Operation: Tobruk Harbour, Libya.
Date: 19/20 October 1942 (Monday/Tuesday)
Unit: No. 108 Squadron - Motto: Viribus contractis
("With gathered strength")
Squadron Badge: An oak leaf.
The unit was formed at Stonehenge and it adopted an oak leaf as a badge being symbolic of strength and age.
Type: Vickers Wellington 1C
Code: Call sign E
Base: Landing Ground 237 aka Kilo 40, Egypt
Location: about 70 miles south of El Salloum Bay, Egypt
Pilot: Sgt. William Simpson 1115906 RAFVR - PoW No.260733 Camp: Stalag Luft III Sagan and Belaria - L3 (1)
2nd Pilot: P/O. Edmond Rupert Patrick MiD J15261 RCAF Age 30 - PoW in Italy Campo PG 78 Sulmona (2)
Obs: Fl/Sgt. John Alexander Hutchinson R75278 (later J16090) RCAF Age 28 - PoW in Italy Campo PG 59 PM3300 Servigliano (near Piceno) (3)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Alexander Thomas Stewart Williamson 1022494 RAFVR Age 22 PoW No. 248221 Camp: Stalag Muhlberg (Elbe) - 4B (4)
W/Op/Air/Gnr (F): Fl/Sgt. Howard Allan Martin Aus/407506 RAAF Age 20 - PoW No. 39171 Camp: Stalag 314 Markt Pongau (now Sankt Johann) Austria - 317 - 11th operation (5)
Air/Gnr (R): P/O. John Mills 117811 RAFVR Age 22 - PoW No 228328 Camp Stalag Luft III Sagan and Belaria - L3 (6)
We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK
Following the fall of Tobruk to Rommel's forces on 20 June 1942 the Allies were pushed back into Egypt as far as El Alamein where they halted the German advance. At the same time General Auchinleck was replaced by Lieutenant General Alexander as Commander in Chief Middle East and Lieutenant General Montgomery took command of the 8th Army.
A stalemate then ensued as both sides paused to draw breath and consolidate their forces.
On 31 August Rommel attacked again but was stopped at Alam Haifa. By 3 September it was clear that he had failed and four days later with his withdrawal complete he was back where he started.
Meanwhile bombers of the RAF had engaged in sorties over the battle area in search of targets of opportunity but from 6 September their attention was turned to the bombing of Tobruk and the disruption of Rommel's lines of supply.
As Montgomery sought to buy time to build up his forces the constant bombing of Tobruk harbour and shipping continued unabated.
By 17 October No. 108 Squadron alone had made 43 sorties against Tobruk and the following day, detailed eight Wellingtons, including DV873 captained by Sgt. William Simpson, to attack the port yet again.
Wellington DV873 was one of the first three aircraft to take off at 2110 hours and pilot William Simpson setting course for the target of Tobruk some 500 miles east of Landing Ground 237 or Kilo 40 as it was more commonly called.
All went well and they were within half an hour of the target when the starboard developed a problem before failing entirely. In his report of 20 July 1944 John Hutchinson, the observer, stated that they had sustained a broken oil line.
William immediately decided to return to base and turning the aircraft round jettisoned the bomb load. Despite this lightening of the load the aircraft lost height rapidly and was also forced south. The crew were first told to jettison anything that could be moved and ordered to crash positions. Twelve minutes after turning for home William Simpson made a controlled crash landing about 70 miles south of Sollum [Salloum] Bay. No injuries were sustained by any of the crew and fortunately the aircraft did not catch fire. The time of the crash is not recorded but somewhere between midnight and 0100 hours on 20 October would seem likely.
Many years later Allan Martin was to tell his grandson Luke that the pilot had a reputation for poor landings, so when he put the plane down on its belly in the middle of the night in the desert, it was very smooth and they joked it was the best landing he had done.
