From the Estate of Hugh Furse
R. Emrys Jones’ story about 238 Squadron was found on the WW2 People’s War Homepage. 47, 000 people told their story about WWII. R. Emrys Jones’ story is about 238 Squadron when it was stationed in the Middle East.
Contributed by R. Emrys Jones
I was born 8th May 1920 in Talsarnau, Meirionethshire, North Wales and when war broke out I was doing my apprenticeship as a Pharmacist in Penrhyndeudraeth. I realised in January 1940 that it would be impossible for me to go to college because of the war so I volunteered for air crew in the Royal Air Force but failed the Medical so joined the Royal Air Force Medical Department. I did my training at the Medical School at Halton and experienced the Battle of Britain and then was posted to the RAF Officers’ Hospital which had taken over the fine and famous Palace Hotel at Torquay.
Amongst the patients at the hospital were the most severely injured and maimed casualties of the Battle of Britain including severely burnt aircrew. The famous plastic surgeon Alex MacInode worked wonders to bring back some normality to severely scarred faces and limbs. From Torquay I was posted to join a forward fighter squadron at Chilbolton near Middle Wallop. The squadron had received an overseas posting and was equipped with Hurricanes. There were four of us medics who had been together at Halton and Torquay. We stayed together for another two and a half years in the desert and I couldn’t have wished for a finer bunch of lads to be with.
The main echelon left Middle Wallop at the end of May en route for the Middle East on the troopship “Duchess of Bedford”, a ship of the Canadian Pacific Fleet and because of the shallowness of the St. Lawrence River her keel was shorter than normal ships. Therefore in the “Roaring Forties” round the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, she rolled and we called her “The Rolling Duchess”. We joined the ship at Greenock, near Glasgow, but it was a fortnight before we sailed as the German warship Bismarck was around and being chased. So as soon as she was sunk [27 May, 1941] we sailed. The voyage was almost out westwards towards America to escape the submarines. It was a large convoy with aircraft carriers, destroyers and cruisers. Some way out they left us for action and we then turned eastwards to Freetown to take water. There were over 4,000 troops on board so as soon as we joined the ship we were recruited for work in the hospital and sick bay and were busy all voyage. We were not allowed off the ship at Freetown and in the three days we were there many of the troops developed Malaria. At Capetown we were allowed on shore and the South African families took many of us into their homes and entertained us.
By the time we were in Mombassa one of the Malaria patients had developed Cerebral Malaria and had a very high temperature and died. We had the job of stitching him in canvas with weights at the feet and he was buried at sea. This was our first experience with death and it was very moving. The Welsh-speaking Padre, the Reverend Emrys Davies, took the funeral service; the ship slowed down for the service and the burial. The RAF Padre gave constant services throughout the voyage. He was very good for morale and organised a Welsh choir so that we could entertain the troops. All kinds of games, boxing etc. were also organised to keep the troops from getting bored and in the evenings Housey, Housey were played all over the ship. Hundreds slept on deck at night as the hammocked areas under sea level were extremely stuffy and smelly. We arrived at Port Tewfik near Port Suez, disembarked and were taken to the transit camp and slept on the sand. Most had Sand-fly Fever in a few days, which is a horrible sickness with very high temperatures and thundering, severe headaches. We were moved to El Firdan where the complete squadron had severe dysentery, over a third of the personnel had to be admitted to hospital at Alexandria. Within a month we were moved to Landing Ground 92 (South West of Alexandria).
The pilots under our Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Fenton, had embarked on the Aircraft Carrier Victorious at Scapa Flow which after a skirmish with the German battleship Bismark, the ship arrived in the Mediterranean with a stop at Gibraltar. The Hurricanes took off near Majorca en route for Malta (Ta Kali) to re-fuel, then on to Landing Ground 07 Gerwala before finally arriving at Abu Sueir in Egypt. The squadron at that point had no aircraft of its own and the pilots were attached to 274 Squadron for operations. When the ground crews arrived the whole squadron got together again at L.G. 92 (Amariya) but did not become operational until October with Hurricane IIs flown in from Takaradi by the squadron pilots.
The War in the desert was very fluid which meant that the Squadron was constantly on the move. By September, the Hurricanes were flying patrols from the Sidi Haneish and Marten Bagulsh Landing Grounds. Advancing with the 8th Army, 238 Squadron was at L.G. 123 (Fort Maddelena on the Libyan border, well south in the desert), by November 1941, MSUS (where there was heavy fighting) by December and Antelat by early January 1942. It was then a case of trotting up and down the desert a couple of times as the Axis troops advanced and then the 8th Army pushed them back. Then there was a final retreat from the Torruck area all the way to El Alamein. The Squadron was re-equipped with the Older Hurricanes owing to lack of spares for the Hurricane IIs. It was very disappointing to have to retreat after all the fighting and gain of ground. Unfortunately as ground was captured the supply line got longer and transporting all supplies over rough desert roads, including fuel and water, was difficult.
