Surviving an aircraft crash in the desert

A Hawker Hurricane Mark IID of No. 6 Squadron RAF gives a demonstration of the firepower of its Vickers 40mm Type S anti-tank guns against derelict German tanks in the North African desert.

A Stuart tank being refuelled from an RAF fuel bowser outside Sidi Barrani, 15 November 1942.

In the Western Desert the pursuit of the Afrika Korps continued. For RAF units the race was on to establish new airfields in the forward area so that Allied aircraft had the range to stay with the ground forces.

Fred Oldfield was a RAF Air Gunner with 221 Squadron based at Shallufa, near Suez, Egypt. He led a charmed existence because this was the third of four occasions when he survived an aircraft crash:

On November 15th 1942 we were called upon to ferry barrels of oil and petrol to Gambut, which was quite well up towards Tobruk. This was required for the fighter aircraft which had followed hard on the heels of the Eighth Army, and we loaded the aircraft and flew the several hundred miles to Gambut. The place was like a beehive, people all over the place, but we got a mug of tea and a bite to eat from a mobile caravan. By this time we had got a new Sqdn C.O. – Wing Commander Jock Hutton – and he was at Gambut. He was a smashing bloke and he stood in the queue with the rest of us, with a mess tin in his hand.

We took on five passengers – ground crew chaps – and this skipper of ours, had to show off by flying a few feet from the ground the whole way back. Whenever he saw some kind of a camp he would beat it up, blowing down tents, then going out over the sea where you could see great big troughs where the slip stream hit the water.

We were so low we were practically touching the water and he was laughing, this being just his kind of thing. It was obvious to me that something would go wrong, and I prepared myself in the usual position, under the astrodome. Then it happened – he flew the aircraft into the ground. There was a slight rise and he flew the aircraft into it. The engines screamed, the propellors bent and buckled and the belly of the aircraft was ripped out. We even went under some telegraph wires before plunging into the ground again, eventually coming to rest.

I was out of there very quickly. We all got out alive, but some of the passengers were injured. The ones who weren’t hurt soon had some tea brewed, by puncturing one of the wing tanks to get petrol, and brewing with usual half tins. The skipper ordered me to get back in the aircraft and send out an SOS on the radio. This was a bit dicey because there was petrol everywhere, and the generators for the radio gave off sparks. I climbed in and gingerly operated the switch, ready to dive for the hatch, but nothing happened and the SOS I sent, was in fact received in Malta and relayed back to our Squadron.

The skipper set out across the desert to look for help and we settled down around a small fire that our ground crew had got going, brewed some more tea and cooked the emergency rations of tinned sausages and tinned tomatoes, served up with hard tack biscuits. The skipper returned eventually with some blankets and we got down for the night around the fire. We were woken after a while by a sound, and it turned out to be a couple of Bedouin Arabs, looking for their sheep, which they said had been scattered by the Germans. They were very pleasant and even gave us some cigarettes.

The next morning we made our way to the road, stopped a few lorries and cadged some cigarettes. After a while we found a German stores which had been abandoned in such haste they were almost intact. We got all sorts of souvenirs; boots, haversack, ground sheet, shirt and shorts, a helmet and caps, and a jacket with the German eagle badge on it…. didn’t do us much good because we lost the lot later.

We had a high old time throwing mortar bombs around and were lucky we didn’t blow ourselves up. We quite enjoyed ransacking this German store.

One of our aircraft came up to rescue us. It was piloted by the Flight Commander, Harding – He couldn’t land, so he went back and arranged for a lorry to come and take us to LG013. I think they were South Africans at this landing ground and we were given a tent and slept on the ground.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

