100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

Desert Strike

By Kenneth Pryce-Wilson

Forward by Juliet Charles

My father, Kenneth Pryce Wilson (Ken), applied for and was accepted into the RAAF. He trained first as a pilot and instructor at Wagga, then attended Officers’ School in Somers. He emerged with the rank of Flying Officer and on Good Friday, 10th April, 1941, set sail from Sydney Harbour.

He initially fought in the Middle East, and his first post was with a British Squadron – No. 14. He was the only Australian. During his time in the Middle East, he clocked up many hours piloting Ansons, Wirraways and Blenheims I, IV and V to name just some of the aircraft. He was involved in countless raids and “sorties” as well as training other young pilots in Blenheims and other aircraft.

After the Middle East he served in New Guinea, flying Beaufighters, which were nicknamed “Whispering Death”.

He achieved the rank of Squadron Leader during his years of service.

“Desert Strike” is one of many stories he wrote in later years about his experiences in the Middle East.

Desert Strike

Ken awakened slowly and looked around the tent. The other four officers were stirring. It would be another cold day and the rest of the squadron – all pilots of Blenheim IV bombers - was on standby. For weeks they had been attacking targets behind German lines, ranging beyond Tobruk and Benghazi.

After they’d washed and dressed, the men wandered over to the cook tent and breakfasted on tinned bacon, biscuits and sweet tea – the same as every other day.

Kenneth Pryce Wilson, 18/3/16 – 27/4/96Kenneth Pryce Wilson, 18/3/16 – 27/4/96© Kenneth Pryce Wilson, 1989He was the only Australian in this British Squadron; his navigator was English and his wireless operator-rear gunner was Scottish. They’d crewed together months before at the final training school in Ismailia and had now clocked up 25 operational trips. The war in the desert was becoming more intense and casualties were mounting. He wondered what today’s target would be. After breakfast he and his crew walked to his Blenheim, and together with the ground staff, made his usual daily inspection. It was cold, but he was warm in his battle dress, scarf and fur-lined flying boots. He watched carefully as the armourers winched four 250 pound bombs into the belly of the aircraft. The bombs were fitted with extension rods to ensure explosion on impact with the ground – essential when bombing vehicle traffic on the road and armoured vehicles in the open desert. He then went to the Operations tent to discuss the day’s flying with the Commanding Officer (CO).

Buck was at his desk finishing the routine paper work which he loathed and usually left to his adjutant, Jock. Buck was a born operational pilot - absolutely fearless - and flew on every possible occasion. “We’re going to El Aguila,” he said. “It’s on again – a big tank battle in progress and our target is the supply units behind the battle. It’s a full-scale job. Three squadrons including the Free French Lorraine. We’re leading and you will fly No. 2. We’ll have a Hurricane escort – take off at 1200 hours.”

With a few hours to wait, he went back to the tent and prepared his equipment – flying helmet, revolver in holster and seat parachute. He wrote some letters home then sat in the Officers’ Mess tent with the other pilots.

The Intelligence Officer struck a gong outside the Operations tent, signalling the commencement of the operation. He joined the others gathered around a trestle table spread with maps covering the flight path. The briefing was detailed and covered the battle situation and enemy aircraft expected. Formation positions were allotted. As No. 2 to the CO he had to maintain a position on the CO’s starboard side, tucked in so tightly that the wings of each machine overlapped. On the port side, the leader of the next Vic1, No. 3, was in a similar position, maintaining his position “in the box” with his nose just under the CO’s tail wheel.

This basic Vic formation was repeated for as many planes as were flying. It was tight, giving mutual protection and allowing for accurate bombing of the desert road.

After briefing, he and his crew were driven to his aircraft. Following another look around, they boarded and prepared for take-off. Pre take-off drill and inter communication checks completed, they waited for the light-flare signal for take-off. He signalled his readiness, started the port engine and pressed the start button. The engine fired, hesitated and then ran steadily. He throttled back and started the starboard engine. After the engines had warmed sufficiently, he ran each one up in turn to full revolutions with the stick hard back and full brakes, then tested the magnetos2 for revolution performance. Satisfied, he taxied to the take-off point. The wheel chocks were pulled away, the locking pins removed from the undercarriage and after the wave from the ground staff he was ready. The CO’s plane moved forward and he fell into line behind him, all the other planes of the squadron following in their allotted places.

He put his plane into position and watched the CO. He pushed the throttles forward as he saw the CO’s plane move, and gathering speed, maintained his position. Tail up, full throttle, and they were air-borne. He breathed his usual short prayer, “Lord, bring us safely down.” The leading Vic turned across the landing ground, slowly gaining height. The following Vics took off in their turn and closed up. Soon they were in full formation and circling the landing ground. They continued to circle and climb as the other squadrons took off in turn and fell in behind. The Hurricane escort moved up alongside. The full formation of 36 planes was now heading west at 10,000 feet. The hard work of keeping perfect position in the formation occupied his full concentration, but out of the corner of his eye, he could see the Mediterranean, the fortress of Tobruk, and the desert stretching out on all sides.

An hour later, they were approaching the target area. Below in the desert, were the dust trails of hundreds of vehicles – tanks, cars, transporters, fuel lorries, all churning up the earth in a swirling pattern. Radio silence had been maintained throughout the whole trip, but now there was a sudden clamour from the navigators and gunners. “Enemy aircraft coming down.” He automatically edged his plane and hung on grimly, throttles opening and closing to maintain the correct distance. His left hand gripped the control column wheel like a clamp. He was too busy to be afraid. He saw the black form of a Messerschmidt 109 flash vertically past the CO’s plane and at the same moment, No. 3, the plane on the other side of the CO, burst into flames and fell away from the formation. What happened to it, he never found out. The formation continued to circle the battle area, and it was clear that in the mixed melee below, no target could be identified.

The CO turned east to straddle the main road, which was crammed with enemy vehicles coming up to the battle area. The navigators in each aircraft had already activated their bombing switches and were watching the planes in front of them, for it was the practice to bomb in unison when they saw the bombs leaving the leading aircraft. If the Leader’s aim was accurate, a pattern of bombs, thirty yards wide, and half a mile long, would fall on the Macadam road among the vehicles located there. Positioning the formation, bombing, and then moving away, must be done immediately. This was to avoid the ack-ack coming up from the guns firing from the road. Turning sharply and tied to the CO’s plane as though to a string, he sensed they were over the road. But he was concentrating so fiercely that he was hardly aware of it until his navigator cried “bombs gone.”

The formation now turned for home. The Hurricane escort, which had broken to engage the enemy aircraft, ranged alongside, and the tension lessened. The formation opened up a little for more ease in flying and soon they were approaching the home landing ground. Squadron after squadron separated and after landing, taxied to their own areas.

He landed in turn after the CO and taxied to his dispersal point. He massaged his left hand which was like a claw after three hours of gripping the control column, turned off the engines and left the aircraft.

His navigator said “we lost two, and the other squadron six, as far as I can see”. The pick-up truck took him and the crew to the Operations tent for debriefing. After his turn, he gathered his gear and went to the Mess. It was 3.45 pm and he had missed his lunch, but he was back on the ground unharmed and he had survived again – but for how long?

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  1. The Vic, or Vic formation is a formation devised for military aircraft and first used during World War 1. It comprises three or more aircraft flying in close formation, with the leader at the apex and the rest of the flight en echelon to the left and right, the whole resembling a “V” shape.
  2. An aircraft magneto is an engine driven electrical generator that uses permanent magnets and coils to produce high voltage to fire the aircraft spark plugs.
© Kenneth Pryce Wilson, 1989, Edited by Juliet Charles, 2018/2019

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