In the hours of darkness over Cassino, Anzio and the Germans’ winter lines, the Beaufighter night-fighters of No. 600 Squadron RAF continued to take their toll of any Luftwaffe night intruders. No. 600 Squadron, the City of London’s Auxiliary Air Force squadron, was one of the first to be equipped with AI radar for night-fighter operations.
Throughout the war the Beaufighter was the RAF’s heaviest armed fighter. In addition to four 20mm Hispano cannon under the forward fuselage, it could carry three Browning machine guns in each wing. Its two Bristol Hercules radial engines also enabled it to carry under its wings long-range fuel tanks, bombs, torpedoes or rockets. The Beaufighter was capable of deployment to a greater variety of use than any other aircraft, until the arrival of the Mosquito, the original multi-role combat aircraft.
The Beaufighter Mk VIF night-fighter had a top speed of some 330mph, and a range of around 1,500 miles. The plane’s design and construction strength allowed it to shrug off remarkable amounts of enemy fire, and permitted its two-man crew to survive a crash-landing which normally could be fatal. Despite being heavy and unwieldy to manoeuvre, once pilots were experienced in their characteristics they were devoted to the Beaufighter.
During May 1944, as Allied armies surged north from Cassino and Anzio, Lieutenant Jack Ingate and his fellow pilots of 600 Squadron scoured the night skies for intruding enemy aircraft. Every night their Beaufighters, sometimes as many as nine aircraft, were out on defensive patrols seeking a radar contact with an enemy ‘bandit’ or ‘bogey’. Finding and closing in on a radar contact, unsure whether it was friend or foe, demanded painstaking and disciplined work by the two-man crew.
The Beaufighter’s navigator/radio/radar operator was confronted by radio/radar jamming by German ground defences, and ‘Window’ tinfoil dropped by enemy aircraft, which would snow the reception of the aircraft’s radar equipment. Patrol durations, depending upon contacts and other circumstances of operational activity, could last even beyond five hours. On the night of 14/15 May 1944 a typical eight Beaufighters took off on defensive patrols, in staggered departures from 2015 to 0405 from their base at Marcianise.
14/15 May 1944, No. 600 Squadron RAF Operations Record Book (summarized extracts):
At 0020 on 15 May in a Beaufighter Mk VIII AI, Flight Lieutenant G.B.S. Coleman DFC and Australian Flying Officer N.R. Frumar took off from their Marcianise air base in a defensive patrol. It was a clear night with flak and explosions seen some 20 miles out to sea, and the lights of Allied Army motor transport convoys visible, as they pushed out many miles into enemy territory. At 0400 Coleman and Frumar were vectored by ground control onto a bogey.
Within a few minutes they obtained contact with the target over mountainous terrain. It was at a two-mile range, and slightly above their altitude. Despite the bandit jinking violently to evade the Beaufighter’s pursuit, they held onto the contact. Coleman closed up to about 1,000 feet from the target, and visually identified the aircraft as a Ju87B Stuka dive-bomber.
At 0415 Coleman opened fire. Simultaneously the Stuka hurtled into a steep dive down amongst the mountain peaks, which prevented observation of any damage to the Ju87B. Because the Beaufighter was already low on fuel, Coleman was unable to pursue. When they arrived back at Marcianise at 0515, Coleman and Frumar had clocked up a flight time of 4.55 hours.
Some two hours after Coleman and Frumar’s departure, at 0230, Australian Flying Officer S.F. Rees and Flying Officer D.C. Bartlett lifted off their Beaufighter Mk VIF AI (No. V6574) from Marcianise. North of the River Tiber sometime after 0400 they made contact with a bogey and gave chase. When close enough they identified a Ju88. This time there was no escape for the German intruder, and at 0441 Rees shot down the German bomber. Rees and Bartlett returned to Marcianise at 0520.
Frequently after being vectored onto a suspected bogey and contact acquired, it could be lost not only through enemy radar jamming, and ‘Window’ interference, but also by the target outrunning the Beaufighter or escaping into cloud. In many instances Beaufighters would intercept a vectored bogey, only to find it was another Allied aircraft.
29/30 May 1944, No. 600 Squadron RAF Operations Record Book (summarized extracts):
On 29 May from 0200, on a defensive patrol from Marcionise, Flying Officer A.M. Davidson and Warrant Officer J.A. Telford were flying their Beaufighter Mk VIF AI (No. MM905). On three occasions, 0320, 0350, and 0450, they were vectored and obtained contacts on bogeys coming from the north. All three contacts were identified as Allied Boston bombers.
In the evening of 29 May at 2225 Warrant Officer D. Kerr and Warrant Officer G.H. Wheeler lifted their Beaufighter Mk VIF AI (No. ND148) into the night sky from Marcianise. At 2225 in the vicinity of Anzio they were vectored on to a slow-flying aircraft. Twelve miles north-east of Anzio they obtained contact. After a six-minute chase they had closed to about 500 feet of the target, when the suspected bandit dived and contact was lost. Another contact, possibly the same target, was picked up immediately.
