of the air over the battle field. Full scale operations started on the 20th with strikes against enemy airfields at Tebaga and Gabes. Enemy fighters were occupied with these strikes so the light bombers could be used without air support against Mareth. For five days they bombed, dive-bombed, strafed and fought over the battle area until March 26 when the ground troops were in position.
Morning dust storms on the 26th made it look like they would have to scrub their missions meaning a lot of casualties for the troopers. But then the wind died down and all pilots knew they were "on" for the afternoon. In the mid-afternoon the Spitfire Squadrons left to "delouse" the air over the battle field. Half an hour later the Bostons and Baltimores each dropped fifty-four 40 lb anti-personnel bombs to cause as much confusion and damage as possible. By 15:15 hours the pilots of 260 Squadron were strapped into their Kittyhawks by the groundcrew. At 15:29 everyone pushed their starter button and watched the props turn amidst black puffs of smoke. Groundcrew cleared the wheels and the Kittys moved forwards to line up abreast to the right of the leader. Props ticked over, kicking up clouds of fine dust. Finally the leader raised his arm and brought it forward starting his section off. By sections the others followed until all were in the air. 260 Squadron took their place in front of an American Squadron of Warhawks and set course for the bomb line. The artillery barrage then started to be laid down.
From 10,000 feet Eddie and his men could easily see the battle zone of churning smoke and dust, with Kittyhawks diving and releasing their bombs into the mess. Their prime targets were the 88s in the hillsides overlooking the Tebaga Valley. After bombing they were free to strafe anything they could find behind the lines.
Intense Flak spotted the sky. A Kittyhawk from another Squadron was hit and went down in flames, the pilot dangling from his parachute. As they neared the front they were ordered to turn "switches on" to arm their two 250 lb. bombs. They did a last minute check of their cockpit and the sky. There in the midst of the black and brown pall were streamers of red smoke fired by Allied artillery, identifying 88 mm anti-tank guns. In sections of four every ten seconds Eddie brought the Kittyhawks into a 60 degree dive. He could see the muzzles of the 88s flashing below just above the cowling of his fighter. Their speed reached 450 mph until, at 1,500 feet they pulled back on their sticks and released the bombs in one, smooth motion. A hard turn left and they continued down to the deck. Big explosions from the target area indicated that some of their bombs had hit home. Two American Warhawks received direct hits from Flak and went straight in. At 300 feet and 450 mph they quickly pulled around 180 degrees and went back into the target area. Several guns were still firing. At 300 yds. the Kittyhawk pilots opened up on the remaining 88s with their six heavy machine guns. The 88s quit firing as explosions went off around them from their own shells. Exiting the target area they strafed whatever came their way, MTs, tents and guns.
|In the distance the Hurricane tank-busters were attacking Panzers from only 50 feet off the deck with their 40 mm cannons. In defence the Panzer IVs were using their 88 mm guns as Flak cannons and had taken down three Hurricanes. Yet another Squadron of Kittyhawks began their dive onto targets in the area. 260 Squadron used up the last of their bullets and left the battle raging behind them.|
The air traffic controller directed them to a nearby LG for a quick turn around of fuel, bombs and bullets. All aircraft able to fly were back in the air by 17:35 hours for another bombing and strafing run for the 1st Armoured Division was going into the gap at 18:00 hours. In 2 and a half hours the DAF flew 412 sorties for a cost of 11 pilots killed and many more wounded. The American Squadrons were hardest hit with four killed and three shot down. They claimed 85 vehicles destroyed and 210 damaged. Numerous guns and tanks were put out of action. General Montgomery said of the air effort "Such intimate and close support has never been achieved before and it has been an inspiration to the troops." The actions of the DAF formed the basis for future ground-support work in Italy and France. The Germans were forced to give up the Mareth line. Recce aircraft spotted 250 vehicles in a nose to tail column and all DAF aircraft were called out to bomb them unceasingly. Eddie led his men against the armoured columns destroying at least 25 vehicles. At the age of 21 James Edwards was one of the best Allied fighter-bomber pilots of WWII with a record of about 200 vehicles and 12 aircraft destroyed on the ground, not to mention his 13 1/2 victories over airborne fighters.
