Walter L. Shea, Mission June 15, 1942

The Italian Fleet Raid

At the time the RAF came to Col. Halverson for aid and succor in deterring the Italian Fleet from intercepting convoys (from both Alexandria and Gibraltar to Malta, which was almost destitute of aviation fuel, etc) ---- we were back from the Ploesti mess and reloading bomb bays for the onward trip to China. Whether we were fully-loaded or not, I can't recall. If we were, a few of us were unloaded to accent bombs.

The briefing was, again an RAF affair ----- post-punctuated by remarks from Col. Halverson. You must realize that we didn’t know shit from shinola in those days. It was RAF all the way - we were just there, trying to learn.

A mid-day briefing.. The figures that come to my mind were:

2 battleships

5 cruisers.

Assorted destroyers in perimeter.

300 Fighters for cover to the fleet.

Don’t recall much, other than Col Hal saying, "Send 5 of the boys". The 6th, to be an RAF B-24 lacking our  high altitude carburetor fittings, but having only a "high speed blower". Good for 14,000' or so.

Willkie (me) were to fly left wing after (Navigator) Bryant? in the lead - with the RAF kite on the right wing. We were the 2nd “Vic” of 3. Following Kalberer’s lead "Vic” We were to formate over a spit of land West of Alexandria labeled as Ras El Kenayas (Kenias?) --- at dawn - following a night takeoff.

I INSIST that I recall waking in my mosquito-netted bunk at perhaps 0300 - and recalling that we should be up and about by then, But all was silence. Maybe OTHERS were awake, but not in MY hut!  I called Willkie (after examining my soul, to see if silence wouldn't have proved golden - for 5 bombers against a fleet didn't make much sense to me!) (and we did scramble to get ready). 

Guess someone else must have been on the stick, for we DID get into trucks and down to the flight line.  The bomb loading was 6/500 lb semi-armor piercing bombs from the RAF - which had been stored a LONG TIME in the desert.)

Take-off was normal - as was the flight to Ras Fl K -----but to a young navigator, simply a flight into sheer darkness - only mitigated by a compass that --- (if properly compensated for wind, deviation, and )-would bring us "there"

At stroke of dawn or so ---- we were "there". And there were the other aircraft circling a round. Somehow, we "formatted.”

I, at least, and, I am quite certain, all OTHER Nav-Bomb's had British Naval Observers accompanying us in the nose. Mine had a big, black beard. A nice guy. His job: to "point out" the battleships --- that is, the KEY targets.

On we flew, WNW, with Bernie Rang (and Kalberer) in the lead ship of the lead Vic. We other Navigators had the task of "following the pilot”; that is, watching the compass to see where they were leading us, and tracking ourselves in a negative sense of the word. I do recall wishing I could run a fast 45 to 45 degree offshoot to get a drift" reading” for wind, but simply calculated a “no wind" effect". The weather was superb.

We got to 14,000' as I recall (that number sticks in my mind); and before long (sorry about that!) spotted funnel smoke on the horizon. WOW! Bomb bay doors open! Clutch-in the bombsight! TOO FAR as yet. Unclutch. Set the bomb train! 20? 50? foot interval. 

Here they came ----- a "group" of ships. Long range look thru the bombsight ------ long before "clutching-in was feasible --------- WOW ---- a cruiser, or something!

NOW clutch-in, freeze the over-under horizontal hair and double-clutch to hold it there along the mid of that "cruiser". Look up and out ------ FLAK! --- they were shooting at us! Kalerber weaving his VIC to avoid the flak. We - the 2nd Vic - trying to do SOMETHING appropriate!  What the hell!

Clutch-in. NOW the horizontal hair would "follow" the cruiser. Double-clutch to get the "rate" of continual depression. HOLDING ~ Right on. Left to right hair - the deviation - that was the problem of the lead navigator in our VIC. If he was a little left or right, that’s what we wingmen were for! To compensate. We dropped or the over-short only! ( got it?)

Then Kalberer started to fire off Verey signals. The "colors of the day". "Look at us, were friendly.” “Bullshit said the Royal Navy, “F __ off, Jack! And the flak came up heavier than ever.

Kal peeled his vic off to the left and we in the second vic followed.

It had been a close call, for I had my hairs on that damn cruiser - or whatever, for quite a while. As I looked up for seconds from time to time - watching the indices creep closer together (there were two - as they crossed, that meant bombs-away)- my RAF observer told me, "Hey, that's the British Convoy!"  I barely had time to "unclutch" the whole damn sequence! Maybe a half-inch? 5 seconds? Hell, the flak was there,' etc ---- they HAD to be baddies. 

Slightly "miffed", we flew on. Recall questioning my plot of Bernie’s navigation ---- thinking we were too damn far south ----- until, there they were.

