In the late 1960’s, Richard Acworth wrote an unpublished short story about the combat on 31 October 1940 as seen by him:
The Unfinished Game by Richard Acworth DFC
The powerful Canadian voice of Squadron Leader Algy Schwab sent mechanics racing across the arid, Western Desert landing ground at Gerawla towards the four single-seater Gloster Gladiator fighter aircraft of ‘A’ Flight stand-by Section of 112 Squadron. Deft hands manipulated the throttles and starter-batteries, and almost as one, the engines burst into life.
Schwab, Duff, Smith and myself had been whiling away the time playing ‘Pontoon’, along with the Station Padre, another Smith, known affectionately as ‘Slip-trench’.
We were a mixed bunch: Pilot Officer Bertie Duff and the Padre hailed from Australia, 2nd Lieut. Smith from South Africa, and myself, a Pilot Officer from England. We had been playing for about an hour, in the comparative shade of the recreation tent, when our peace was shattered by the hash ring of the ‘operations’ telephone. Algy had grabbed the ‘phone, and learned that our presence was requested at 18,000 feet, some fifty miles away at Mersa Matruh. Apparently, a formation of 25 Italian three-engined Savoia bombers had been reported in that direction from out at sea.
“Stick around Slip-trench! We’ll be back to finish”, Algy had poked the Padre playfully in the ribs, and addressed us, as he dashed by to alert the ground crews.
We raced towards our waiting aircraft, and climbed gingerly in, for, in spite of the hastily-removed cockpit covers, the sun-baked metal cockpits were about as hot as kitchen stoves in winter, and in our khaki shirts and shorts, we had respect for such heat.
“Mersa, fellers!...18,000 feet.!”
I settled down onto my parachute, already resting in the bucket seat, forming a cushion of sorts, and adjusted the straps. My ‘Fitter’ flung the Sutton harness straps over my shoulders, helped me to adjust the leg straps, and jumped down, shielding his face from the flying sand.
Waving away the ‘chocks’, I opened to full throttle, and taxied after Algy, who was almost in position for take-off. I formed up on his right, whilst Smith and Duff took up positions on his left. Algy glanced quickly at us in turn, and receiving the ‘thumbs-up” sign lowered his right arm, the signal for take-off. His aircraft moved forward, gathering speed extremely quickly, until the four of us were airborne in loose search formation.
We set course for Mersa Matruh, climbing on nearly full throttles, and could see other Gladiators and Hurricanes taking off from our own, and near-by landing grounds.
To the right, I could see the Mediterranean, blue and pretty as a picture; below, and to my left, nothing but sand, sand and more sand, with just the small Desert ‘scrub’, growing here and there, in a vain attempt to break the monotony. By the time we had reached 10,000 feet, all heat from the cockpit had long-since dissipated, and I began to wish I had worn flying overalls. However, we were soon at our pre-determined height, with Mersa Matruh beneath us, and suddenly Algy’s excited voice comes overt the intercom…
“Bandits approaching from 2 O’clock!” Then, after further inspection, “they’re already being engaged by the Hurricanes, blast them!”
We had been so engrossed in watching the bombers out at sea that we failed to notice the pending arrival of 15 C.R. 42’s, the Italian counterpart of the Gladiator. They had sneaked up on us from the south, un-reported by the Observer Corps, and I’m ashamed to say, un-noticed by myself, although I should have been concentrating on the sky in that direction.
Without warning, they attacked, and the sky seemed filled with madly twisting aircraft, as we broke formation. It was the first time our squadron had encountered Italian fighters, and I remember thinking they looked rather like angry hornets.
Bertie Duff dived out of the melee with a C.R. 42 on his tail, and another on either side of him, had his engine badly hit, and shortly afterwards baled out of his burning aircraft.
I dived on one of his attackers, and followed the aircraft through a loop, for some unknown reason, a popular Italian ‘dog-fight’ tactic of the early war days. The loop completed, I managed to get my sights on the C.R. 42, and ‘let fly’ with my four Brownings. At once, its engine started smoking badly, and the aircraft fell away on one wing; then….it happened!