By the eve of the El Alamein Push, the squadron moved to a desert-landing ground right behind the front line. The ground crew and all its equipment and supplies were all in place with all the vehicles heavily draped with camouflage netting and well dispersed but the Hurricanes were kept back until first light as it depended on the progress of the battle, whether we would be retreating or staying to become operational at first light.
At 9.40 p.m. on October 23rd, the opening of the battle was marked by the flash and thunder of a barrage fired simultaneously by 456 guns on the main front. This was a most terrific noise and the flashes of the guns lit the sky. We were ordered to bed to sleep as we had to be up before dawn to a long day’s work; somehow we slept in spite of the noise, as we knew from experience, we would soon be told if there was a retreat.
For the Desert Air Force, the battle had begun four days earlier, with a heavy bombing programme against enemy airfields. By this time we had gained air superiority almost before the battle begun. The Bomber Squadron of Bostons, Baltimores and Mitchells operated effectively in daylight with cover from the fighter squadrons against the Axis forces which presented attractive targets as they concentrated to meet the 8th Army’s attacks. The light bombers flew in tight formations of eighteen aircraft. We took pleasure in watching the “Eighteen Impenturnabables” go over and see our fighter squadron joining to escort them. On one occasion (October 28th) they went over seven times in the space of two and a half hours. It was therefore an admirable two-way operation with the Desert Air Force and the Eighth Army in complete partnership. The Western Desert Air Force consisted of almost the whole Allied Air Force in the Middle East.
As the Axis retreated, we advanced from landing ground to landing ground keeping up with the rapid movement of the tanks. These landing grounds were familiar to us as we had used them many times before in our pushes and retreats. They were just cleared airstrips in the desert wastes. Flat areas that had just been cleared of camel thorn and bumps in the ground.
By the time we reached Mersah Matruh, the front of the retreating vehicles had almost reached Antelat and Agedabia — too far for the Fighters’ fuel to take them there and back. Our Wing Commander Darwen had a brilliant plan. He decided that two hurricane squadrons (No. 213 and 238) would operate from far behind the Retreating Axis Army at a landing ground behind the German line. This was about 180 miles east of Agedabia deep in the desert. So on a significant date — Friday, 13th November — essential ground staff and masses of supplies were airlifted by Aircraft Hudsons and Bombays to Landing Ground 125 on the morning of November 13th and thirty six Hurricanes followed. By two o’clock in the afternoon, twenty four hurricanes took off immediately and began operations against the long lines of retreating vehicles of the unsuspecting Axis transport destroying or damaging three hundred vehicles. During the three days 156 sorties had been flown by the two squadrons. On the 16th November a German Recognisance Aircraft came over and spotted us so we had to make a retreat. However, on the final day our Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Marples, led eleven aircraft of 238 Squadron to chafe the coast road by Agheila, during which 42 vehicles were hit. In the whole exercise only three of our aircraft were lost whilst a large number of Axis vehicles and 14 Axis aircraft were destroyed. Four Hurricanes were too badly damaged to return at the end so were destroyed so they could not be taken by enemy hands. By mid-day on the 16th November, the Hudsons had arrived to fly back the ground crews although some did travel back overland. For defence and support, a section of the Long Distance Desert Troops had joined us in the operation.
The Squadron Leaders of 238 and 213 Squadron, Roy Marples, D.F.C. (later the Member of Parliament and Transport Minister), and Peter Oliver, D.F.C., both earned an immediate Bar to their Distinguished Flying Crosses for these operations.
From then on the Squadron moved up with the advance of the Army, passing at all the familiar landing grounds such as Gambut, El Adarn, Gazala, Benina, finishing at Martuba on 28th November 1942.
13th January 1943 saw the Squadron moving back to the Canal Zone, to El Gamil Port Said during which time they were re-equipped with Spitfires, getting the IX Version. Their flying life consisted of convoy patrols and Delta defence scrambles, although in July they did some low level sorties over Crete.
In March 1944 the Squadron left for Corsica and operated over Monte Casino Viterbo, Genoa, Elba, Bolognia, Florence and Sienna. They also did bomber escorts to Leghorn, Pisa, Prato, Savonna and Spezia. The Squadron left Corsica for Southern France on 30th August 1944.
However, much against my wishes, before the Squadron left Egypt, I was posted to the Principal Medical Officer’s office at RAF Headquarters Levant, situated opposite Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and the staff were billeted in the Nunnery Notre Dame de France, a little up the hill just outside the City Wall.
This is another story, an experience I would never have missed.