Air warfare is not like hand-to-hand combat, it’s impersonal and you know, they’re going to try and shoot you down, you’re going to try and shoot them down.
Gordon Wilson served as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Mr. Wilson flew Spitfires with No. 134, No. 213, and No. 92 Squadrons, RAF in the North Africa and the Mediterranean theatres. He recalls fighter sweeps over El Alamein, Egypt and Tunisia, actions that helped the Allies declare victory in the North Africa campaign on 13 May, 1943.
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The Spitfire was just a dream come true. It was just a beautiful airplane. And, I fell in love with it right away. It was a very demanding plane – you made no mistakes. It’s like riding a horse, you know, if you’ve got the best of the plane, you’ll fly it and enjoy it. But if the plane gets the best of you, you’re in deep trouble.
They posted the whole wing, out to the Middle East, and we went by boat around the Cape of Good Hope, up to Durban [South Africa] and, on the [RMS] Rangitata, was the name of the ship, and then, from there, we got on the [RMS] Mauretania, and went up to Egypt on it. They put us on a truck and we trucked from Cairo, right up to the front lines. That’s when we started at El Alamein. We took two squadrons and we’d go out to the Mediterranean, right on the deck, to get away from the radar, and then come up on the beach and we would strafe the whole German line. See, the German line was about, [on] Alamein, was about 50 miles [80 kilometres] in length and, at the far end, was what they called the Qattara Depression. It was a type of sand that you couldn’t go through, so that was more or less the end of the El Alamein line. The other [end] was the Mediterranean, which was about 50 miles.
So we’d sweep behind this area, shoot what we could, and then come back and land. As we got closer to the last battle of El Alamein, we would do sweeps over the El Alamein line, the 50 miles, and we’d go from one end to the other, and, as soon as you were attacked by [Messerschmitt Bf] 109s, you’d form what they called the “death circle.” You’d go around, around. Well, finally, you had to go back for fuel or you’d spin out, or something, and the Germans would pick you off very quickly. And, we did this for a while, and then the British smartened up and what we would do, we’d patrol with two squadrons and groups of four, eight, 12 – and then four, eight, 12 [more aircraft] – about 10,000 feet to about 15-18,000 feet. We’d stack our planes up and patrol, and as soon as the 109s came, the whole 24 planes would turn into them and, after that, our losses were very few.
Air warfare is not like hand-to-hand combat, it’s impersonal and you know, they’re going to try and shoot you down, you’re going to try and shoot them down. We were doing this sweep around Cape Bon in Tunisia, we were up around 20,000 feet, and the Spitfires were down around 15 – 12,000, and Wing Commander [Ian Richard] Gleed, who is one of the famous Battle of Britain pilots, was leading the Spit Vs and Neville Duke was leading the Spit IXs, and going around Cape Bon, Neville called down to – he had wonderful eyes. That’s the difference between the aces and the not-to-be aces, was their ability to see. Neville spotted all these airplanes right on the deck, going towards Tunisia. He called down to Wing Commander Gleed and said, “There are enemy aircraft right on the deck.” Well, Gleed says, “I can’t see anything.” Neville Duke, he says, “I’m going down.” So, we went down and went right by the Spit Vs right down into these transports and I was able to get one, but the 109s came down right after us, and they shot up the Spit Vs, and Wing Commander Gleed was killed on that occasion. We lost two or three pilots, but we shot down a number of these big transports.
Our squadron was the first fighter squadron to land in Sicily at Pachino. So we landed there, and then a flight of us took off to do a sweep and, I run out of fuel, and had to make an emergency landing on D-day plus 1, in the middle of Sicily, and I should have bailed out, I guess, but I decided to land and made a real good landing on a field and, just before I stopped, I hit a plowed field and went up my nose, which didn’t do much damage. But, I looked up and here’s about 30, 40 Italians coming down at me. I wondered what to do. I was the first Commonwealth fighter plane to land in Sicily, after the invasion.
So, these people came down and I didn’t know what to do, but they offered me a bottle of wine and I thought, well, that’s poison. And the guys polished it off, took a drink, and handed it to me, and then he starts speaking fluent English! And they were Italians that had been over in New York State and Mussolini had brought them back and settled them in this area. And they spoke as good English as I did. Anyhow, I said to him, “I want to get back to the British,” so, I sent up one guy to see if he could find the British and he came back about three hours later, couldn’t do it, couldn’t find them. And so I got a hold of them and we walked for about two or three hours and, the Calgary Tanks were coming up, so I tried to hail them, but they went right by me and, finally, a jeep picked me up and took me back to my headquarters at Pachino. So that was an interesting episode.