On March 29 Eddie spotted and damaged the first Focke-Wulf 190s they saw in the war. These superb fighter aircraft were hampered by being allocated to a ground-attack squadron (a SchlachtKampfgeschwader) where they could not use their superior speed and performance. Even so, they were a major headache for the Allies as they were still the hottest aircraft in the theatre. They had just completed their bombing runs when Eddie's flight bounced them. He knocked a few pieces off of one, but it easily got away. Shortly after, the 8th Army joined up with the US II Corps. The Axis troops abandoned their positions and withdrew to the north with the Allied troops in hot pursuit. They took the entire coastal plain of Tunisia unopposed.
260 Squadron was rotated out of dive-bombing duty and flew escort for other Squadrons. Edwards damaged another German 109 but did not pursue it as it would have left 250 Squadron open to possible attack during their bombing dives. Typically, Eddie didn't file a claim on "hits", the recognition wasn't that important, getting the job done was. They continued on escort duty and continued to score hits and he likely shot down a Fw-190 but continual low cloud made it impossible to tell if the aircraft crashed or managed to pull out of a fake death dive to survive.
On April 14, Eddie had the satisfaction of executing the perfect "bounce". They were patrolling over the sea to the south of Melidia when he spotted 12 Me-109s and MC-202s at 7,000 feet blending into the haze and ground almost perfectly. They hadn't seen the Kittyhawks yet so Eddie called a left bank and turn to position his men in the sun. The enemy aircraft were passing in front of them and below, he let four pass by and then dove on the fifth. His first short burst hit the engine and set in on fire. He turned quickly on the sixth aircraft and fired another short burst. This too hit the engine and the plane slipped off of the wing-tip and went down. He still had time for another attack and had fired a few bullets from point blank range at another 109. He shredded the fusilage and tore a cannon out of a wing but then his guns jammed. Pulling off of the 109 he found Kittyhawks and 109s tearing around all over the place. He called a reform and returned to base. During debriefing it turned out that he was the only one to see the enemy aircraft until they were on top of them and Eddie had already shot down one. By then it was too late for the others to get a line on an enemy aircraft. He was the only one with a claim.
The airforce administration geared up Operation Flax at this time to intercept a massive German reinforcement plan. The Allies flew interception missions over the Mediterranean with American long-range P38 Lightnings, and British Kittyhawks with long-range tanks. The Germans were planning on using as many aircraft as possible to fly men, equipment and supplies from Sicily to Tunis. They gathered an armada of Ju-52s, Italian SM-82s and a squadron of huge powered gliders (Transportgeschwader 5 flying Messerschmitt 323s). On the first day of the operation 26 Axis aircraft were destroyed, 18 of them transports. Each Ju-52 carried 20 troopers for the Wehrmacht. By April 11 some 31 transport aircraft and many escorts had been destroyed.
On 17 April, 260 Squadron was in position to take part in the operation. That day Eddie's B flight off Cape Bon didn't spot any German aircraft, but A flight spotted and shot down four Me-110s. The next day in the same area the Americans massacred 59 transports and 16 escort fighters. They called it the Palm Sunday Massacre. The day after it was the South African's turn to find the Germans and they claimed 15 shot down. Three days later Eddie was over the ocean leading 239 Wing when the South Africans intercepted 20 of the lumbering Me-323s near Zembra Island. They dove on the nearly helpless transport aircraft. Eddie and the Kitty Wing arrived just in time to witness the results.
"When 239 Wing reached the Bay of Tunis the bay seemed to be on fire with burning aircraft on the water." Then ... "Flying through the smoke at approximately 500 feet I saw a large aircraft directly in front. At approximately 250 yards, I fired a long burst and the Me.323 folded up like a stack of cards and fell into the sea. The SAAF wing ahead of our formation had shot down 23 of the transports. Twenty-plus Me.109s were patroling high above but did not attack - it looked like they lost heart."Transportgeschwader 5 was wiped out on their first mission, along with a lot of men and material. Each massive plane could carry a half-track and 88 mm gun with crew and ammo, or up to 54 men with all of their equipment. It was a serious blow to the German reinforcement plan. This was the last victory of 260 Squadron in North Africa, and the Germans flew transports at night after that.
