REQUIEM FOR A SHY HERO
One of the Most Remarkable Escapes of WWII
Jim McSharry - Pilot - 217 Sqn RAF 22 Squadron RAAF (reproduced with thanks to Lesley McSharry - daughter and the Chairman / Editor of Dispersals Magazine, Mr. David Poissant)
Note: This is a true story, with Jim McSharry's wireless operators/air gunners being part of it. The names of the crew members were changed for the article as written originally by Jim McSharry for a creative writing class he was taking. The real identity of those involved has been placed at the foot of this article:
I happened to glance at the death notices in the paper that morning in October, and there was the name ROBBINS, Barcroft Boake, DFM, ex-RAAF, of Truro Street, Bathurst. I hadn't seen him for a long time, but it had to be old Barka, the air gunner in my first crew, all those years ago. It turned out that his widow had put the notice in the Sydney paper because they had some distant relatives living there. For old times' sake, I drove out to Bathurst for the funeral.
Left: Plt.Off. Basil James McSharry MiD 404710 RAAF From Mount Gordon, Queensland, Australia - prior to service worked as a bank clerk. Born on the 9th July 1920 - enlisted on the 8th November 1940 - passed away on the 12th February 2016.
During an attack on shipping in the Kerkenn / Lampedusa area when he received shrapnel wounds in the face (not serious*) his crew, Sgt. Alfred Leslie Augustinus 401183 RAAF, Sgt. Alexander Raymond Brown 405471 RNZAF, Sgt. John Aston Wilkinson 404626 RNZAF all escaped injury.
Sadly, Sgt. Augustinus was to be killed on the18th November 1942 during a transit flight in 47 Sqn Beaufort I DE118, KU:S which flew into high ground and was destroyed when the torpedo exploded in the subsequent fire. His pilot, Wg.Cdr. Sprague 26067 DFC. RAF from Paddington, London was also killed whilst the other 3 crew members survived.
* Phil McSharry, the son of the late Jim McSharry, has provided us with the real story behind the understated description of Jim’s 'not serious' injury.
This is typical of how he would describe it and the scars on his cheek were small. However the wound was nearly fatal. One piece of shrapnel nicked his carotid artery and he and his crew survived because his radio operator, Ray Brown, saw the wound was bleeding profusely and cut open the pilot's seat and applied a handful of cotton stuffing to try to stem the blood loss. Jim flew the aircraft into cloud to evade the German attacker and then back to Malta with waning consciousness. He missed the first approach to land and came around again to touch down successfully and passed out in his seat. Ray then brought the aircraft to a stop and shut down the engines. He had radioed ahead and there was an ambulance waiting on the tarmac, which fortunately had some blood plasma. He awoke some days later to see the surgeon at his bedside on a checkup. In true dry British style he said "Good to see you still with us old chap, you were almost exsanguinated when we got you". He then told him they estimated that he had less than three pints of blood left when the ambulance men supplied him with the plasma. He was Mentioned in Dispatches for the incident with a note to apologise that it should have been a DFC but they had run out of stock!.
Barka had spent his working life - apart from the War - with the New South Wales Railways, until his retirement several years ago. When he was discharged from the Air Force in 1946, he'd used his deferred pay and a War Service Homes loan to buy the house in Truro Street, and he'd lived there ever since. Originally a fireman, he'd been promoted in due course to engine driver, but he'd remained based in Bathurst. That was fairly typical of the man: quiet, steady, a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, not given to sudden changes in his life-style.
When the service was over, I paid my respects to the widow and family, and retreated to the fringe of the small crowd of mourners. An old chap looking uncomfortable in a three-piece suit, stiff collar and tie - as it turned out, another railwayman - remarked to me that Barka was a good bloke, and asked if I knew him well. I said I'd known him many years ago, but hadn't seen him for a long while. The old man said Barka had been a real solid citizen - did his job, raised his family, paid off his house, never played up much with the boys. Good driver: a bit fussy about keeping his train on time. Only thing different about him was, he had this bit of a phobia about anything caged up - he hated to see birds or animals in cages. Wouldn't let his kids have pets unless they could run free. Never go near a zoo or anywhere like that, because the caged animals upset him. The old chap scratched his head and said he couldn't make out why a normal bloke like Barka had this queer idea about things in cages. And he remembered something else - you could never get Barka to talk about it, but he was supposed to have done something pretty good in the War, and won a medal for it.
