by Hap Kennedy - "Squadron Leader John Lynch was our third Commanding Officer in 249 Squadron in the four months since I had arrived in Malta. His predecessors had been popular, and he had big boots to fill. There was Timber Woods, tall and dark with a ready smile. We liked him, a good leader. He had flown a great deal of ops., was decorated, and was sent off for a rest a couple of months after I joined the squadron. Timber didn't enjoy the non-operational job, and came back as Wing Commander for his third tour as soon as his six month stand-down was over. By then we were up in Italy, and Timber and his good chum Bowie Debenham, Commanding Officer of 126 Squadron, who had returned to operations with him, attacked a large gaggle of Me 109s over Yugoslavia, having crossed the Adriatic from Grottaglie. We never heard from them again. But I'm ahead of my story.
Mac MacLeod took over from Timber. MacLeod was a pilot's CO, and his fortitude was not confined to the air. We were, of course, short of aircraft due to enemy action. Understandably, accidents due to carelessness were not tolerated. The routine punishment for a pilot who pranged an aircraft was immediate banishment to a squadron in the desert, which was only a couple of hundred miles to the south.
One day, one of our fellows ran off the strip at Krendi, broke his landing gear and prop, and faced the wrath of the Wing Commander who happened to be at the dispersal. Quite a few of us tore over to see the prang. Before the Wingco could say a word, MacLeod stepped between him and the unfortunate young pilot and said quietly, "Sir, if you send this man to the desert, you'll have to send me too." We thought it was superb. The Wingco was on the spot, but maintained his composure. The young lad stayed with us.
Squadron Leader MacLeod, from Pictou, Nova Scotia, only signed my logbook twice (two months) before he was killed over Sicily, an unsung courageous airman.
John J. Lynch was an American. From one of the Carolinas, as I recall, although he didn't have a drawl. I had known him briefly at Operational Training Unit (OTU) up near Newcastle in the summer of 1941 when we were flying Hurricanes. Then we went our separate ways, he to an "Eagle" squadron while I flew Whirlwinds for nine months before wangling a transfer to Spits. Johnnie was several years older than most of us, and had flown privately before the war. He was a very sober, taciturn individual whom the mechanics promptly labelled "Smilin' Jack." But if one could break through his shyness, there was a smile underneath. It just wasn't easy to find.
Johnnie was a keen student of the tactics and habits of the Luftwaffe, and spent endless hours in the Intelligence Room, reading reports on German and Italian sorties over the Mediterranean. The research involved Junkers 88 action against shipping, and transport aircraft, mostly Junkers 52s, carrying cargo to and from Rommel's army in Africa.
Johnnie had already taken me over to Sicily the previous month. We each had two 250 pound bombs under our wings, and went on a low level raid up the railway line north-west from Gela until we found a train which we blew up. Shortly after dropping the eleven-second delay bombs, we pounced upon a Junkers 52 transport aircraft which we clobbered. As Flight Commander, he had the privilege of attacking first, and he set one engine on fire before I had a crack at it. I knew that he was generous to share it with me, although technically it was RAF policy that any pilot who observed strikes on an aircraft shared in the claim.
Based on his reading of radar and radio reports, Johnnie got permission from Operations to make a daring long-range low level sortie northerly up the east coast of Sicily, across the Straits of Messina, then down onto the sea again north of Sicily proceeding west towards Palermo. He thought two aircraft would be optimum. We would be more than two hundred miles from home, but by staying low and maintaining radio silence, surprise should be our greatest advantage. There would be a reasonable chance of finding some enemy transport aircraft, but such a flight could not be undertaken more than once. The Luftwaffe fighter squadrons in the south of Sicily would not allow it.
One day, he asked me if I would accompany him early the next morning. I was absolutely thrilled with the prospect, and found the evening long. We got the mechanics to put ninety-gallon long range fuel tanks on our aircraft, doubling our endurance to three hours. These external belly tanks could be jettisoned whenever we were through with them.