The war in North Africa was drawing to a close with the American, British and French forces closing in on the Germans in Tunis. The air patrols were just as dangerous as ever, and no one let up their guard. 260 Squadron finished the campaign in North Africa flying escort, dive-bombing retreating troops and armour and anti-shipping strikes to prevent the wholesale withdrawal of troops back to Sicily. On May 13, 1943 the Germans and Italians under German Messe surrendered and the war in North Africa was finally over.
260 Squadron was moved to Zuara for rest and recuperation prior to re-assignment, probably to Sicily to support the Allied landings there. In recognition of their accomplishments the WingCo took all four Squadron Commanders to England for three days. It proved to be a costly mistake. While on their way back to North Africa their Lancaster transport plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay. All aboard were killed. The entire squadron lost because these five men were the ones to recommend decorations and promotions based on individual accomplishments in the air. There was no one in sufficient rank to be an advocate for the squadron. As a result the men from 260 Squadron were dispersed at random to other units, and their chances for immediate promotion and decoration died. The North African exploits of 260 Squadron also nearly died. It continued in the Army cooperation role in Sicily and Italy.
Eddie's log book from 260 Squadron showed he had made 195 sorties in North Africa for just over 261 hours of flying time. He led the Squadron 42 times and the entire Wing on several. He officially destroyed 15 1/2 aircraft, probably destroyed another 6 1/2, and damaged 13. He also destroyed over 200 MTs during over 75 dive-bombing and strafing missions. He accounted for roughly 20% of the Squadron's victories.
Without a doubt the Desert Air Force made a difference in the North African battles, and James Edwards made a difference in the Desert Air Force. He was always calm whether stalking an unwary enemy pilot, or evading superior numbers of enemy aircraft. He often managed to evade an attack and got in shots of his own while his comrades were flailing around the sky in near panic. His keen eyes, ability to size up a situation and position himself and his flight to advantage, and his ability at deflection shooting made him a great danger to the enemy. He didn't claim aircraft that he downed when no one was around as he knew it would sound like he was just trying to up his score. If someone questioned his claim, he dropped it. He knew what happened, and whether a claim stood or not didn't matter to the war effort. He led flights and squadrons without the rank to back it up, but the other pilots followed him as they recognized his abilities as a natural fighter pilot. He even modified his aircraft to make it more efficient. He had the turn/bank indicator (a primitive needle and ball gauge) moved up to just underneath his gun sight so he could see both at once without having to take his eyes off of the target, and he eliminated the fancy, yet confusing, illuminated reflector and gyro gunsight and made do with a simple mark on the wind screen so as to be able to concentrate wholly on the battle around him.
Edwards was posted as an instructor to the Middle East Central Gunnery School at El Ballah on the Suez Canal. He flew Harvards, Hurricanes and Spitfires showing other pilots how to fire deflection shots and to maintain situational awareness in a dogfight. His posting to the Gunnery school was finished in November, 1943 and he was posted as an extra to 417 "Ram" Squadron, RCAF. They were based in Italy near Foggia on the Adriatic Sea. Finally he got to fly combat missions in a Spitfire. The "Rams" were commanded by another long-time Canadian resident of the Middle East war, S/L Albert "Bert" Houle. They were part of 244 Wing commanded by the tough Canadian "Stan" Turner who had started the war in France and survived the Battle of Britain. He flew only 10 missions with 417 Sqdn before he was posted as a Flight Commander to 92 East India Squadron.
|They soon moved to the west side of Italy in anticipation of the American landings at Anzio. They patrolled in their Spitfire VIIIs at 20,000 feet to maintain air supremacy over the beach head. Generally, they didn't see any enemy aircraft, and it wasn't until his 17th flight over Anzio that he got into a short scrap with a pair of 109s. He shot away the long-range fuel tank on one and saw it flip over and dive for the mountains. He lost it in the ground haze so he never knew whether it crashed. Encounters with Axis aircraft were few and far between, his next incident was 16 flights later when he chased a Fw-190 to Rome but had to turn back due to fierce Flak over the city.|
It wasn't until Feb. 20 that the Germans came out in force. Eddie and his Squadron mates spotted over 20 Fw-190 dive-bombers with a top cover of 109s heading for Anzio. The Germans immediately dived and 92 Squadron dove after them. Eddie and his wingman caught up to a pair of Fw-190s. His wingman shot the tail off of one and Eddie sent his target flaming into the ground.