108 Squadron Operations Record Book reported that:
'Shipping at Tobruk was again attacked by our Wellingtons. Eight aircraft took off at 21.00 hours - bombs were aimed at shipping and jetties and bursts were seen, but very few results claimed. "C" reported seeing a stick of bombs falling near shipping. "K" bombed across a medium sized ship and bursts were seen very close. It is regretted to record that aircraft "E" (DV873)failed to return from this operation. An S.O.S. was picked up by other aircraft of the Squadron at 02.10 hours and later distress signals were seen from the ground in the same area. From this it appears very likely that the aircraft made a successful landing and in all probability the crew safe.'
And the Circumstantial Report of 22 October 1942 stated that:
'At 2.10 hours that night an S.O.S was picked up by aircraft "C" and "Q" of this Squadron who were operating in the same area, but a loop was not obtained. Red distress signals were seen in a position 30.30'N 27.30'E and a green fired in reply.
Two aircraft of his Squadron operating against Tobruk on the following night observed a steady white light burning in approximately the same position (30.22'N 28.45'E) at 03.30 hours, and it is believed that this was from the aircraft DV873 missing on the previous night.'
The sightings of the red distress signal and steady white light mentioned above would appear to be unconnected to DV873, the positions reported being some 60 miles east of where the crew reported having belly landed the Wellington (see location map below).
The crew set out walking east, and over the next six days covered about 100 miles. '...during which time second pilot P/O. Patrick suffered from (heart?) trouble which necessitated resting every little while. About 1 mile from the Quattara Spring [sic] P/O. Patrick collapsed, so we set out for water leaving P/O. Patrick as comfortable as possible.'
About 15 minutes later the party came under machine gun and rifle fire from a camp in the caves of the depression. Taking cover they were pinned down whilst about 15 Italian guards emerged and took them prisoner. Edmond Patrick was also captured later and all six of them were taken to Tobruk.
The two officers, P/O. Mills and P/O. Patrick, were flown to Italy whilst the four NCOs were taken first by road to Tripoli and then by ship to Palermo.
In Italy John Mills was sent to Campo PG 75 (Prigioniero di Guerra i.e. Prison of War No. 75) at Bari in southern Italy whilst Edmond Patrick was held some 200 miles further north at Campo PG 78 at Sulmona.
The four NCOs were all sent to Campo PG 66, a transit camp at Capua 20 miles north of Naples where they arrived on 20 November. On 9 December all four were sent to different camps according to their nationalities: William Simpson to PG54 at Fara-in-Sabina (near Rome), John Hutchinson to PG 59 at Servigliano 80 miles south of San Marino, Alexander Williamson to PG73 at Carpi near Modena and Allan Martin to Campo PG57 Gruppignano in the far north of Italy near the Slovenian border where mainly Australians and New Zealander other ranks were held.
And that is where they all remained until 8 September 1943 when Italy's surrender was made public. Between 8 and 12 September German forces attacked their erstwhile allies and occupied all Italian territory still not under Allied control apart from Sardinia and part of Apulia.
By 8 September at Campo PG 78 Sulmona, most of the Italians had left but before doing so had cut the barbed wire on the fences thus facilitating the escape of the prisoners. The Germans quickly arrived and though they successfully rounded up many of the escapees Edmond Patrick made good his escape and re-joined the RAF in Italy.
Flying Officer Edmund Rupert Patrick was Mentioned in Dispatches as per the London Gazette of 14 June 1945: “Flying Officer Patrick was a member of the crew of a Wellington aircraft which crash-landed near Sidi Barani on the 20th October 1942. For six days the crew succeeded in evading capture but at the end of this time Flying Officer Patrick was too weak and ill to keep up with the party and persuaded the other five crew members to go on without him. Some two hours later the party was captured and Flying Officer Patrick, who was too ill to move, attracted their attention and was also taken prisoner. They were eventually imprisoned in a camp at Sulmona. Shortly after the Italian Armistice the camp was taken over by a South African officer, and on the 12th September the camp was evacuated owing to the approach of the Germans. Flying Officer Patrick, suffering great privations and after enduring many vicissitudes, succeeded in reaching the 22nd Royal Montreal Regiment [sic] on the 23rd October 1943. After establishing his identity, he was sent to the Canadian Headquarters. Flying Officer Patrick left Cairo on the 28th October and arrived at Gibraltar on 29th October 1943. Throughout he displayed courage of a high standard.”