Indeed he had, I reflected, as I drove back to Sydney that afternoon: this unlikely hero had been responsible for one of the most remarkable escapes of the War. My mind went back to a little pub in Braunton, the nearest village to the big, permanent R.A.F. station at Chivenor, in Devon. It was a week or so before Christmas in 1941, and four of us - all Australians - had just crewed up together. I was the pilot, Alf Jones the navigator, John McLean and Barka Robbins the wireless operator/air gunners. Together we were to train on Beauforts at Chivenor prior to joining an operational squadron. This was our first leave off the station: the powers-that-be had given us this short break in our training routine so we could get to know one another better. Even then, Barka was an unassuming, rather shy man, a little older that the rest of us. At the end of that evening I had discovered quite a lot about Sergeants Jones and McLean, but very little about Sergeant Robbins. It was some time before I gained his confidence and found out what made him tick.
On leaving Chivenor the four of us were posted as a crew to a Beaufort squadron (217 RAF) and began our tour of operations. Two or three months later we found ourselves, with the rest of our squadron, in Malta. We carried out a number of operations from there until the day (21 Jun 42 ) when, in an attack on an Italian convoy near Tripoli, I was wounded. We got back to Malta OK, but I had to spend some time in hospital, and after that in a convalescent camp. This left my crew without a pilot; then Jonesy, the navigator, came down with dysentery. A week or so later a maximum effort was called for to attack a big convoy near the Greek coast, and the CO ordered Robbins and McLean to do the trip with another pilot and navigator, who had lost their two wireless/air gunners.
In the (28 Jul 42) attack on the convoy their aircraft was shot down. The pilot, a South African named Tanzer, carried out a copy-book ditching into the ocean, and before the Beaufort sank they all got out, unharmed, into the dinghy. About an hour later a Cant, a large three-engined Italian seaplane, alighted nearby and took the four of them aboard, flying them back to its squadron base near Corfu. They had become prisoners-of-war.
They were well treated by the Italian airmen. After breakfast next morning they were loaded aboard another Cant, which a crew due for home leave was taking back to Taranto, in Italy, for overhaul. The four were told that this aircraft would also take them to Italy, for transfer to a prisoner-of-war camp.
The Italian crew consisted of a pilot and a navigator - both of whom sat in the cockpit at the front of the machine - a wireless operator, who sat behind the pilot, and an Army corporal, seated behind the navigator, looking to the rear. From there he could see the four prisoners, sitting on the floor in the cabin of the aircraft: it was his job to guard them. After take-off, the three Italian aircrew - not expecting any trouble from their friendly prisoners - unbuckled their gun-belts and handed them to the guard, who stowed them in a wooden locker under his seat, but retained his own pistol.
Their route took them due west from Corfu to a point south of Cape Santa Maria di Leuca, at the point of the heel of Italy, from which they were to turn north-west for Taranto. Conditions were bumpy and the guard, unused to flying, soon became air-sick. Eventually he had to retire to the rear of the cabin.
Just as they were coming up to their turning-point for Taranto, and as the pallid guard started to return to his post, Barka muttered to McLean "I'm going to jump this bloke - you hold him while I nobble the wireless op." As the guard stepped over the prisoners, Barka brought him down with a Rugby tackle and seized his pistol. McLean then sat on the hapless corporal. Barka sprang at the wireless operator and hooked his arm around the man's neck, dragging him out of his seat before he could send an alarm signal. Waving the pistol menacingly at the Italians, Barka kicked in the door of the locker, shouting "Quick, skipper, get the other guns!” Tanzer promptly did so, and armed the rest of his crew. In short order, the eight men had reversed their positions: Tanzer and his navigator were up front, with McLean and Barka behind them, guarding four bewildered Italians in the cabin of the Cant.
Tanzer turned the big seaplane south-west and flew across the mouth of the Gulf of Taranto. Then, keeping some distance out to sea, they followed the coast of the toe of Italy until the navigator identified Cape Spartivento, the most southerly point of the Italian mainland. They carried on across the eastern end of the Strait of Messina until they saw the coast of Sicily. Again at a respectful distance, and as low as they could fly without losing sight of the coastline, they held their course until they saw Cape Passero, at the southern end of Sicily. They knew then that they had only to fly west of south for a short distance to find Malta.
As they neared their destination the inevitable happened; a flight of Spitfires scrambled and attacked the Cant. They had anticipated this; Barka and McLean had stripped off their upper garments, and now waved their white singlets from the gun blisters in the waist of the seaplane. The Spitty leader got the message and called his boys off; the fighters circled the Cant as Tanzer brought it down in quiet water near St. Paul's Bay. In escaping from their enemies, Barka and his comrades-in-arms had brought off the first aerial hijack in aviation history.
