Beaufighter over the Balkans

BeauOvrBalklrgThis book is an account of my time in World War II when I was flying the Beaufighter aircraft as part of a squadron of South African Air Force seconded under the command of the RAF. The front cover is widely recognised as the most famous Beaufighter air-strike photo of WWII. It shows my plane attacking the Nazi-held medieval walled town of Zuzenberk. That attack by 8 of our 19 South African Air Force Beaufighter squadron resulted in the Yugoslav Partisans recapturing their town that very day.

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The suicide attack on the armed warship SS Kuckkuck.

Major Don Tilley DFC & BAR, awarded on a previous Tour of Operations over North Africa when he was based at Malta, and his navigator cleverly worked out how we could confuse the Nazis who were defending the town of Fiume they had recently captured and destroy their ship, the SS Kuckkuck, defending their position which was being fitted with larger guns. We had been informed that there were 140 anti-aircraft guns in that very area, so to attack from the sea would have certainly been suicide, instead, we came in at high level over the coastline of Yugoslavia. The radar had convinced them that we were obviously heading for some target in the north of Yugoslavia or even in one of the neighbouring countries, so they were off their guard.

When we flew across the Yugoslav coastline from Italy, we flew nearly another 100 miles inland before we suddenly dropped down to ground level. The Nazis thought that must be the target we were attacking. As soon as we got down to almost ground level, we turned back using a valley running parallel to one that would lead us to Fiume from the rear. When we were almost ready to turn towards the SS Kuckkuck, we faced flying over an escarpment in front of us where we would be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. We closed into very tight formation, because we knew if we didn’t get all of our full planes out of that area very speedily our last planes would most certainly be shot down.

The guns did open up but they were not quick enough to shoot any of us down. We were thrilled to still be alive and we flew away at sea level in close formation. When we had flown quite a long way from Fiume suddenly, to our amazement, the sea in front of the noses of our Beaufighters opened up before us. We had nearly been shot down by massive radar controlled 105 Mm anti-aircraft guns. The photos in Beaufighter over the Balkans show the success of our daring raid.

RAF headquarters had tried to get in touch with us by radio on our way back, but we were flying too low to get their signals and so they were convinced that all four of us had been shot down. They were delighted when they suddenly saw all of our aircraft return completely undamaged.

For this dramatically successful attack, Major Don Tilley who had already received two Distinguished Flying Crosses was now given the immediate award of the Distinguished Service Order. My photograph showed conclusively that Don had hit the Kuckkuck just below water level, precisely where he intended to hit the Nazi ship. Back in our squadron’s officers mess, when he told us of his honour, he made it clear that as far as he was concerned he was only the official receiver of the award, but the award really belonged to all eight of us, the four South African pilots and the navigators.