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The Path to No 24 Squadron - SAAF

Ernest Wall, O.B.E. Scottish Saltire Branch. A.C.A.

After Wireless Operator training at RAF Madley I was awarded an 'S' brevet plus Sgt. rank RAFVR in early summer 1943. Thereafter, there was a period of 'interregnum' until I embarked on a converted New Zealand meat refrigerator ship in early 1944 for a nightmare 5-week voyage. Australian NCO's on board likened it to an 18th Century Australian convict ship! If torpedoed, there would have been no hope for the three hundred aircrew personnel housed in absolutely appalling conditions three levels down in the holds. Arriving in Egypt, a few days were spent at Almaza near Cairo, then we travelled to RAF El Ballah near the Suez Canal for Air Gunnery training over the Sinai Desert, hiding under mosquito nets at night to avoid marauding insects. After some weeks, I passed muster as 'AG' with the brevet to match, as the RAF did not like the Canadian 'WAG' version, then travelled by train to Palestine for a short conversion course on the mysteries of the American Bendix wireless equipment.

At this point, I had flown in three types of aircraft: Rapide and Proctor at RAF Madley, and Avro Anson at El Ballah. Realising I might never be able to visit this area again, I explored every historic site possible in Egypt and Palestine. Then occurred a highly significant event, I stupidly fell asleep on a beach during a visit to Tel Aviv and woke up in hospital suffering from heat stroke. While recuperating, I spotted a note inviting volunteers for the South African Air Force. Having missed my posting to OTU, I arrived at Gambut in theWestern Desert with no operational training in early May 1944 to join my SAAF Squadron.

Almost the first thing I noticed was a horrifyingly, large two-engined bomber taking off, that I subsequently discovered was a B26 Marauder. I had never even heard of a Marauder, somewhat unfairly dubbed by the Americans as "The Widow Maker."

The Glenn Martin Marauder carried a 4,000 lb bomb-load, had high landing and take-off speeds and a 6-man crew comprising the 1st Pilot, 2nd Pilot, Navigator/Bomb-Aimer, Wireless Op/Air Gunner, Mid-Upper Gunner and Tail Gunner. I was horrified to learn that having trained with .303 Browning guns, I was now expected to use .5 Brownings. It was also little comfort to learn we had been sent here as emergency replacements due to heavy losses suffered by No.24 Squadron - no doubt due to carrying out low-level raids on Crete, for which the Marauder was totally unsuited.

One highlight was a visit from Field Marshal Smuts; then almost overnight the Squadron was moved to Italy. This was the squadron's second visit to Italy, having already been based in Foggia. On this occasion we arrived at an operational airfield named Pescara on the Adriatic. Although my first operation on 11th July 1944 was aborted due to bad weather (not unusual in N. Italy); subsequent targets were marshalling yards, road/rail junctions, and bridges over the River Adige, and all over the northern battleground area. Among our targets were factories, German HQs, and often we were escorted so far by Spitfires, Kittyhawks or Mustangs. On occasions when an Army push was on (such as for the River Po) we flew three/four raids each day over a period of several days. These were low-level attacks dropping anti-personnel bombs - so much for the promise of no more of these due to the unsuitability of the Marauder!

When fully laden and on a final bombing run, the Marauder must have presented a tempting sight being slow and only at around 8,000 feet. We were therefore vulnerable to very accurate flak over most targets and quite a few of our aircraft were lost. Most returned with holes, and if one engine was knocked out, the Marauder was almost impossible to keep in the air.

Raids were between 1½ to over 3 hours and, until the end of winter, our targets included Rimini, Faenza, Pesaro, Budrio, Ravenna, Ferrara, Ancona, Lake Comacchio, Iesi and many others. After Army advances in November, the squadron was moved to Iesi where repairs due to our own bomb damage had to be tackled. Despite extremely bad weather with several inches of snow, many of us were living in tents!

After New Year 1945, our targets became much more widespread, operating over various areas of Yugoslavia to assist Partisans, then moving into southern Austria, near Innsbruck for example. Flights over the Alps and through mountain passes were quite spectacular although hairy experiences, particularly without oxygen at 10,000 feet. By the time we had moved to Iesi, I had become part of a settled crew with three South Africans(Army ranks) and three RAF gunners. One of the Wireless Operator's duties was to open the waist hatch near the target and, after bombs were dropped, to hang out of the aircraft with an extremely heavy, hand-held camera to take photographs. A small chain was attached to the floor for this purpose ('monkey-chain') with other end attached to aircrew jacket as no parachute could be worn when performing this duty. With the aircraft usually banking away, it was no surprise that a few Wireless Operators were lost, falling out to a horrible death.

In late March 1945, I was called to the C.O.'s tent to be told that I was tour-expired after 69 operations. The length of operational time was at the C.O.'s discretion, there being no set rules about grounding etc.

I spent April 1945 in the shadow of Vesuvius, the volcano having just erupted and by early May the circle was complete. I found myself back in Almaza having been discharged from S.A.A.F. control and awaiting a ship's passage back home. Of my two RAF gunner colleagues, one ended up in Kenya and the other in Singapore. I was so disappointed not being able to continue my own travels!

Looking back, it was a wonderful experience. I had learned a lot about life and had certainly grown up fast while serving with the S.A.A.F. Apart from operational flying, I had spent two spells in Rome on leave where I attended the opera and 'did' the sites. Later I did the same in Naples and Sorrento. Each month, the Union Defence Forces Institute (UDFI) had produced the "Jannie Smuts Goody Bags"(Jannie being wife of Field Marshal Smuts). These included a bottle of S.A. brandy - allegedly for medicinal purposes but this invariably only lasted one night in a riotous party! I was nearly charged on my return to UK as I had all the 'wrong' garments; e.g. 'posh' shirts, hand-made shoes, beautiful shorts etc. I still possess the black, red & white AG brevet marked 'A.G.LK' which was presented to me. The SAAF was Army-ranked with khaki unifiorms and red tabs. The brevets differed from the R.A.F. and commissions were automatically granted to all aircrew except Air Gunners, so little wonder Air Gunners were required from other sources. Looking back, it had been a wonderful experience serving with a 'different' Air Force. Rather like the 'Aussies', they were irreverent with authority and mainly worked to their own agenda - except on flying orders.

By contrast, after I returned to UK my Warrant Officer rank was down-graded to that of Sergeant in late 1946 (fortunately I had retained my Warrant Officer status long enough to ensure the comfort of a cabin on the Capetown Castle on my return). Due to the 'heat stroke' offence my Post War Credits virtually disappeared; and a grateful government's thanks for war service included an Income Tax demand, claiming that at some point I had been overpaid. Naturally, I refused to pay!

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