The Special Air Service was carried into its first operation by antiquated RAF Bombay bomber-transports, as Tom Spencer describes. Additional material by Gavin Mortimer.
In the summer of 1941, the British Army’s Egypt-based Lt David Stirling was proposing the formation of a pioneering unit, one which would hit the enemy deep behind their lines. He knew he could find the men to carry out these hard-hitting raids on airfields, communication lines and Axis outposts – but he needed a way to get them into a position to strike. He envisaged them being delivered by parachute drop.
The development of airborne forces by the British was still in its infancy at that point, and there were no dedicated aircraft adapted for the role. Indeed, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers had delivered the first British airborne operation on 10 February 1941, when they attacked the Tragino aqueduct in southern Italy. The Whitley was far from idea, and the paratroops had to exit the aircraft via the hatch of the redundant ventral turret. (This mission against Mussolini’s war machine was codenamed Operation Colossus.)
When Stirling assembled his small team of volunteers for rigorous training the only available aircraft in the Middle East that could deliver them by parachute were the obsolescent Bristol Bombays of 216 Squadron. Designed against a pre-war requirement for a dual-role bomber-transport, it was a high-wing, twin-engined aircraft with a fixed undercarriage.
The Bombay featured a voluminous fuselage with a large entry door on the port side for passengers or freight, with any bomb load being carried on external racks beneath the body. Armed with manually operated nose and tail turrets, it had a cruising speed of 160mph (257km/h) and a normal range of almost 900 miles (1,448km). They were outmoded and far from ideal, but they were all there was – and they did have a roomy fuselage and exit door from which parachuting was possible, so it was a matter of ‘needs must’.
Part of 202 Group, 216 Squadron was a veteran of desert transport flying, having been based in Egypt since 1920, and had helped pioneer air routes throughout the region. It had begun re-equipping with the Bombay in October 1939 but did not retire the last of the lumbering Vickers Valentia biplanes until September 1941. The squadron, which was under the command of Wg Cdr Gilbert Howie, left its long-time home at Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo on 6 October and moved ten miles north-east to El Khanka, though it had a forward detachment under the control of the Air Headquarters Western Desert.
Training without an instructor
Having completed rigorous training in desert and unconventional fighting, Stirling’s unit, now just over 60 strong and known as ‘L’ Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade, required parachute training and moved to RAF Kabrit on the banks of the Great Bitter Lake. However, there was no qualified parachuting instructor available. Ground training was conducted and in early October five Bombays under Flt Lt T H Archbell were detached to Kabrit for live training. The other captains, all of whom were highly experienced, were Flt Lt Whitaker, Fg Off Priest, F/Sgt West and Sgt Ford. Flt Lt (later Wg Cdr) Archbell recalled many years later: “The Bombay was not designed for parachute operations so there was no static line. The troops dropped using a manually opening back parachute. The training was also for us, as this was something new.”
Read the rest of this story in the November issue of Britain at War – in the UK shops now.