At Campo PG 59 Servigliano on 14 September the MO, Captain Miller, gave the prisoners orders to leave. The commandant was a Fascist and would have handed them over to the Germans at the first opportunity. The prisoners made good their escape whilst the sentries merely fired over their heads. John Hutchinson moved 20 miles south with another prisoner, Sgt. Bryson of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Ascoli and on about 26 September to near San Lorenzo in Campo and on 1 November to San Stefano where they remained until July 1944 when they made contact with Allied forces then at Ascoli. They flew from Naples on 13 July and eventually arrived in the UK on 19 July 1943.
William Simpson at Campo PG 54 Fara-in-Sabina (near Rome), Alexander Williamson at PG 73 Carpi near Modena and John Mills at Campo PG 75 Bari were not so fortunate. German forces quickly took over these camps and transported the prisoners to Germany. William Simpson and John Mills were both ultimately incarcerated at Stalag Luft III Sagan and Belaria whilst Alexander Williamson was held at Stalag 4B Muhlberg (Elbe) in Germany.
At Campo PG57 Gruppignano some prisoners made their escape immediately following the armistice. Most of these however were swiftly recaptured as German forces swiftly moved in and took over the area soon after 8 September. All prisoners at the camp were to be transported to camps in Germany.
Gruppignano, Italy. c. 1941. The prisoner of war (POW) huts behind the inner fence of barbed wire at the Italian Prisoner of War Camp PG57 (Campo 57) in northern Italy. The POWs were not required to do any work with the exception of necessary camp chores. About 500 Australians captured in North Africa were held here. The camp, situated in a wide plain surrounded by mountains, was a large compound containing wooden huts about 90 feet long and 30 feet wide. The camp commandant was Colonel Calcaterra of the Italian Carabinieri. By October 1942 there were more than 1200 Australians and 1000 New Zealanders held in this camp.
Some 700 miles north of Gruppignano the girls of Orange Hill School, Burnt Oak Edgware, North London had been invited to take part in a Red Cross service, seeking penfriends for Allied prisoners of war. 15 years old Joan Sapsford was one of those who volunteered to take part and so closing her eyes, she described a circle with her finger over a long list of names then brought it down onto the list. Opening her eyes she found that her finger had alighted on the name "Howard Allan Martin aged 21"
Allan Martin was taken first to Stalag 18B, a transit camp located at Spittal an der Drau in southern Austria. Then on 22 September 1943, whilst travelling by train through Austria to Germany he jumped off and escaped. In his liberation statement he described the incident as follows:
'On 14 September 1943 I left PG57 at Gruppignano by train together with about 2000 India, South African and RAF prisoners en route for Germany. we were in cattle trucks and when the guard came to lock us in some of the men jammed the door with their feet so that it would not close properly. Consequently he was unable to bolt it and the guard improvised a lock by wiring it up. During the night we managed to cut the wire and open the door. Seventeen in all of the thirty four in our truck got out. The train was going fairly slowly when I jumped and I landed without difficulty and unhurt. It was a wet night and I walked up the line until I found cover in the shape of small hut in whichi I hid until it was daylight. I estimated my position to have been about 10 miles south of Hallein. I then found a road near the railway line and I followed it but had not gone more than half a mile when I was accosted by a German officer and arrested. I later learned that all 17 who jumped from my truck were also arrested.'
He was then sent to Stalag 18C (later renumbered 317) at Markt Pongau near the German border and about 30 miles south of Salzburg. Conditions at the camp were very bad; there were no palliasses, blankets, fires, lights or Red Cross parcel for the first two months. There were also no washing facilities and the sanitary arrangements were bad. After two or three months there was some improvement but the camp remained very overcrowded.
