24.10.1942 No. 223 Squadron Baltimore III AG854 Q P/O. David George Walpole Leake
Operation: Army Co-operation
Date: 24 October 1942 (Saturday)
Unit: No. 223 Squadron - Motto: "Alæ defendunt Africam" ("Wings defend Africa").
Badge: A lion statant. The squadron served in Kenya during the late 1930's and the lion in the badge commemorates this fact.
Type: Martin Baltimore III
Code: Call sign Q
Base: Landing Ground No. 86, Egypt. (30°51'5"N 29°54'0"E)
Location: El Alamein, Egypt
Pilot: F/O. David George Walpole Leake Aus/406506 RAAF Age 25 - Killed (1)
Observer: F/Sgt. Joseph Henry Campbell 1165206 RAFVR Age 32 - Killed (2)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Rhys Roberts Aus/407513 RAAF - PoW No. 5977 Camp: Stalag Luft Heydekrug - L6 (3)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. John Rutledge Bertram 1294996 RAFVR Age 20 - Killed (4)
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REASON FOR LOSS
On the night of 23/24 October 1942 Commonwealth forces began their assault of the Axis positions in what was to become known as the Second Battle of El Alamein. Throughout the following day, in support of the ground forces, the Allied Desert Air Force flew in excess of 1000 sorties attacking Axis positions.
As part of this operation Baltimore AG854 took off from Landing Ground 86 about 20 miles south of Alexandria, one of a formation of aircraft detailed to attack enemy vehicles and tanks west of the Sidi Abd el Rahman Road, El Alamein. The Circumstantial Report states: "Whilst over the target heavy and accurate Ack-Ack was encountered. The aircraft was seen to leave the formation going down in flames at pinpoint 857,284. One of the crew was seen to bale out of the aircraft". The crash was timed at 10:35 hours.
Scale: 1" = 20 miles
The crew member seen to bale out was Wireless Operator Sergeant Rhys Roberts who later gave this description of what happened. "Direct hit on one [fuel] tank: aircraft burst into flames. Intercom unserviceable and accordingly I abandoned aircraft".
But when he baled out his clothes were already alight and as he floated earthwards he suffered burns to his face, hands and body. He landed among the waiting Germans with his battle-dress still smouldering and was immediately taken to a field dressing station where he was given a rough blanket to wrap round his burned body. His face was badly burned and both eyelids seared by the flames.
It was later confirmed that the other three crew members had lost their lives. F/O. Leake and Sgt. Bertram were both buried in two graves beside the wreckage of their aircraft. Location as per Commonwealth Graves Commission records: Egypt and Cyrenaica Sheet 14 El Daaba 862299.
(Left) A Martin Baltimore of No. 55 Squadron flies over the Rahman track near Tel el Aqqaqir Egypt during the battle of El Alamein as salvoes of bombs explode on tanks and motor transport of the 15th Panzer Division - Courtesy IWM
A Martin Baltimore Mark III - Courtesy IWM
Rhys was flown to a German controlled hospital in Marsa Matruh, Libya where he stayed for three days and was then flown to a hospital in Athens where he remained for a further three days before being transferred to Bari, Italy. He in hospital at Bari for three weeks and was then moved to yet another hospital at Kufstein, Austria where he had a further seven weeks of treatment. Throughout his hospitalisation the extensive burns to his face and body were treated with saline baths and ointment bandages. However, he considered that the treatment he received was as much as could possibly done.
On 26 January 1943 PoW 5977 he was released from hospital and sent to Stalag 18A at Wolfsberg, Austria and in a letter home he wrote "All the chaps here were picked up in Greece and Crete and they have been here about two years. They are all very cheerful and live quite well on the Red Cross parcels and the little they buy, and really are lacking in nothing". Whilst he was there he befriended Private Artie Albow, a British army PoW who appeared in some of the camp theatre productions.
Artie Albow playing the waiter in a camp theatre comedy at Stalag 18A - Courtesy AWM ( Photo supplied to RAAF Overseas Headquarters by Rhys Roberts on his repatriation from Germany in September 1944)
Top image: A home-made Crown and Anchor Game Cloth from Stalag 18A decorated with prisoners' names
Lower image : Close up of Crown section showing Rhys Roberts name third from the right at the top
His time at Wolfsberg however was short-lived, in early May he was moved to Stalag VIIA situated just north of Moosberg in southern Bavaria but in just 2½ weeks he was on the move again to Stalag Luft I near Barth, Western Pomerania in the far north of Germany. It did not take him long to settle and was soon seconded into the Australian cricket team in his favoured position of wicket keeper. Conditions at Wolfsberg and here at Barth were described as satisfactory in all respects and at Wolfsberg he had received a 'complete outfit kit' and had no problems in obtaining replacements subsequently. There were good stocks of indoor games and reading material and entertainment was provided by the PoWs but a lack of space for outdoor games was a problem. There was regular mail and regular Red Cross parcels to augment the inadequate German food supplies of soup, potatoes, sauerkraut and bread.