First view was unbelieveable.

Two LARGE vessels, one astern of the other ----straight or nearly so) at us ------- with curving wakes all around them from manuevering cruisers and destroyers.

Obviously, BUSY AS HELL with something (As we later learned, being attacked by, I believe the number correct, 15 Beauforts, (torpedo bombers - twin engine) out of Malta!)

I put the horizontal crosshair on the foremost battleship (didn't need the Naval observer to point THAT out) ---- and held it at long range setting until close enough to clutch-in. Kal had, by then, peeled his vic off to the left in an obvious attack on the REAR battleship. We Just bored-on at 14,000 feet.

There WAS flak, but not at US. That I noticed. It was a dream-run-in.- Straight and level ---- forever! FINALLY, we were close enough for me to clutch-in the bombsight, and I had the problem of deciding where to START my train of bombs. NO one had briefed us!

Start at the front and run it ALL the way down the deck. Nope, suppose you are long "? Or" short" ? Play it safe, aim for the middle.             But wait! Ammo lockers are usually in the rear: how about a salvo at the rear?  Forget it - play it safe. Aim for the middle.

Which I did. And - as my hair's held and the indices crossed down they went. The lead Nav-Bomb --- Bryant - had done a superb job. HIS bombs fell tight-in alongside the right side of "the battleship. The, RAF bomber, on his right, who also bombed beautifully on an over-short basis obviously fell to the far right of the ship. Mine – thanks to Bryant - went right down the deck! But I only spotted 3 flashes or explosion. Either 3 went off the end, or didn't explode.

The battle ship stopped right there. The second battleship bombed by Kalberer's VIC, had been hit by a SALVO by Bernie Rang and just stopped dead in the water.  At this point, it all became quite confusing, for Wilkie peeled off to the right and dove for the water surface. As best you can dive a B-24!

I merely recall coming "out of it" someplace --- rather at a low altitude - with our ship following 5 others in a rather messy formation ----- more horizontal than anything and trying to “pull-in” to some “hole” ------ as we raced back east.

Somehow we formed some sort of formation and headed home. I Was elated! When telling Wilkie of my absolutely phenomenal skill in bombing, he merely asked how I could be sure it was MY bombs that hit the ship! Killjoy. The formation bombing pattern PROVED it was mine that went down the ship. (All thanks to Bryant!)

I stood behind Willkie and Wilcox on the flight deck as we (heroically) flew home and sort of half-assed realized that we were cruising south of the island of Crete ---- which Was occupied by the Germans. I think I mumbled something about the need to look out for fighters from Crete when we suddenly noticed black puffs off ( I· think it was left) wing. Willkie dispatched me to-my (ridiculus) nosegun and I scrambled past the nose-wheel into the "greenhouse". My Navy friend was huddled behind the nose-wheel, and I soon 'joined him.

I recall looking back thru my astrodome to see a fighter (F-I09 or Italian Macchi?) on our tail ---- actually, the tail of the whole horizontal-flying formation. The damn -'fool' flew in close to see what type of albatross we all were and got hit by a mess of tail-gunners! He went down.

With THAT victory to boot behind us, we flew gloriously on toward the Delta.

Gloriosky, there were our friends! The English convoy from Alexnaris .... who had shot at us earlier. Boy, would they be proud of us! So we headed for them in some sort of victory Whatever - and got our ass shot off! - We were low-level - firing the colors of the days, etc ---- but no soap! Here came the flak! Right down our throat. (The Royal Navy takes no chances.)

Someone must have tempered judgement or whatever, for we swung aside - unseathed - and made it into Fayid. Can't recall much of the de-briefing, except Kals' famous remark about "shooting fish in a rain barrel." Some questions about who hit what, etc.' But no one cared. Just glad to be back- British sub- in the vicinity at the time got into the act on reporting who hit what, -and I believe claimed the sinking of a cruiser. As I recall, all 15 Beuaforts were shot down! They had - most successfully, if not intentionally, - diverted the German/Italian fighters from our formation. I truly believe we caught them completely by surprise - not even knowing we were in the theatre of war!            

A  later interview I had with a prisoner Italian General confirmed this ----- no one, he said, could hit ANYTHING from 14,000’!

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My Trip to San Pancrazio

October 2019


2019 River Cruise


2020 REUNION

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previous reunions

For Sale

The Other Doolittle Raid


The Liberandos


Three Crawford Brothers


Liberando: Reflections of a Reluctant Warrior


376th Bomb Group Mission History


The Last Liberator


Full Circle


Shadows of Wings


Ten Men, A "Flying Boxcar," and A War


I Survived Ploesti


A Measure of Life


Shot Down In Yugoslavia


Stories of My Life


Attack


Born in Battle