Three days later they were loitering over the beach waiting for a Squadron of B-26 Marauders when they were notified of enemy aircraft approaching.
"The 190s and 109s were seen coming down the coast N-S from the Rome area, at two o'clock to my section. They were about 500 feet above my four aircraft. I was hoping they (Huns) wouldn't see us and we could climb up into them - it worked, partially. I ordered my 3 and 4 to go echelon starboard (right) so we could turn left as steep as required to come up underneath the huns. I timed the turn and climb so that we came up underneath the last 109s from about 50 feet. They had not seen us. My no 3 and 4 who, even if they didn't hear the order, should have crossed underneath as normal. However, when I completed my last few degrees turn-in it put my no 3 almost in front, and to avoid a collision he pulled straight up which placed him in front of the last 109s at about 13,500 feet. At this time I was below and slightly behind a 109 so that his wingspan spread outside my windscreen. I fired and it went down. Then I noticed another 109 had lined up on my No. 3. I diverted my attention to it, from about 100 yards and fired. It too went down. Then I fired at another - chunks came off - then all the 109s half-rolled going straight down. I half-rolled after them and my cannons froze on. I continued to fire at two different 109s no more than 150 yds ahead. Chunks were seen to come off. At about 7,000 feet my cannons were out of ammo and I now thought that some of the 190s who went ahead could be coming down behind me. So, I changed the direction of my Spitfire from straight down to straight up. I pulled back on the stick so hard that I blacked out from the g forces, for several moments. I came to again at about 13,000 feet. I couldn't see another aircraft around. Looking down I saw a 190 diving steeply about 5,000 feet below. I gave chase and closed to 250 yds at deck level right at the front line, a few miles east of Anzio. I fired two short bursts with my 303 machine guns, the 190 caught fire. The pilot tried to sideslip the flames away from the cockpit as he slowed up, but his wingtip hit the ground and he crashed."Breaking hard to port, he never flew straight and level for long, he spotted another 190 on an attack run with his guns flashing. Eddie, now with his wingman, just made it under the 190 as it passed overhead and watched it thunder into the ground at full speed. They turned for home when suddenly he heard a loud noise and his cockpit filled with smoke. Quickly checking his instuments and controls he found everything working. His wingman reported a 12 inch hole right through the fusilage just behind the cockpit. They later agreed that it was likely from an 88 mm Flak cannon. Fortunately it hadn't exploded or he wouldn't have known what hit him. Luck was still riding with him.
Two weeks later Eddie was promoted to Squadron Leader and sent to command 274 Squadron, RAF. They were flying Spitfire Vs from Canne on the east coast of Italy. Their missions were a mixture of bomber escort, dive-bombing and strafing. His last mission in Italy with 274 Squadron was nearly his last mission altogether. Heading out on a strafing mission around Rome his aircraft developed a glycol leak over the mountains. The cockpit quickly filled with white smoke and the engine temperature began to climb rapidly. Knowing how quickly the high performance engine would overheat and seize up Eddie began looking for a place to land in the rugged, snowy mountains. He spotted a small clearing near the top of a mountain and headed for it. He opened the cockpit, undid his harness and prepared to bail out. Banking the aircraft with a slight skid to clear the smoke he discovered he was too low to jump and would have to crash land. Just as he approached the edge of the clearing the engine blew up and he lost consciousness. How he survived the crash was a mystery to everyone. The rest of the Squadron circled the wreckage, seeing no movement one flight continued on with the mission and the other returned to base to report the crash of their Squadron Leader. Again Lady Luck rode with Eddie. A Gurkha gun battery located on a nearby hillside saw the crash and promptly made their way to it. As they were raised in the Himalayas the Italian mountains were a small matter for them. They found him thrown clear of the aircraft still alive and took him down the mountainside to a nearby field hospital. A doctor put 13 stitches into the back of his head, and 11 over his eye. Eddie came-to the next morning when a nurse wiped his face. A week later he hitch-hiked back to the Squadron and appeared before them, swathed around the head like one of his Gurkha saviours. The Squadron had given him up for dead and were dumb-founded when he strode into the mess. He was just in time, for the Squadron was ordered back to England to support the D-Day invasion of Europe. His record over Italy was another three "official" victems for a total of 18 1/2 and several damaged.