Kerr closed up to minimum range but then overshot. Kerr carried out the overshoot procedure, and again closed up to the minimum range from target. In a brief visual identification Kerr and Wheeler identified the contact as a Ju87 Stuka, moments before it flew into a bank of mist. Before Kerr could line up his guns on the German dive-bomber, it dived and radar contact was lost in ground return interference. During the rest of the patrol Kerr and Wheeler obtained and chased three more contacts where, through the targets’ evasive action, their pursuit proved fruitless. After a flight time of 4.05 hours they safely landed their Beaufighter back at Marcianise at 0230 on 30 May.
The night-fighters of 600 Squadron were waging an unremitting air war of attrition, often tedious, exasperating, energy sapping and at the same time nerve-racking, yet unspectacular, unseen and little recognized. But the cloak of the night must not allow the Luftwaffe to make a resurgence.
The next attack on Cassino and the Gustav Line, Operation DIADEM, was planned for early May by the combined forces of Fifth and Eighth Armies. The timing was significant. Together with the simultaneous break-out from Anzio, Operation BUFFALO, there would be less than a month before the planned D Day landings in Normandy. The hope was that the offensives would draw German attention and their forces to Italy, and away from Normandy and north-west Europe. At the same time Operations DIADEM and BUFFALO in themselves must succeed. Any further stalemate or defeats in Italy could be catastrophic, and allow the Germans to divert divisions to Normandy. A strategic loss in Italy would be a huge psychological blow to the Allies in all theatres.
The night of 11 May 1944 was set for the fourth battle to begin, the hoped-for final battle for Cassino and the Monte Cassino Monastery. With the bulk of Eighth Army now added to Fifth Army, the Allies planned to throw overwhelming force at the mountain bastion. In a concentration of numbers, firepower and a massive artillery bombardment, they intended to smash their way through the Gustav Line and north onto Highway 6. It was not just a pincer movement of ground forces. While Allied movements had little or no fear from Luftwaffe air raids, the German Army found in retreat that they were under constant attack from Allied air forces.
In one instance on May 14, 239 Wing targeted some 200 or so vehicles trying to withdraw at Subiaco. By the day’s end there were an estimated 120 destroyed or damaged. In the last six days of May Allied fighters and fighter-bombers claimed 1,148 vehicles of all types destroyed and 766 damaged. This may have even been under-stated. Between Cori and Artena on the Adolf Hitler Line, Fifth Army counted 211 vehicles wrecked clearly by air strikes, whereas air force claims had only estimated 173. With the waning of the Luftwaffe’s attempted offensive, and its inability to stem the Allied armies’ offensive, DAF operations became predominantly fighter-bomber attacks against the retreating columns of enemy troops.
During this time, while DAF once more was asserting its air superiority, Wing Commander Hugh Dundas could only watch from the sidelines. He was not able to join 244 Wing RAF until his appointment came through at the end of May. The Spitfire fighters of 244 Wing had built an enviable record through the North African desert war, Alamein, Tunisia, Sicily and southern Italy. As the Allies broke out of the Gustav Line and Anzio, Dundas must have looked on with heightened interest, as 244 Wing added to their exploits in the air battles of May.
In a desperate attempt to make an impact, the Luftwaffe threw all its remaining fighters and fighter-bombers into the fray. The air battles once again included Squadron Leader Neville Duke, recently returned from a period in training duties, to lead No. 145 Squadron RAF in 244 Wing. Over Arezzo, close to Florence, on 13 May Duke led a patrol of six Spitfires into an engagement with six Bf109s. Duke expressed his relish to be back in an aerial battle with the Luftwaffe, showing his typical confidence in himself and his aircraft:
Great things at last! We met up with six Me109s … and we had a good dice. I got a burst at one and saw strikes under its belly before he rolled down and off. Stayed up and dodged and turned for a bit, finally fixing onto one up above, whom I climbed and turned with, easily climbing and out-turning him.
As the 109 tried violent evasive action, Duke stayed with him and saw his fire strike its fuselage and engine. Parts fell off the enemy fighter as it plunged into a death spin. Soon after he saw the explosion where the 109 crashed, for his first confirmed victory in Italy.
When Dundas took up his appointment as commander on 31 May and arrived at 244 Wing, he found a massive celebration underway at an abandoned farmhouse. Each of the wing’s five squadrons had set up a bar, and were in competition to serve the strongest alcoholic drink. He learnt that the party was to mark 244 Wing’s 400th victory of the war. Between 13 and 31 May, when the Luftwaffe found a way to launch a significant challenge in the air, 244 Wing shot down twenty-three enemy aircraft, three probable, and another twenty badly damaged.
Although Allied air power confronted and killed off the Luftwaffe’s desperate attempt at a counter-attack, the real questions were on the ground. Could Operation DIADEM, at last bursting through the Gustav Line, combine with the break-out from Anzio? Would Fifth and Eighth Armies in the Allies’ pincer strategy, Operation BUFFALO, crush and destroy the German Tenth Army as if in a vice?