The morning of April 22nd dawned cloudy, but visibility was good and we were airborne early at 0610 hours. We flew at deck level north-east around Cape Passero, then turned north about ten miles offshore. Opposite Riposto, I saw an aircraft coming south at deck level between us and the coast. Should I break radio silence so early? This might foil our plans. On the other hand, it might be the only aircraft encountered. I called up the CO.
"Tiger Green One. Green Two here. Aircraft eleven o'clock ahead, same level, proceeding south. Over."
After a pause, Johnnie came on. "Green Two, I don't see it."
"Green One. Aircraft is now at nine o'clock. Might be a Junkers 52." It was a few miles away.
Another pause and the CO came back, "I can't find it, Green Two."
We were going in opposite directions and whatever it was, it was now at seven o'clock and required drastic action. I pulled around hard to port and said, "Green One, I'm going back after him. I'll catch him before we lose him," and I opened up the throttle.
It was no time until I caught up with the transport aircraft which proved to be a Ju52, oblivious to our presence. As Green One was still a long way back, I gave the Junkers a quick burst which set the port engine on fire. It crashed into the sea at once. Then I turned back north, the CO also turned, and we continued on our course without a word. I could not understand why he had taken so long to react, but felt justified in my attack.
As we approached the Straits of Messina at Taormina, we turned port and climbed north-west overland, descending to sea level again south of the Lipari Islands. We were now proceeding westerly in brilliant sunshine, the clouds all having been left on the east coast. I was staring at three very small specks a long way ahead of us that at first I considered might be birds, but because of their constancy of position must be aircraft. I watched them for another minute or so, then decided to break radio silence once more.
"Tiger Green One. Green Two here. There are three small aircraft, possibly 109s, twelve o'clock deck level. I don't know if they're approaching or going away. They're several miles away. Over."
"Green Two, keep your eye on them. I don't see them yet. Over."
"Roger, Green One."
We kept on the same course and speed for perhaps three minutes more, although it seemed longer, by which time it was obvious that the three aircraft were going away from us, and that we were only very slowly gaining on them.
"Green One. Green Two here. Those three aircraft are still dead ahead and going the other way. We'll have to open up. Over." "O.K. Green Two. Lead me to them."
Now that was better! We'd give the old Spitfire Vs a ride. Enough of this loafing! I opened up to nine pounds of boost. We still had lots of gas: still running on our drop tanks in fact. Now we were catching up a bit, and with that came a surprise. They were not 109s. I could see an engine in each wing. They had been so far away that they had looked like small aircraft, but now I saw that they were heavier.
"Green One. The three aircraft dead ahead are twin-engined. I'm opening up a little more. We must catch up more quickly. Over."
"O.K. Green Two," came the reply from the CO, but still he lagged a thousand yards behind me, making no move to lead the way. I weaved a little to starboard to look back at Johnnie, then straightened out again looking at the three aircraft still a long distance away, and felt in the middle of a conundrum. I knew that the CO was full of courage; he had carefully planned this flight. I knew also that he was a very conservative pilot and didn't like to abuse his aircraft. But this was going on too long since we had originally broken silence; and yet he was the boss. I opened up a bit more.
I was intent upon the silhouette of the transport aircraft ahead when I finally realized what was happening. It must be the CO's eyes. He couldn't see the enemy aircraft yet. He had said, "Lead me to them." He was myopic as blazes and hadn't told anyone because he knew that he would be grounded at once. It would be the end of operational flying for him. In a way, he was using my eyes. I felt relieved, and keen to get this job over.