Flying Officer L C Wade of No. 33 Squadron RAF, photographed at Gambut, Libya, after being awarded the DFC for his successes in the Western Desert fighting.
Lance Wade, a Texan, joined the RAF in Canada in 1940 after being turned down by the USAAC. After pilot training in the United Kingdom, he joined No. 33 Squadron in Egypt and claimed his first victories on 18 November 1941 when he shot down two Italian Fiat CR42s. He took part in the heaviest fighting in the Western Desert before completing his first tour of operations in September 1942. He then toured training establishments and test-flew aircraft in the USA before returning to operations in North Africa as a flight commander with No. 145 Squadron RAF in January 1943. He was made Commanding Officer the following month and added to his victory claims over Tunisia, Sicily and Italy, before ending his second tour as the top-scoring Allied fighter pilot in the Mediterranean area in November 1943. Wade was promoted to Wing Commander and joined the staff at Desert Air Force Headquarters, only to be killed during a routine flight when his Auster spun and crashed at Foggia on 12 January 1944. He remains the highest-scoring American pilot to serve solely in the RAF, with 25 victories.

Flight Lieutenant J L Waddy of No. 260 Squadron RAF, sitting in the cockpit of the Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark I (named “Ve” after his wife) which he flew while a member of No. 250 Squadron RAF, at LG 91, Egypt. Waddy, an Australian, joined the RAAF in September 1940 and was posted to 250 Squadron RAF in Egyptin in November, following his pilot training. After claiming eight and one shared victories, he moved to 260 Squadron RAF at the end of May 1942. He enjoyed further success before being granted leave in June and joining No. 4 Squadron SAAF the following month. Waddy’s final operational posting in North Africa was to No. 92 Squadron RAF in October 1942, with whom he scored the last of his 16 victories. He then returned to Australia where, after a period as a flying instructor, he was given the command of No. 80 Squadron RAAF whom he led until June 1945.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

c December 28, 2017 at 4:45 am

there is a memorial in Portsmouth (viewable online) listing the names of the people whose lives were lost on HMS Algerine

Brock kerby September 11, 2014 at 4:33 am

I’m need some in sight on who the story is about . I had a great uncle crash in Egypt 1942 November 15-16. They were in a wellington bomber , they all survived . They were captured and escaped. His name was Michael Joseph Stewart Kerby or Stewart Michael kerby . He was with 108 squardon and also 37 squadron. He was wth a baker I believe . Please respond back! Thanks!

Surviving an air plane crash in the desert.

Editor November 15, 2012 at 9:23 am

Thank you very much for adding this – this site is all about individual events and personal stories.

HMS Algerine - Royal Navy minesweeper - built in 1941 sunk in 1942.

I could only find one photograph of HMS Algerine – you may be interested in getting a high resolution version from the IWM.

Martin November 15, 2012 at 8:16 am

Today, 15 November 1942, is also the date that my Great-Grandfather was killed-in-action, off the coast of Bougie, Algeria. His name was Thomas Kirby Reynolds (D.S.C. for service at Dunkirk), serving as a Commissioned Engineer on the mine-sweeper H.M.S. Algerine. The Italian submarine Ascianghi sank her during Operation Torch. There is an note about what happened after the sinking which you may find interesting, though tragic.

(From the Book “With Utmost Spirit” by Barbara Tomblin) – “A member of HMS Cadmus’s crew recalled, ‘About 4am we heard a thump astern. The Algerine, the first of our class, had been torpedoed, but as she was tail-end Charlie she was not missed until daylight. We carried carried the flotilla doctor so we went out to look for Algerine. She had sunk, but we picked up 32 survivors out of the water, all covered in oil. Their cox’n was the senior survivor and made out the list, all the ship’s officers had been killed.’ Cadmus landed the men at Bougie and they reported to the senior naval officer, but ‘later to our amazement we heard that 24 of them had died while at his office. We could not understand it, for after picking them up we had cleaned them of oil fuel, looked after minor injuries, given them a tot of rum and a meal, and in general made them comfortable. But the post-mortem showed that their stomachs had gone due to Algerine’s depth charges expoding as she sank – the 24 were all in the water when the charges went off. The eight other men who survived were on a Carley raft.’ Algerine’s tragedy had one positive outcome, however. All Allied ships in the theater were ordered not to arm their depth charges when leaving port, but only when attacking.”

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