In June 1944 Howard was transferred to Stalag Luft 7 located in Bankau, Silesia, Germany (now Bąków, Opole Voivodeship, Poland). Facilities here were a big improvement on Stalag 317. There were hot showers, washing facilities and fair sanitary arrangements. With 12 to 16 men to a room there were permanent wooden bunks, electric lights and stoves. There was also a library, some sports facilities AND Red Cross parcels.
It was at Stalag Luft 7 that he received his first letter from schoolgirl Joan Sapsford; many more were to follow. He wrote back of course and the pair came to exchange letters regularly, at least once a week. Joan's letters brightened Howard's days in the camp no end and he grew to look forward to receiving them.
The following song, was written and sung by Allan Martin's grandson, Luke Martin, who writes: This song is a true story of how my grandparents met during WW2. He was a pilot from Adelaide who was shot down near Tobruk, Libya in 1941 and taken as POW in Italy and Germany until 1945. During this time my grandmother, then a 15-year-old school girl from London wrote to him as part of a program with the Red Cross. It’s amazing to me that words alone can bring two people together, over distance, war, and uncertainty of all kinds. Anyway, it’s a proud part of my family’s story, and one I could hardly believe as a ten-year-old being told the tale by my Grandpa, which I still vividly remember today.
He was just a boy
Was not yet eighteen
But too old to be told
You’re too young for the Airforce
So, they sent him up
Behind a Lancaster’s gun
To fight for our freedom
Just like his father had done
High above Egypt
They were hit by a round
He sent his prayers up
As that plane came down
It was a miracle they landed
But deep in enemy ground
They made him a prisoner
And to a war camp he was bound
I won’t miss you everyday
But I’ll miss you, Adelaide
In a cell packed with soldiers
There are no guarantees
But he found hope in the letters
Of a mysterious English teen
Their romance grew strong
As the forties’ rolled by
In the darkest of places
Her words kept this man alive
His heart stirred as he wrote
If I get out alive
Will you come home with me,
Would you be my wife?
On a train up from Brighton
His heart at his feet
The woman he would marry
He was still yet to meet
Over one million paces
Through suffering and war
But the hardest of all
Were up to her front door
I won’t miss you everyday
But I long to be home, Adelaide
Between the oceans
And the deep blue sea
When my ship comes in
A new life begins
Between the oceans
And the deep blue sea
When my ship comes in
I’ll see you then
On 19 January 1945, in the face of the Russian advance, about 1,500 prisoners were marched out of camp in bitterly cold conditions. Under extremely harsh conditions they were marched over 150 miles to Cottbus in Germany, sleeping in barns and cow sheds en route and issued with very meagre rations. At Cottbus the prisoners were crowded into cattle trucks and taken by train 50 miles west to Stalag 3A at Luckenwalde. Given rations only sufficient for 1 day the journey took three days to complete.
On February 8 they reached Stalag 3A which already held 20000 PoWs from Britain, Canada, the U.S. and Russia packed 160 men to each barracks.
10 weeks later on 22 April 1945 the prisoners were finally liberated by the Red Army but it seems that Allan did not hang around too long. His grandson Luke recalled:
'When they heard the Red army was coming, he became very afraid and decided to escape (they were more afraid of the Russians, by all accounts the Germans treated them relatively well). Early one morning him and a friend got through the fence and began running for trees when they heard shots ring out. They dropped, thinking they were going to be killed, but no more shots came. In hindsight he thought the gunfire was from a poorly timed burial service for a German officer at the camp. In their escape, they stole two German soldiers push bikes from the outside of a hotel and rode to the border where they were liberated and sent back to England.'
By 16 May 1945 Howard was back in the UK at No. 11 Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at Brighton.