On his 23rd birthday, June 5, 1944 they were notified that the invasion of "Fortress Europe" would begin the next day. June 6th saw them on a shipping patrol over the Channel ready to intercept any German ship foolish enough to venture near the invasion fleet. They could see ships as far as the horizon steaming towards France. Near the shore battleships lit the sea and sky with broadsides from their massive guns, closer in destroyers concentrated their fire on gun emplacements. German guns replied in kind from hidden pill boxes. Aircraft swarmed everywhere and the danger of collision was high (W/C Lloyd Chadburn was killed over Normandy in a collision with another Squadron mate). Their second flight of the day was to provide escort for the long rows of Dakotas pulling Horsa gliders filled with airborne troops intending to land behind the shoreline defenses. The next several days saw them in constant attendance on the ground troops at the beach head, but they saw no German aircraft so complete was their air cover. They continued ops over France from Detling, escorting bombers and flying sweeps that netted them nothing but sore butts and the undying gratitude of the bomber crews.
On June 28th while escorting Lancaster bombers over France they encountered a strange new aircraft, the rocket-powered Messerschmitt 163 "Komet". According to Eddie "It whizzed and zipped around the sky like a bumble-bee in a small room". However, it ignored them so it was perhaps on a test flight. They didn't see anymore of these small, yet dangerous aircraft. On their return they encountered another deadly German device, an unmanned V-1 jet-bomb. It closed on them rapidly from the same altitude. Quickly Eddie eased the stick down so it would just miss the Squadron. June, July and August proceded with little enemy contact, while the Second Tactical Airforce operating from French bases shot down droves of Luftwaffe aircraft over Caen where the Canadians were attempting to breakout from the Normandy coast.
Seven days into August, 1944 the squadron changed aircraft from the Spitfire to the Hawker Tempest. It was a big, sturdy aircraft faster than the Spitfire but not as refined. It could packed a lot of fire power with four wing cannons. They were now put onto patrolling over the French/Dutch coast and the channel for V-1s. The Germans were lauching them from prepared and mobile launch pads towards England. It took all of the power of the Tempest to catch these fast little "buzz bombs". It was hazardous work. Each V-1 carried 1,000 lbs of high explosive and frequently blew up when hit by cannon fire. More than a few pilots died in the subsequent explosion that they couldn't avoid.
Only a few days later Eddie finished his official second tour of duty, although by his log book he had flown enough for three tours. He was posted back to Canada for rest and a tour to promote war bonds. He was also awarded a bar to his DFC. For some reason the brass in the RCAF thought he would benefit from twin-engine experience and he was posted to 3 SFTS for flying on Ansons and Cranes. He wasn't impressed with this duty, but he got to play hockey again.
|Before long he was back to Europe and was promoted to Wing Commander. He replaced the famed Johnnie Johnson as WingCo Flying of 127 Wing, RCAF. He was once more under the command of Stan Turner, now a Group Captain. The Wing was composed of 421 "Red Indian" Sqdn, 416 "City of Oshawa" Sqdn, 403 "Wolf" Sqdn and 433 "Hornet" Sqdn. The day he took over command the Wing's squadrons were sent to attack railroad targets, cross roads and a marshalling yard. Two days later he made his first flight in command of the Wing on a dive-bombing mission and destroyed a few inconsequential targets. All of the important targets had been hit, over and over again. They were down to attacking the small things. Shortly they were operating from German soil, first from tents, then from established German facilities.|
Eddie's 373rd, and last, combat sortie ended in the same way as his first had, with the downing of an enemy aircraft. He was leading 443 Squadron on an armed recce north of Kiel when a Ju-88 was spotted. One flight dove on the aircraft and peppered it with cannon and machine gun fire, but it refused to go down. Eddie brought his flight down behind the plane and fired a long burst at it. With both engines on fire the plane crashed. This was the last wartime victory of 127 Wing. Two days later the war was over.
"The war seemed worn out by then. Every mission in the last two months visibly indicted the Jerries were finished, but they wouldn't give up. Now they had nowhere to go - they were bottled up, but like us, they had been fighting so long they couldn't visualize it being over - not having to get airborne and fire the guns in anger and dodge the flak anymore. The whole dismal war effort had become our lives and careers for so long, we just couldn't appreciate any other way of peaceful co-existance."
