Tuesday, June 16, 2015

No.148 (Special Duties) Squadron in the Balkans


148 Squadron Halifax loaded with supplies reading for dropping to Yugoslav Partisans, at Brindisi, Italy.

The supply missions flown over the Balkans by No. 148 (Special Duties) Squadron provided a vital lifeline to the Yugoslavian partisans.


The role of the Royal Air Force 'Special Duties' squadrons in World War II was to supply the Allied resistance movements with the guns, ammunition, food and intelligence agents they needed to wage their undercover war against the Axis. The work was very hazardous drops were made from low level and the light aircraft were very vulnerable to anti‑aircraft and machine‑gun fire. Of these squadrons, perhaps the best known are Nos. 138 and 161, famous for their dropping of agents by Lysander aircraft into Occupied France. But special units operated in other theatres of the war, and on 4 January 1944 No. 148 Squadron, RAF, had the honour of being made a Special Duties squadron. Late in January they moved to Brindisi in Italy and prepared for supply operations to Poland, northern Italy, the Balkans and Greece.

The move to Brindisi placed No. 148 Squadron under the control of No.334 Wing. However, the bulk of the Balkan operations were undertaken by the US No. 62 Group operating Dakotas, which were more suitable than the Halifaxes of No. 148 Squadron for short trips. To give the squadron a better short‑flight capability, a Lysander flight was formed. Named C Flight, it was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Vaughan‑Fowler, DFC, a veteran of the Lysander operations mounted by No.161 Squadron from Tempsford in England.

The partisan were in need of vehicles, and in April 1944 the squadron attempted to develop a technique for dropping a jeep from a Halifax. The bomb doors were opened and the jeep was suspended in the bomb bay. However, the possibility of damage to the aircraft should a vehicle snag during the drop led to the project being cancelled.

On 7 April, the officer commanding No. 334 Wing, Group Captain Rankin, DSO, took part in his first operation as captain of an aircraft. His target was Durazzo in Albania, and in May many more operations were mounted against targets in Yugoslavia and Greece. The range of the Halifax allowed over 10,5001b of stores to be carried, as only a minimum of fuel was required for each trip. However, disaster later struck the squadron when Rankin crashed his Halifax on take‑off. The aircraft burnt out, but all the crew escaped safely except the flight engineer, Sergeant Martin, who was badly hurt with a broken leg.

During the night supply drops, the crew member who was arguably most at risk was the despatcher. Operating in total darkness in order to ensure that no light showed from, the aircraft when the bomb bay was open, he was obliged to attach himself to the plane via a static line and a rope tied to his parachute harness. A green light would go on and the parachuted loads would be forced out as rapidly as possible. A good despatcher, assisted by the Wireless operator, could drop half a ton of supplies three seconds.

The run‑up to the dropping point was controlled by the bomb‑aimer. The Halifax would begin the run over the target with the bomb doors open, the flaps partly down and the engine throttled back. With the Bomb‑aimer calling out instructions, the pilot would finally call on the despatcher to release the containers in the bomb bay. Dropping height was set at between 500 and 800ft, far below 500ft the parachutes would have insufficient time to open, and above 800ft dropping accuracy would deteriorate. 

The rear gunner would act as observer, reporting whether the containers had overshot or undershot the landing zone. In the development of dropping techniques the squadron owed much to Flying Officer Guest, whose experience had been gained on 82 missions, a total of 615 hours on operations. 

At the end of May 1944 the area of top priority became Yugoslavia. The squadron was informed that the Germans had mounted a major offensive aimed at eliminating Marshal Tito's headquarters near the coast, and there was bitter fighting in its defence. A maximum effort was required of the Special Duties squadron to keep the partisans supplied with arms, ammunition and especially food, since the Germans had been destroying crops and livestock to starve them out. On 28 May, Tito called for urgent drops to assist the partisans' blocking of the German advance. Of the 13 aircraft sent, 11
successfully dropped supplies, although the Germans later overran the target area.

Eleven more aircraft then delivered supplies to a point 15 miles away. The first six aircraft were successful, but as the seventh, flown by Pilot Officer Leleu in Halifax JP 239, started to drop its load, Leleu saw several aircraft overhead with their navigation lights on. Below, parachutes were showering around the target accompanied by coloured parachute flares. Everything suggested that a paratroop landing was taking place, and so he called off the drop and shouted, 'Let's get the hell out of here.' The four aircraft following behind saw only scattered fires on the drop zone and, receiving no flashing signals from the ground, they brought their loads back to base.

Despite this partial failure, 11 aircraft were despatched two days later on 30 May, one of them piloted by the undaunted Leleu. Nine completed their drops, and on 31 May members of the squadron were told at a briefing that they would be able to make squadron history that very night. Up to that point in the war, the squadron's record of sorties achieved in a month was 205, attained in September 1943. In May 1944 the squadron had flown 196 sorties, and if all 13 of their aircraft flew that night the record would be broken. Also, the record total weight of supplies dropped in a month was 284 tons, a record set in August 1943. No. 148 Squadron had dropped 272 tons that month, and with the prospect of another 25 tons dropped that night, both records could be broken.

This the squadron duly achieved, and a message was sent by Air Marshal Slessor, Deputy Acting Commander‑in‑Chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. Congratulating them on their excellent record for supply missions, it ended: 'Well done all, keep it up!' On 1 June the Balkan Air Force was formed, specifically for the task of supplying Tito's partisans. It was learnt on 12 June that the drops of 28/29 May had been crucial to the continued success of the partisans in the face of the relentless German siege. The partisans had been living solely on the supplies of food dropped, and their commander, Major‑General Rodic, had sent a message saying simply: 'Thanks to all of you for your great effort.'