I caught up to the three transports flying in open formation about two hundred feet above the water. Now I could see that they had a third engine on the nose like Junkers 52s. I moved in on the port quarter of the nearest aircraft at good speed, but for a second I noticed the mid-upper gunner's gun pointing to the sky. Then I saw his head on his chest; he was snoozing. There was no time to think about the gunner, and anyway I wasn't interested in him. My target was the port engine which I hit a good clout, and which promptly caught fire. As I pulled out I thought, "I reckon that woke him up!" The aircraft descended quickly to the sea. Did he crash or ditch? If the latter, the pilot did very well, but I was busy looking at the others.
The CO was still out of range, but coming in quickly now. I had a belt at the second aircraft, another port engine with profuse black smoke, while Johnnie attacked the third which went down on fire. Then I hesitated. I held off while Johnnie hit the second aircraft another clout before it settled down on the water. I distinctly remember feeling that I should be a little diplomatic here. Besides, I was content. Elated! I was not angry with the transport crews.
There was nothing difficult about these clumsy aircraft. But they were enemy aircraft, and I had clobbered some port engines, and they were down in the water.
"Green Two, Green One here. Let's go home." "Roger Green One."
We climbed hard to the south. Johnnie had taken over once more. We had been hidden behind the mountains of Sicily, particularly Mount Etna at 11,000 feet which had cut us off from any radio contact with Malta. With our noses high in the climb, out of habit I looked in my rear-view mirror. In the broad view of the sea a thousand feet back I could see three fires burning on the water. Small, localized fires, quite apart from each other, and I thought, "They were not carrying fuel."
We climbed up to 22,000 feet and Green One called Malta Control. Control came back loud and clear, which was reassuring because we were still one hundred and sixty miles away. Control appeared excited.
"Tiger Green One. Where have you been? We've been trying to get you for an hour. The whole German Air Force is up after you. Over." "Hello Control. Tiger Green One here. We've been to a party. We're coming home now. Over." I could tell Johnnie was chuckling. "Tiger Green One. Control here. Keep your eyes open. Several squadrons of 109s are up from Comiso looking for you. Did you have any luck? Over." "Hello Control. Tiger Green One. We got four Junkers 52s. Over." Then he continued to me: "Green Two, did you hear Control?" "Roger Green One." I felt fine. I thought that Control was exaggerating. I was enjoying this.
The CO's eyesight was terribly defective in scanning the horizon for an aircraft, but he could see the outline of Sicily from 22,000 feet and knew exactly where we were. Of course, Etna's volcano was just to our left, coming up half-way to meet us. The southern tip of Sicily was seventy miles ahead, and Johnnie wasn't through with the Huns yet.
"Green Two. These guys have a problem lookin' for us. We'll just go down and take a look at Comiso and show them where we're at." Johnnie's southern background had finally surfaced.
We stuck our noses down and opened the throttles. I stayed with him about a hundred feet abreast. We were moving, because the controls were a bit stiff, but it was not a time to look at airspeed. I was busy looking for the 109s and finally, looking straight ahead as we tore across Comiso aerodrome at nought feet. I looked right into the hanger at men scattering in all directions. We were rubbing it in.
Tiger Green One throttled back when we got down over the sea. In no time the Malta cliffs rose up ahead of us, and we pulled up over Krendi.
He waited for me, and we walked in together from the aircraft. He was much more affable than usual, smiling, in fact. I was chuckling over the Comiso bit.
"That was a good ride, sir," I said. "A very good ride."
"Yes, it was, actually," he replied. "Actually" was his favourite word. He had picked it up in England, and unconsciously used it a lot. "What are you going to claim?" he asked me.
I recalled his sharing one with me before. And perhaps he would take me again. "What about sharing even, two each? I asked. "Sounds reasonable," he said. He seemed relieved.
We went into Intelligence. I never mentioned the matter of his eyesight. It seemed of less significance on the ground. Besides, it was none of my business. I knew that Johnnie, like other Americans who had joined the RAF before Pearl Harbour, was considering transfer to the U.S. Army Air Force. He had served the RAF very well; to fly with him was my privilege."
Story & photo below from "Hap" Kennedy's book "Black Crosses off my Wingtip"