Following Trenton he was posted as OC Vampire Flight, training pilots on Canada's first jet fighter. As no regular fighter squadrons were formed around the de Havilland Vampire, the Vampire Flight instructors trained men attached to Auxiliary Squadrons at Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. This is where Omer Levesque got his first experience on Vampires and would become Canada's first pilot to down a Russian built MiG 15 jet fighter over Korea.
In the fall of 1948 he was posted to OC Flying at St. Hubert outside of Montreal. He was in charge of Regular Force Staff, as well as training and administering 401 and 438 Reserve Squadrons from Montreal.
A year later he moved to British Columbia to head up RCAF Station Sea Island operating a Search and Rescue Unit flying Lancasters and Canso Flying Boats. Now his twin-engine experience from 1944 came in handy as he was checked out on these two aircraft. Following this post he headed up a Vancouver recruiting depot for six months while waiting for a posting more in line with his experience. Finally, he was posted back to St. Hubert and then North Bay, Ontario where in 1951 he formed Canada's first squadron of North American F-86 jet fighters as 430 Sabre Squadron. The Korean War was raging by this time and some of his pupils from Vampire Flight were posted to American Sabre Squadrons defending South Korea.
In 1952, he finally returned to his war rank of Wing Commander and was posted to France to lead 2 RCAF Wing flying Sabres over the continent and maintaining a NATO presence in Europe. He again commanded his old Squadrons numbers 430, 416 and 421. To get to Europe they developed a flight plan to fly from St. Hubert, Quebec to Goose Bay, Labrador, then to a staging and radar base called Bluie West on Sonderstorm, to Keflavik, Iceland, to Prestwick, Scotland and finally to Grostenquin, France. The Cold War against the Russians was building in Europe with the Russians engaging in displacing the governments in Czechslovakia and Hungary. NATO could not afford to be quiescent about the defense of the rest of Europe that was trying to rebuild from the war.
He spent nearly three years in Europe flying Sabres before he was returned to Canada to attend Staff College and was then posted to the USAF Air Defense HQ in Colorado Springs, Colorado for four years. This organisation was the heart and sole of the North American Air Defense (NORAD) network during the Cold War period and was considered to be a very important posting. On return to Canada in 1959 he took a refresher course in flying and then took the OTU on Canada's one and only operational aircraft, the CF-100 Canuck (also known affectionately as the "Clunk") at RCAF Base Cold Lake, Alberta. The Canuck was one of the world's first all-weather, day-night interceptors and was highly regarded in this role.
The Cold War was now at it's peak, with the Russians trying to infiltrate nuclear missiles to Cuba and the American's demanding their withdrawal. Eddie was assigned a staff job as Deputy Sector Commander of Ottawa Sector, Lac St. Denis, Quebec. Shortly after he was transferred to 41st Air Division at North Bay, Ontario as Deputy Operations Officer operating a new radar base running the Semi-Automatic Ground Radar Equipment (SAGE). This was the second line of radar defense for NORAD for the detection and tracking of nuclear missiles that were expected to be launched by the Russians over the north pole. The first line were the DEW Line sites being built along the Arctic coast. It was a tedious, but important position. Fortunately, nothing warrented their use.
In 1966, he was back to Colorado Springs as Plans Officer Staff at NORAD HQ. His last posting was rather inglorious as the CO, Canadian Forces Station Badly Hughes, another radar unit in north-central B.C. southwest of Prince George. He held the rank of Wing Commander from 1952 to 1972, but with the unification of the Canadian forces in 1969 he was converted to the equivalent Army rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He retired in 1969 from the RCAF.
Somewhere in his post-war history, his nickname changed from "Eddie" to "Stocky". This was based not on his physique, which was anything but stocky, but on his nature. He refused to let anyone or anything get the better of him, and he played by the rules given to him.
Today, Stocky Edwards and his wife Toni live in Comox, B.C. in happy retirement. Some of the aircraft images in this biography were painted by Stocky and he reviewed and assisted in the writing of this biography.
A Tomahawk is made ready for action. (ld 2734, IWM)