Not surprisingly, the return in such circumstances of a crew officially posted as "Missing in Action" caused quite a furore. The RAF had unexpectedly acquired a Cant seaplane (with a few Spitfire bullet-holes in it) together with four Italian prisoners, and four of our own aircrew had been restored to it. Lieutenant Tanzer, who twice in two days had successfully alighted on water -never having done so before - and his navigator, were awarded DFC's, and my two boys DFM's. But Tanzer and the others gave most of the credit to Barka, and the real nub of the nine-day wonder in the squadron was that the shy, self-effacing Sergeant Robbins could possibly be the instigator of such a daring escape.
When I'd told the old chap at Barka's funeral the story of how he'd won his medal, this was precisely the point that had puzzled him, too. The answer lay deep in Barka's childhood. When I got to know him - and, as I said earlier, this took some time - I asked him one day how he came to be named after a poet. He told me his father, a school-teacher, had been an admirer of Barcroft Boake's poetry, so he'd given the poet's name to his son. Like Boake, Barka's father had died young; his mother had married again, and the step-father had had it in for the boy from the start. A vindictive man, he developed the habit, whenever Barka stepped out of line, of locking him up for hours in a small, dark cupboard. This caused Barka to develop claustrophobia while still a child, and it also instilled his lifelong revulsion at the thought of himself, or any birds or animals, being caged up. He told me after the escape that, although he was no less afraid of dying than anyone else, he would have been prepared to die, if he had to, rather than face years in a prison camp.
Well, that's the story of how Barka won his medal. All you need to turn a run-of-the-mill air gunner into a hero is sufficient motivation. And, as another poet - Wordsworth - put it, the child is father of the man.
Goodbye, old mate. I hope there are no cages where you've gone.
With a great many thanks to Lesley McSharry who's father, Jim McSharry wrote the page (Feb 2018). Also to David Poissant and Newsletters of the 2nd Tactical Air Force Medium Bomber Association - with thanks to the Brussels Air Museum Fund for hosting their work. Aircrew Remembered welcome further articles from either publications to reproduce with full credits to contributors on our website. It must be noted that Jim McSharry did use "other names" changing the persons involved for his creative writing regarding the persons mentioned within the page. The event is well documented and is known to be a true description of the actual event. With thanks also to Errol Martyn and his publications: “For Your Tomorrow Vols. 1-3”. Thanks to Phil McSharry, the son of the late Jim McSharry for the real circumstance of the 'not serious' injury.
"DISPERSALS" The 2 TAF Medium Bombers Association Newsmagazine is published February - May - August - November - please contact us for details on how to subscribe. We welcome any details of the 2nd Tactical Air Force for inclusion within our website. We may have the technical data - but lack the personal side to add to any particular story.
Following further research, Aircrew Remembered have since identified and placed brief details of the actual operation and the names of the crew. The full crew list recently discovered that had not previously been available to 'Dispersals' at the time of their publication:
The 217 Squadron Beaufort L9820 was one of 9 taking part in an attack on a enemy convoy off the Greek coast of Sapientza when they were shot down. The pilot managed to ditch the aircraft and climbed into their dingy before being picked up a few hours later by an Italian Cant Z.506B float-plane, MM45432 and then taken to Corfu. The following day the same Italian aircraft and crew was taking them to a prisoner of war camp in Italy. The rest of the story is as told by Jim McSharry.
Pilot: Lt. Edward Theodore Strever 108521 SAAF (Died in Haenertsburg, South Africa 1997 at the age of 77)
Navigator: Plt.Off. William Martin Dunsmore DFC 116595 RAFVR (From Mahull, near Liverpool, England)
WOp/Air Gnr: Sgt. Alexander Raymond Brown DFM 405471 RNZAF (Born in Timaru on the 5th September 1915
WOp/Air Gnr: Sgt. John Aston Wilkinson DFM 404626 RNZAF (Born in Gisborne on the 6th November 1919 - died at Tauranga on the 28th February 1975)
London Gazette 1st September 1942 Citation:
405471 Sgt. Alexander Raymond Brown, Royal New Zealand Air Force, No. 217 Squadron.DFM. 404627 Sgt. John Aston Wilkinson, Royal New Zealand Air Force, 217 Squadron. DFM. 108521 Lt. Strever, 116595 Plt.Off. Dunsmore DFC. Were the crew of an aircraft which operated from Malta in June and July, 1942. During this period, they performed excellent work in attacking enemy merchant vessels and naval forces, and all displayed initiative, courage and devotion to duty of a high standard.
On Laughter-Silvered Wings: The Story of Lt. Col. E.T. (Ted) Strever DFC. ISBN: 9781781591048. Author: Gail Strever-Morkel (Daughter), published in 2014 by Pen and Sword Books.