Fighters clash over the Desert

A lorry passes by a sign that warns of the danger of low-flying enemy aircraft in the Western Desert, 22 March 1942.

In the Libyan desert James Brown was with the South African division on the Gazala Line. It was a relatively quiet time as both sides sought to build up their reserves for the next big push. On the 27th March 1942 he recorded in his diary a diversion in the air over their lines:

Just about suppertime a patrol of Hurricanes came leisurely overhead, circling and wheeling idly as if on the look-out for something. Sure enough about five minutes later a formation of twelve Stukas with escorts came by, hugging the coast on their way home. Everyone rushed to the top of the escarpment to watch the struggle. Excitement was intense.

The enemy escort drew off some of our fighters, but other Hurricanes which had by now climbed to a dizzy height, dived like thunderbolts on the Stukas quickly followed by the top-cover Messerschmitt escort who were still higher. The first Hurricane to dive came streaking down the coast followed by a Messerschmitt, firing its cannons in furious bursts, peppering the air with black smoke puffs. They burst in the air and on the ground in front of us. The two machines, not more than a hundred yards apart, flashed overhead, hugging the ground.

The ack-ack opened on them both and hits were seen to register on the ‘schmitt’. In furious bursts of shellfire they flashed over the hill and vanished. In different parts of the sky, meanwhile, individual machines rolled and dived in combat. One of ours tore by with his tail in tatters, to crash about two miles behind the lines and one of the Germans which had dodged the ack-ack came down in a cloud of dust about the same distance away, presently catching fire and rolling great clouds of black smoke into the air.

The whole show was over in about two minutes but in that time it was said (unofficially) that two of ours and two Stukas were destroyed. Some fighting, this in the air. Very brief, very exciting. Terribly short-lived. One day you’re on his tail the next he’s on yours and the ground is flashing up at you and it’s over. Thank you … not me.

James Ambrose Brown wrote one of the outstanding accounts of the Desert war in his diary, Retreat to Victory: Springboks’ Diary in North Africa – Gazala to El Alamein, 1942 (South Africans at War).

Troops are shown the effects of anti-tank rounds on a knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank, 30 March 1942.

The burnt remains of the radio-operator of a German PzKpfw IV tank is hoisted out of his compartment, 30 March 1942.

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