Group portrait of the Australian cricket team, and a couple of supporters, in Stalag Luft I showing Rhys perhaps understandably wearing sun glasses
Back row, left to right: Unidentified; Flying Officer Graham Berry, SA; Warrant Officer (WO) H. B. F. M. Smith, of Mackay, Qld; unidentified; WO Cliff Austin, Vic; WO Bert Gillespie, Qld; WO Jim Barnes, Royal New Zealand Air Force (camp leader, and a supporter of the team). Front row: unidentified; WO 'Strawberry' Lutton, Sydney; WO Geoff Blackett, SA; 407513 WO Rhys Roberts of Kadina, SA; unidentified; unidentified; and an RAF supporter. Courtesy AWM ( Photo supplied to RAAF Overseas Headquarters by Rhys Roberts on his repatriation from Germany in September 1944).
But his hitherto reasonable lifestyle was about to change and not for the better. In November 1943 Rhys was one of those moved to Stalag VI at Heydekrug where conditions were in stark contrast to those he described at Wolfsberg and Barth. Here, he wrote that the Australians in the camp were living on Red Cross Parcels alone, the weather was very cold and they had actually started ice skating. Russians in the same camp were living in far worse conditions and it was marvellous "how good our chaps were to them". The camp was overcrowded with 60 men accommodated in rooms designed for less than 50. Bathing washing and sanitary facilities were inadequate and the guards belligerent and overbearing. But despite the conditions Rhys started conducting lectures on wool classing.
In May 1944 after examination by a medical commission, he was issued with a certificate confirming justification for his repatriation.
The following month with the German guards on the verge of panic, the PoWs were ordered to pack light kit and prepare for immediate evacuation because the Russians were barely 70 miles away.
He said that the 150 Australians in the camp were determined that nothing should fall into the hands of the Germans and burned everything they could not carry including old clothing and thousands of cigarettes.
Eventually they were transported from the camp by rail through Poland to various other camps. Though he did not describe this particular journey in his report Rhys did say that "Transportation between camps was of a poor standard e.g. 5 days in cattle trucks between Stalag Luft I and Stalag Luft VI, 46 men to a cattle truck".
In July he arrived at Stalag IV-D/Z, a Heilag at Annaberg in Lower Saxony. Heilag was short for Heimkehrerlager or Repatriation Camp and over several weeks hundreds of Commonwealth and American prisoners were gathered there to await repatriation, initially to the UK. Many of them were amputees or had been badly burned, some of them terribly disfigured.
The camp was at a large Chateau and whilst there Rhys was inevitably a member of the Australian cricket team.
Group portrait of the Australian cricket team at Annaburg POW Camp. Identified back row, left to right: Flight Lieutenant "Dusty" Miller RAAF, pilot, of New Guinea; Sergeant Alex J Brown, of Vic; Tom Lawrence of Queensland; 'Snowy' Edwards of Sydney, NSW; Pat Cole of WA; Bill Gardiner of Vic; Jack Bourke of Sydney, NSW; Norman Barrett of Adelaide, SA. Front row: W E J (Bill) Bott of Vic; 407513 Warrant Officer (WO) Rhys Roberts, of Kadina, SA; Lieutenant Colonel Le Soeuf of Perth, WA, the medical officer who stayed with the Australian wounded after the evacuation of Greece; Jack Ogg of Sydney, NSW; Ernie Woolfe of Vic. Courtesy AWM ( Photo supplied to RAAF Overseas Headquarters by Rhys Roberts on his repatriation from Germany in September 1944).
An exchange of prisoners was arranged between Germany and the Allies and in the afternoon of 8 September Nazi train ferries flying the swastika drew into Trelleborg bearing the first of the Allied contingent. They were greeted by a Swedish band playing popular British and American tunes whilst Swedish Red Cross Nurses and Officials met the prisoners and gave them food. British and American journalists were also to record the scene and no doubt hoping to snatch interviews with some of the prisoners. As they came ashore the repatriates carried with them their meagre possessions and souvenirs in bundles and boxes.
From Trelleborg the prisoners were transported to Gothenburg where the Arundel Castle and the two Swedish liners Gripsholm and Drottningholm were waiting to take them home. 2635 prisoners including 67 Australians sailed for England on Sunday 10 September.
The Australians on board the Arundel Castle arrived at Liverpool on 16 September where they were greeted by some South Australian Red Cross Workers: Rhys was surely more than a little surprised to find that one of them was Miss Audrey James a friend of his late sister Pauline.
Rhys was taken to Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead for treatment to his injuries by the famous New Zealand Plastic Surgeon Archibald McIndoe. In October Rhys wrote to his parents informing them that he had had two operations on his eyes and after further treatment hoped to be able to return home. On the 13 November 1944 a letter from Mrs Lorna Erskine-Wilson, another South Australian member of the Red Cross Field Force who met him at Liverpool, wrote this to Rhys' mother:
"I had the privilege this morning of watching the famous surgeon Mr. McIndoe grafting skin to Rhys' lower eyelids, and thought you would be interested to hear something about it. Skin was taken very neatly from his arm and simply and quickly grafted onto the lid. (Rhys has probably told you his upper eyelids have already been done). Mr. McIndoe then decided that the muscles round the corners of his mouth were too contracted, so he made simple incisions, cut the muscles and stitched it all up again. Rhys will now be blacked out for four or five days with bandages round his eyes, but as I am stationed for a week or ten days at this plastic hospital at East Grinstead, I shall be able to read to him and make the time pass more quickly...After this operation he will be almost as you last saw him".