The squadron was, at this time, experiencing difficulty caused by aircraft tires splitting on the rough runways at Brindisi. No, 334 Wing heard that there was a supply of tires to be found at Bari, and with great enterprise the men managed to purloin 14 tires and have them fitted to their own aircraft. The owners of the tires, No.204 Group, were very unhappy about the hijack and wanted them back. The only reply they received from No. 334 Wing and No. 148 Squadron was, 'the show must go on!'

In October 1944 it was decided to begin daylight operations using the Sugar‑ or S‑phone, a radio device with which an aircraft could communicate with an agent or operator on the ground. Supply missions were to be led by a special force operator in the leading S‑phone aircraft, who would make contact with the ground and convey instructions to the other aircraft. All the squadron's wireless operators were given S‑phone training, and the first successful mission of this type was completed on 18 November.

The squadron's operations over the Balkans were not without their adventures. On 16 October, Sergeant Edwards crashed his Halifax 100ft below the summit of a 4000ft Yugoslavian mountain. One survivor of the crash was Sergeant Bromage, who climbed down to a partisan village and picked up a rescue party. Together, they helped two more members of the crew down the mountain and eventually they all reached safety Bromage was able to board a plane to Bari, arriving there on 8 November.

In another incident, Flight Sergeant Uttley went missing on 5 November during a mission to Yugoslavia. On the 8th he returned to the squadron His engine had caught fire, so he had jettisoned the main load and set course for the Yugoslavian coast. Ditching successfully, the crew had paddled in a dinghy to the line of the shore. Spotting a Liberator aircraft, they had fired Very cartridges and put out f1orescine colouring on the water. The Liberator had seen them and stayed until an Air Sea Rescue launch arrived to pick them up.

The S‑phone really came into its own in December. On the 26th, six contacts were made at Mrkopalj and Grabnovica in Yugoslavia, and all the drops that followed were successful. Flight Sergeant Brown, flying as S‑phone and wireless operator with Pilot Officer Robinson in Halifax JP 278, reported that the efficiency of the drop was greatly increased by the detailed instructions given by the ground operator. On the 27th, three contacts were made at Grabnovica and, despite solid cloud cover, the drops were 100 per cent successful due to S‑phone contact. 

On 4 January 1945, Pilot Officer Walker was part of a force of seven aircraft detailed to drop supplies and one agent into Yugoslavia. The aircraft were all successful and, having seen their agent stand up and wave to the crew, Walker went on to carry out a second drop over Sisak in northern Yugoslavia. However, on the way Walker's aircraft was hit on three occasions by flak and caught fire. Ordered to bail out, the wireless operator, Flight Sergeant Rowe, was captured, and the bomb‑aimer, Sergeant Bromley, was found shot through by bullets, having been fired upon as he parachuted down. Two more of Walker's crew, Sergeants Breen and Towner, were found by partisans and escorted through German lines to Cazma, a journey of about 11 hours. The next day they proceeded to Grabnovica, where they stayed until 18 January, when a Dakota flew in under an escort of P‑51 Mustangs and took them to Bari. 

On 17 January 1945, No. 148 Squadron was requested to fly supplies to a prisoner‑of‑war camp containing 1000 prisoners at Lazarina in Greece. Nine Halifaxes were sent with medical supplies, blankets and clothing, only to find dense cloud from 700 to 10,000ft. One aircraft approaching the coast was thrown tail first down from 800ft to 100ft. Forced to return by the weather conditions, the aircraft flew again on the 18th, and this time four Halifaxes succeeded in dropping supplies from 500ft between breaks in the cloud. A second drop was completed on the 19th, but on the same day a mission over Yugoslavia by 10 Halifaxes ran into accurate light flak and one aircraft was badly damaged, the flight engineer receiving a head wound.

Later in January, messages of thanks were received by the squadron for their supply work On the 21st the Air Officer Commanding Greece thanked them for the drops on Lazarina, and a letter was also received from one of the prisoners, Sergeant Kelly, who told them that if his fellow prisoners met the aircrews they would buy them all the pints of beer they wanted. The squadron replied by saying that if it had been possible they would have included a few barrels in the drops, wishing them good luck and conveying the hope that they would soon be free.

On the 24th, a signal was received concerning the flak received on 19 January. It had been 'friendly' Soviet fire, and the message read:

'Due to this being a new drop area, all had been warned not to fire on four‑engined aircraft. On arrival of the first plane, one or two scattered groups opened fire on the plane and the parachutes, thinking they were enemy parachutists. General Matetic, the Russian commander, is very perturbed and requests he be personally informed of the progress of the wounded airman. The excellent dropping caused a tremendous sensation and impressed the Russians'

On 3 February, the Lysander Flight was asked to pick up a wounded airman. the task was given to Warrant Officer Dalzell. When he arrived over the landing zone he found it covered by snow but he landed safely, only to get bogged down in the mud. Having unloaded some 5001b of supplies, the partisans dug the aircraft out and he finally took off for Biferno in northern Italy. Following a drop of further supplies a message was received from the combat area:

'Heavy enemy attack yesterday from the north on Daruvan but successfully beaten off. This entirely due to your prompt action in answering our call from here for mortar bombs. Enemy using 100mm howitzers and artillery.'

On the 22nd a female agent had to be dropped into Yugoslavia. This posed a slight problem as pretty girls were in short supply, so an honest married captain was asked to do the job. The records do not tell us who this lucky man was. On 23 February a message arrived, informing the squadron that she had landed safely and naming her as Section Officer Sturnock of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Once again, No 148 Squadron had demonstrated that in no way was it to be outclassed by its famous cousins, No. 138 and 161 Squadrons, in the performance of Special Duties.

THE AUTHOR Alan Cooper is an aviation historian who has written four books, one of them concerning the legendary bombing raid on the Ruhr dams by the Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron, RAF.

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