No.18 Squadron nearly wiped out in V.C. attack

4th December 1942: No.18 Squadron RAF nearly wiped out, Wing Commander wins V.C.

During the war he proved himself to be an outstanding leader and commanding officer, who brought his squadron to a state of the highest efficiency by his personal example. Between the 11th November and 4th December the squadron had completed no less than 106 sorties. This officer’s last exploit was the finest example of the courage and unswerving devotion to duty which he had shown throughout his career.

A formation of five Blenheim Mark IVs (Z5893 ‘W’ nearest) of No. 14 Squadron RAF in flight over the Western Desert. A Curtiss Kittyhawk, one of the escorting fighters, can be seen on the far right.
An enemy supply train carrying guns and ammunition is set on fire near Bir Abu Mischeifa, during an attack by four Bristol Beaufighters of No. 252 Squadron RAF and three Bristol Bisleys of No. 15 Squadron SAAF. The photograph was taken from the observer’s position in one of the Beaufighters, as it flew away from the target.

As the British army in Tunisia ran into surprisingly stiff German resistance so too did the RAF. The short operational life of most of the men in No 18 Squadron was equal to the most intense periods of combat of any period of the war. They were flying Bristol Bisley aircraft, an armoured ground attack version of the Bristol Blenheim, later known as the Bristol Blenheim MkV.

Wing Commander Hugh Malcolm V.C. died leading No.18 Squadron on a ground attack mission in Tunisia.

It was their commanding officer who won the Victoria Cross but the recommendation for the award describes how the risks were alike for all the men in the Squadron:

Acting Wing Commander Hugh Gordon MALCOLM (33322) (deceased) No. 18 Squadron Eastern Air Command (sorties 39, operational hours 108). This officer, who had executed many night intruder attacks against enemy aerodromes in France and the Low Countries, commanded a Bisley squadron which arrived in North Africa on the 11th November, 1942. On the 17th November he was detailed to execute a low level formation attack on Bizerta airfield, taking advantage of cloud cover after the raid. The task was to be abandoned if insufficient cloud was available.

20 miles from the target the sky became clear but Wing Commander Malcolm continued his mission. All bombs were dropped within the airfield perimeter. A JU. 52 and a ME. 109 were shot down and many dispersed aircraft attacked by machine-gun fire. Owing to exceptionally rough weather conditions two of our aircraft were lost by collision, while another was forced down by anti-aircraft fire and a further was shot down by enemy fighters. It was due to this officer’s skilful leadership that the remaining aircraft returned safely.

On the 28th November the squadron, led by Wing Commander Malcolm, again bombed Bizerta airfield from a low altitude and then executed an attack from ground level with machine-guns, in the face of intense return fire. An attack was even made on a party of German soldiers who were trying to extinguish fires caused in the hangers.

The squadron was moved to an advanced airfield on the 1st December and on the 3rd December narrowly escaped attack by a formation of ME 109’s which carried out instead a successful attack on a formation of Lightning aircraft in the immediate neighbourhood.

On the 4th December Wing Commander Malcolm’s squadron was detailed to give Close support to the 1st Army, receiving orders by wireless from the rear link of the Army/Air support Control. He received by this means an instruction to attack an enemy satellite airfield near Chouigui. This was not a legitimate close support target and to attack such an objective with Bisley aircraft needed very accurate timing and close co-ordination with a fighter escort.

Wing Commander Malcolm was fully aware of these facts but, because of the nature of the call, its urgency and the confused state of the fighting, he did not hesitate. He took off immediately with his squadron and proceeded to the target.

When the mission had been completed the squadron was intercepted by an overwhelming force of enemy fighters. One by one its aircraft were shot down until only Wing Commander Malcolm’s aircraft remained. Finally, this was seen to be shot down in flames. The surviving pilots accord him high praise for the manner in which he controlled his hard-pressed squadron and attempted to maintain the formation.

Wing Commander Malcolm was seriously injured in a flying accident before the war but his enthusiasm for flying was undiminished. During the war he proved himself to be an outstanding leader and commanding officer, who brought his squadron to a state of the highest efficiency by his personal example.

Between the 11th November and 4th December the squadron had completed no less than 106 sorties. This officer’s last exploit was the finest example of the courage and unswerving devotion to duty which he had shown throughout his career.

See TNA AIR 2/4890. There is also an Imperial War Museum sound recording.

Bristol Bisleys of No. 15 Squadron SAAF attack a Junkers Ju 52 with bombs and machine gun fire after forcing it down in the Western Desert. The Bisleys, escorted by four Bristol Beaufighters of No. 252 Squadron RAF, intercepted the German transport aircraft while returning from a strike on an enemy train.
Cannon shells explode around the tail of a Junkers Ju 52 forced down in the Western Desert by three Bristol Bisleys of No. 15 Squadron SAAF, 12 October 1942. The starboard engine is already on fire, and a member of the crew can be seen lying face down on the ground beneath it.

10 thoughts on “No.18 Squadron nearly wiped out in V.C. attack”

  1. Those interested in reading a first-hand account of this tragic event should find the book “Carrier Observer”, by Gordon Wallace, copyright 1993 by Airlife Publishing Co. The author was one of the very few aircrew to have survived that fateful mission, albeit badly wounded. Oddly, he did not actually belong to the RAF but was, in fact, an FAA Observer, seconded to No. 18 Squadron after a year’s active service flying in Fairey Albacores with No. 813 Squadron aboard HMS Indomitable. Apparently, there was some expectation that No. 18 Squadron might be employed for anti-shipping attacks in the Mediterranean, so Wallace was seconded to the RAF squadron because of his experience in air navigation at sea. At the time of No. 18 Squadron’s debacle they were flying the Bristol Blenheim Mk V, which Wallace referred to in his book as the “Bisley”. Wallace did not have a high opinion of the “Bisley”, which he considered an overweight and under-powered development of the already-obsolete Blenheim. He believed that the squadron would have come out better if equipped with Douglas Bostons or N/A Mitchells instead.

  2. I am seeking any information about Squadron 18’s activities in Malta 1941-42, particularly any based at Luqa. I am researching the career there of Flight-sergeant Ronald Walker who was awarded the DFM & promoted Flight Lieutenant for his service there. Any contemporary accounts or other information would be gratefully received.

  3. Gents,
    We’re looking for examples of 18 Sqn nose art for reproduction on a special centenary Chinook, if anyone has any info or pics could they let me know , thanks

    Chris Tomlinson

  4. WWere can I find the Operations of 18 Squadron when it operated from Sicily Please ?

  5. 244 Squadron’s Blenheims, hard treated over Europe before we got them, were to be replaced by Bisleys crouching, dust covered in the sun. These roosted at Wadi Shariah in Palestine.

    On Sept.27,1942 I left Sharjah with 6 crammed in to pick the first batch up. One engine cut dead after takeoff at Bahrain just above the palms. Lots of underpants on the line that night. Including mine.

    Reached Gaza on the 30th. Plan,pilots choose a Bisley each,formate on me, we’d lead them to Sharjah. Were back to Sharjah on Oct. 4. Brought another lot back to Sharjah on 24th. Left 244 in December,went straight to 203 flying Baltimores at Benghazi. Volunteered not to take the several month break between tours.

    Heard 244 had 30 crashes in 2 years.


  6. Hi Martin,

    A fascinating bit of history today, with some great photos!

    And a correction: “his hand-pressed squadron” should read “his hard-pressed squadron”.

    Keith McLennan


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