RAF cover British retreat in the desert

Flying Officer E M "Imshi" Mason of No. 274 Squadron RAF Detachment relaxes on his parachute after hitchhiking by air and road back to the Detachment's base at Gazala, Libya, following an aerial combat 10 miles west of Martuba in which he shot down three Italian Fiat CR 42s, and then had to force-land near his victims. Mason was at this time the most successful fighter pilot in the Western Desert, having shot down 13 enemy aircraft during the First Libyan campaign, all with 274 Squadron. He added a further two victories in Malta and Iran, flying with No. 261 Squadron RAF. He was posted back to the Western Desert in January 1942 to take command of No. 94 Squadron RAF and was shot down and killed on 15 February while leading this unit on its first operation flying the new Curtiss Kittyhawk. Mason was noted for being the only bearded pilot in the RAF.

In the desert British forces were being forced back by Rommel's surprise attack. The RAF sought to delay the pursuit as best they could:

Throughout the week, our fighter and bomber aircraft carried out a series of continuous and highly successful attacks on enemy forces and M.T. operating in the battle area, and heavy casualties were inflicted on troops and vehicles.

A particularly successful attack was made on the 26th, when our fighters, in spite of severe sand-storms, continuously machine-gunned M.T. and tanks moving between Antelat, Saunnu, Msus and Charruba. At least 120 vehicles were destroyed or damaged and many enemy troops were killed or wounded. Our bombers had already helped to disorganise enemy movement towards Msus by dropping 40 tons of bombs in continuous attacks throughout the previous night.

Our fighters also carried out several protective sweeps over the forward troops. During one of these, five Hurricanes intercepted a formation of 30 enemy aircraft near Msus, destroying four and damaging three without loss to themselves.

Shipping in Tripoli (L) harbour was heavily attacked by Wellingtons. A naval vessel and what appeared to be a flak ship were set on fire, and hits were obtained on the quays alongside which several ships were lying. Other Welling­ tons bombed the jetty at Buerat El Hsun and buildings and M.T. near Sirte.

Great activity was maintained by enemy fighters, which, in addition to carrying out several sweeps over the battle area, provided escorts for dive-bombing formations. Enemy long-range bombers operating from Libyan bases were also employed against our forward troops and vehicles, but the greater part of the German long-range bombers operated from Greece against land and sea communi­ cations along the Cyrenaican coast.

From the Air Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/21/26

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