On Thursday 29 March 1945 Rhys arrived in Adelaide where the waiting press reported his only comment as "I slept with my eyes open for 22 months".
On 10 April there was the inevitable large gathering of friends and family at the Soldiers Clubrooms to welcome Rhys home and in response to the speeches he expressed his delight at the welcome and his happiness in being back home. Nevertheless if his health permitted he said he was still prepared to have a go at the Japs before it was over.
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) F/O. David George Walpole Leake was born 9 August 1917 at Perth, Western Australia the son of Francis Walpole Leake and Fannie Whitley Leake, of Perth, Western Australia. Lived at 18 Mount Street, Perth. Prior to enlisting at Perth on 6 January 1941 he was an Articled Law Clerk. He embarked 9 September 1941.
(2) Sgt. Joseph Henry Campbell was born in 1912 at Christchurch, Hampshire the son of Joseph Henry and Elizabeth Margaret Campbell nee Rew, of 3 Wilton Road, Boscombe, Bournemouth, Hampshire. He had two sisters; Margaret G. Campbell born 1914 and Joan M. Campbell born 1920.
(3) W/O. Rhys Roberts Rhys Roberts was born 3 October 1915 in the small town of Kadina in South Australia. Kadina was one of those small towns where everybody knew everybody else and with Rhys's father Roy being a town councillor his family was perhaps better known than most. He had an older brother Alf and two sisters Jessie and Pauline.
A pupil at the local Kadina Memorial High School, Rhys continued his studies at St. Peter's College, Adelaide and on his return to Kadina High School won a scholarship to Roseworthy Agricultural College at Adelaide in 1932. After studying at Roseworthy for 3 years he passed the Diploma course and returned to work on the family farm at Kadina. In his spare time he was a keen golfer and cricketer.In May 1940 following an interview at Port Pirie he was accepted by the RAAF for training as a wireless operator and/or air gunner. He was called up and after enlisting at Adelaide on 12 October was posted to the Initial Training Schoolestablished in April of that year at RAAF Somers in Victoria. After completing his initial training he was posted to the No. 1 Wireless Air Gunners School at RAAF Ballarat and six months later he was Sergeant Rhys Roberts a fully qualified Wireless Operator and Air Gunner. He returned home for his pre embarkation leave and was honoured on 5 June 1941 at a large gathering at the Kadina Town Hall hosted by the Mayor and the following evening a social event at the club room of the Kadina branch of the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) had been organised to wish him well.
On 23 May 1942 Sgt. Rhys Roberts was the Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner of the crew of Baltimore AG703 detailed to attack Derna Main Landing Ground in Libya. Piloted by P/O. David Leake (biography No.1 above) the aircraft was attacked by Bf109s and crash landed at Landing Ground 170 (Bir el Gubi, Libya). Rhys was hospitalised in 62 General Hospital, Tobruck after suffering flesh wounds in the left shoulder and right arm. The Observer was also slightly injured but both pilot and Air Gunner were unhurt.
After his discharge from the RAAF on 20 November 1945 Rhys secured a position with Stock and Brands Department of Agriculture at Loxton, South Australia. At Loxton he met Miss Josephine Quast whom he later married. They had two children Clive and Pauline. In 1954 Rhys resigned his job at Loxton having acquired a similar position in Sidney to where he and his family subsequently moved.
(4) Sgt. John Rutledge Bertram was born June 1922 at Hitchin, Hertfordshire the son of Ernest Frederick Daniel and Isobel Dunbar Bertram, of 19 Rusholme Road, Putney, London and later of Acton, Middlesex. He had one sister Stella born in 1918.
BURIAL DETAILS AND EPITAPHS
F/O. David George Walpole Leake - Initially buried beside the wreckage of his aircraft F/O. Leake was later re-buried at El Alamein War Cemetery Grave ref. 33.A.17 on 1 April 1944 before being re-buried again on 12 March 1945 at El Alamein War Cemetery - Grave ref: A1.B.2
Peace, perfect peace
Sgt. Joseph Henry Campbell was initially buried at reference BGR/5/328 re-buried 16 January 1943 at El Alamein War Cemetery - Grave VI. F. 24
Not one sparrow
Falleth to the ground
Without the Almighty's will
Sgt. John Rutledge Bertram was initially buried beside the wreckage of his aircraft Sgt. Bertram was later re-buried on 1 April 1944 at El Alamein War Cemetery - Grave ref: 33. A. 18
He hath outsoared
The shadow of our night
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - February 2016
With thanks to the sources quoted below.