Howard and a friend bought a motor car and went on a long tour finally reaching London, but more specifically the Sapsford residence at Mill Hill. From then on Howard spent many happy hours at what he later described as "more or less a home from home". Joan was by now 17 years old and working at the Council Offices at Hendon. Howard and Joan's friendship blossomed into romance before the fateful day arrived when he had to leave for home.
Many years later Luke's grandmother told him that when 'Allan' arrived at her door he was sheepishly standing behind his friend who knocked and spoke first and who she initially mistook for Allan.
Alllan embarked at Liverpool on 5 August 1945 and on 9 September, after being away for 4 years, disembarked at Sydney. He was finally demobilised on 23 November 1945 and was then employed in his father's drapery and jewellery business in Ellen Street , Port Pirie.
Letters continued to pass regularly between Howard and Joan and inevitably he formally proposed by letter. Joan accepted and they were officially engaged in May 1946.
On Saturday 12 October 1946, Joan sailed from Southampton on the Asturias, calling at Cape Town before continuing to Australia, berthing at Fremantle on 12 November, Melbourne on 17 November and being in Sydney from 19 to 26 November before returning to Britain.
Luke told Aircrew Remembered: 'Grandma came out by boat to Australia by herself, a six week journey. She arrived in Melbourne where she was picked up by Allan and driven back to Port Pirie where they were wed. At her wedding she didn't know anyone. When I asked what she remembered she just said it was the unbearable heat she wasn't used to.'
Courtesy: The Reporter 9 December 1946
Allan and Joan remained happily married with four children until they passed away a number of years ago.
(1) WO. William Simpson
Husband of Mrs. I? Simpson 55 Denville Crescent, Wythenshawe, Manchester.
If you are able to provide any further information about Sgt. William Simpson please contact our helpdesk
(2) F/O. Edmond Rupert Patrick MiD was born on 3 May 1912 at Hampton parish, Kings County New Brunswick, Canada the son of Hugh Patrick and Lillie Bythanus Patrick nee McCurdy.
He had seven siblings: Walter Ernest Robinson Patrick born 1907, Hughie R. Patrick born 1909, Raymond Redvers Patrick born 1913, Ronald Patrick, Keith Patrick, Roland Patrick and Murray Patrick.
Edmond Patrick married Mary Elizabeth Ross (1911-2001) and lived at 284 Manawoganish Road, Fairville St John New Brunswick. In 1942 his mother lived at the same address. Also to be informed in the event of him becoming a casualty was Mrs H. Mackinon 4 West Cliff Road Bournemouth England
He was promoted to Flying Officer, date unknown.
Edmond Rupert Patrick died in 2005 age 93 and is buried at Mount Pleasant cemetery London Middlesex County Ontario (Section R)
(3) F/O. John Alexander Hutchinson was born on 9 October 1914.
Husband of Mrs M Hutchinson 17A En[d]ura Road Toronto
Commissioned as a Pilot Officer (J16090) date unknown
(4) WO. Alexander Thomas Stewart Williamson was born 1920 at Dunfermline Scotland the son of Thomas Stewart Williamson and Janey Gardener Williamson nee Hamilton of 40, Bittencrieff Street, Dunfermline Scotland
Alexander Thomas Stewart Williamson died in 1992 aged 71 and was cremated on 28 May 1992 at Ratho, Edinburgh
(5) WO. Howard Allan Martin was born on 25 February 1922 125 miles north of Adelaide at Crystal Brook, South Australia, the son of Alfred John Martin and Mary Inglis Martin nee Venning. He had three siblings: Alfred John Martin (1912-1992), Ermyntrude Mary Martin (1914-1981) and another sister, details unknown. The family later moved to Port Pirie South Australia.
He was educated at Port Pirie High School (1935-1937) and Prince Alfred College (1938-1939). He played intercollegiate Football and Cricket whilst at Prince Alfred College.
Prior to enlisting he was employed as a shopkeeper assisting his father.