For a time, I thought my engine had blown up, for during the dive, it had been doing far more ‘revs’ than the designed had intended. There was an explosion, and the next moment, I was drenched from head to foot with petrol, and suddenly frozen, as it began to evaporate. The ’stick’ was knocked smartly forwards, and momentarily trapped my thumb, as it hit the dashboard. My aircraft started a mad spin, and I had a split-second impression of a pair of mainplanes disappearing to my right, downwards twisting and turning like the blades of a lawn mower.
The controls were completely useless, and looking behind me, I soon discovered the reason why; to my dismay, there was only about a yard of fuselage left behind the cockpit, …..my complete tail-unit was missing.
Most Gladiator pilots flew with their cockpit hoods open, as at times, they were difficult to open. I was no exception, and throttling back the engine, I tried to raise myself in my seat to commence the jump I knew was inevitable. I couldn’t move! I had often heard tales of pilots who had experienced difficulty in leaving a spinning aircraft, then I realized that during the ‘general flap’ I had forgotten to remove the pin securing the Sutton harness. By this time, the aircraft was in an inverted spin, and I pulled out the pin, and left the falling aircraft so relatively slowly, that it seemed like ‘slow motion’. The Gladiator, or what was left of it, followed me down, and it seemed an age before I was sufficiently far enough away to dare to pull the rip-cord of my parachute, for, to pull it too soon would have meant certain death, with my canopy caught by the crashing aircraft.
I felt no ill effects from the delayed drop, and found I could move my arms and legs quite easily. However, I was taking no chances! I gripped the parachute ring very carefully in my right hand and gave a clean pull. After an anxious second or two, my rapid descent was abruptly checked as the ‘chute’ opened, and I had the strange feeling of being suspended in space, which, there and then, was not unpleasant, for firing on parachutists, at that time, and theatre of war, was unheard of.
The main battle with the bombers had drifted inland, and dotted over the desert, in the area I was heading for were crashed Savoias, C.R. 42s, together with the odd Hurricane and Gladiator. Most of them were flaming, and in spite of my pity for those who had died, I couldn’t help thinking of the swift end I would meet, if the flames caught the silk canopy of my parachute.
I could see two other parachutists in the area, but they were not close enough to recognize friend or enemy.
Luck was with me. By the time I had descended to within about 200 feet from the ground, I was drifting towards open desert. From that point on, the ground seemed to race towards me with increasing speed. With my feet ready for the coming impact with Mother Earth, I pulled up on the shrouds lines of my parachute, to lessen the bump, and I was down, and releasing the billowing canopy.
The two other parachutists landed shortly afterwards, and fairly near, and from across the desert, I could see a Staff car coming in our direction. As it drew nearer, I could make out a soldier standing on the running board, pointing a levelled rifle at us. The car approached the nearest parachutist, who advanced with his hands in the air, and climbed in, shortly followed by the other pilot. I thought it was about time I put my hands up, as the car approached me, and although the driver was a stranger, an Army Officer, I recognized his three passengers. Two of them were the recently collected Duff, and Smith, and the third was Algy Schwab.
2nd Lieut. Smith had been after the same Italian that I was chasing, and had crashed into me, losing his wings in the process; P/O Duff had baled out on fire, as already described, and Squadron Leader Schwab had had engine failure, but had managed to shoot down two enemy aircraft before he finally forced landed; a noble effort!
So, about 15 minutes after our take-off from Gerawla, we were all four heading back along the road to our base, driven by the obliging Army Officer, when, who should we see but the Padre, who had left shortly after us, to take the mail and cables to Mersa Matruh, a daily task of his. Algy leaned out of the window, and addressed him as both cars pulled up with a squeal of brakes, on the narrow road.
“I thought you were going to stick around to finish the game, Slip-trench!”
The poor Padre went as white as a sheet. Until explained, I think he had a shrewd suspicion that we were four ghosts, recently raised from the remains of four crashed Gladiators.
Iinformation kindly provided by Ian Acworth.
Last modified 10 April 2007