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Fighter Escort Rediscovered

Wartime experiences of Flight-Lieut Bill Tatham, SAAF

Fighter Escort Rediscovered

Ernest S. Wall, OBE, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

Even by today's concept of a shrinking World due to vastly increased availability of air travel, we sometimes forget how World War Two brought continents together because of closely combined efforts in a common cause. Perhaps not so readily available, were solutions to unexplained events after hostilities ended, due to participants returning to their own countries, taking with them the answers to many hitherto unsolved mysteries or problems.

RAF Wireless Operator Ernest Wall had been assigned to fly with No.24 Squadron, South African Air Force, and while based in Italy, it was considered necessary to have a fighter escort on one particular mission, due to the hazardous nature of the operation. The non-appearance of the Spitfires which had been promised to escort the Marauders would probably have been almost forgotten, had it not been for a recent notice in a South African Newsletter explaining their absence - 60 years after the event. Ernest Wall, OBE, describes how one of his own experiences has been coincidently remembered by a former SAAF Spitfire Pilot, who supplies a belated explanation on failing to turn up as a fighter escort sixty years ago.

'As a member of the South African Air Force Association, I receive a regular quarterly Newsletter which often publishes details of books written by their members. One such book was entitled "Spitfires Rampant - Northern Italy Sept.1944 to May 1945.' written by a Lt. Bill Tatham. As the book dealt with the region in which my B26 Marauder Squadron operated (No.24 Squadron. SAAF), I obtained a copy for interest.

Tatham's main Squadron of Spitfires (No.4 Squadron, 7 Wing SAAF) was almost exclusively involved in strafing operations - low level attacks on trains, convoys, small villages etc. However, for one occasion only his squadron was asked to provide an escort for a Marauder operation to attack marshalling yards at Conegliano, a town northeast of Venice on 3rd March, 1945. The twelve Marauders were led by 24 Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Margo, DSO, DFC, in their usual formation of three boxes of four.

For our part, the twelve Marauders carried out the operation as planned, but without a fighter escort. We understood the request for fighter escort had been granted, but as far as I can recall no explanation had been given on why the Spitfires had failed to appear - until now!

After reading Lt.Bill Tatham's account of this operation in his book, I decided to check my own log book and unbelievably discovered that I had participated in that particular mission as Wireless Operator in one of the Marauders. Returning to the Bill Tatham book, he described how he was part of a group of 12 Spitfires despatched (after much grumbling) to do the escort duty. Unknown to me (and others) the Spitfires became engaged near the target by a hit and run attack of Focke-Wulf 190s and Messerschmitts (possibly jets) and one Spitfire was shot down after downing a Messerschmitt.

The Spitfire pilot baled out, but Bill Tatham subsequently discovered that he had been summarily executed by Italian Fascist Mussolini supporters. This and other information was only discovered when I made contact with Bill Tatham by telephone after reading his book. It's amazing to think that this book had triggered off an unexpected coincidence whereby events of over 60 years ago were brought to light and details of that time newly discovered. We exchanged log-book entries, mine merely recorded '. . . a lot of flak; never saw the escorts (not unusual).' By the way, Bill Tatham's book is an excellent read with many action photos.

Note: Ernest Wall is author of 'Last Major Air Operation - Mediterranean' (No. 111 in Branch Web Library). Also in Branch Publication: '60 Aviation Experiences'

[Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association. Library Reference Number 152. Website accessed 22 May 2012]

Linked toHarding William Tatham (Military Service)

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