He enlisted at Adelaide on 12 October 1940 when he was 18 years old. He was 5' 7" tall weighing 149 lbs with a dark complexion, blue-grey eyes and black hair.
After training at No. 1 Initial Training School RAAF Somers, Victoria, No. 1 Wireless and Gunnery School RAAF Ballarat and No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School RAAF Evans Head (No 7 Air Gunners Course 5 May - 28 May 1941) he was awarded his Air Gunners Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 29 May 1941.
On 9 June 41 he was posted to No. 4 Embarkation Depot and on 27 June embarked at Sydney and disembarked in Africa on 30 July 1941. The following day he was posted to the Middle East Pool at Heliopolis, Egypt.
On 29 November 1941 he was promoted to Flight Sergeant
On 10 November 1941 he left on a four day journey to the Kenya Auxiliary Pool and to No. 70 Operational Training Unit at Nakuru, Kenya. Following completion of Blenheim 15 Operational Course 20 May to 8 June 1942 he left Nakuru by rail on 18 July 1942 and travelled to the Kenyan port of Kisumu en route to No. 22 Personnel Transit Camp at Almaza Egypt and on 9 August to No. 2 Middle East Training School Heavy Conversion Unit at Agir, Palestine.
He was posted to No. 108 Squadron at Landing Ground 237 (Kilo 40) on 11 September 1942
Whilst with 108 Squadron Allan Howard flew 70 operational hours on Wellingtons and after going missing, W/C G.H.N. Gibson Commanding 108 Squadron wrote of him 'A good Wireless Operator; hard worker; very good character and general conduct.'
He was promoted to Warrant Officer on 1 May 1943 whilst a prisoner of war.
(6) Fl/Lt. John Mills was born on 15 January 1920 at Whitby, North Riding of Yorkshire, the son of John Mills (a Blast Furnace Firer) and Annie Mills nee Whiteley. He had five siblings: Gladys Wray Mills (1907-1997), Eva Whiteley Mills born 1910, Selina W Mills born and died 1912, Doris D Mills born 1914 and Joseph W Mills born 1916. John Mills senior died in 1925 aged 44.
In 1939 In 1939 Annie MIlls lived in an apartment at 38 Upgang Lane, Whitby, North Riding of Yorkshire, the home of Percival H. Sanderson, a Retired Bank Cashier. Annie was his Housekeeper, and living with her were her daughter, Gladys Mills and son John Mills, who was a Radio Electrical Engineer at the time.
1076656 LAC John Mills was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on probation (emergency) on 14 March 1942 (London Gazette 2 June 1942) confirmed in this appointment on and promoted to Flying Officer on probation (war subs) on 1 October 1942 (London Gazette
4 December 1942). He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant (war subs) on 13 March 1944 (London Gazette 31 March 1944). Granted the substantive rank of Flight Lieutenant, 1st Nov. 1947, with seniority 14 September 1945 (London Gazette 20 January 1948)
On 11 February 1948 he transferred to the Secretarial Branch of the RAF reverting to the substantive rank of Flying Officer on appointment with seniority of 14 March 1944. (London Gazette 2 March 1948) He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 14 March 1948 (London Gazette 6 April 1948)
On 11 February 1953 he was transferred to the Reserve and called up for air force service (London Gazette 3 March 1953)
On 5 August 1953 he relinquished his commission on appointment to a short service commission in the RAF. (London Gazette 6 October 1953)
On 1 December 1956 he was appointed to commission (permanent) under AMO A.215/55 (London Gazette 29 June 1956)
On 21 July 1962 he retired from the RAF at his own request (London Gazette 28 August 1962)
None, all the crew members survived.
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - November 2018
With thanks to the sources quoted below.
RW 14.07.2019 News cuttings added, courtesy Brock Kerby
RW 08.03.2023 Additional material courtesy Luke Martin added
RW 08.03.2023 Further details from 108 Sqn records and Allan Martin service record added.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember
them. - Laurence
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