Ken Ball “Buck” Buchanan Charlie Chaplin
In May 1941 the Middle East RAF received its first Bristol Beaufighter units, NOS 252 and 272 squadrons, which initially staged vis Gibraltar to Malta. By early June Beaufighters of 272 Squadron had begun a few offensive
operations from Egypt, being based at Edku, some 25 miles east of Alexandria. Thus the “mighty beau” entered the lists in North Africa. From then until the end of the Mediterranean war Beaufighter crews were to wreak havoc and destruction
among the land, sea, and air forces of the axis “partners”, both by day and by night. With its four 20mm Hispano cannon in the belly and up to six 0.303-inch calibre Browning machine guns in the wings, the Beau was the RAF’s heaviest-armed
fighter of the 1939-1945 war; while its ability to carry additional under-wing 3 inch rocket projectiles (RP), bombs, torpedoes, or long-range fuel drop-tanks, gave the Beau a versatility in opertional roles denied to virtually all its
Moreover, the design’s rugged construction could absorb astonishing amounts of damage and still deliver a live crew from any potentially disastrous crash-landing; an asset which gave the Beau crews utter confidence in their warhorse in almost every circumstance. Admittedly Beaufighters were heavy, requiring no small amount of physical strength to execute violent maneuvers in any emergency, but once familiar with the Beau’s idiosyncrasies most pilots swore by the aircraft.
His aggesssive leadership of 272 Squadron brought Buchanan the award of DSO in January 1943, and within the next four months he added four more enemy aircraft destroyed or damaged to his tally before, in June , handing over his command to Wing Commander W.A. Wild. Never content with his staff paperwork, Buchanan soon returned to the operational scene when, in October 1943, he was appointed CO of No227 Squadron, another Beaufighter unit, based then at Nicosia, Cyprus and later Berka 3 airfield. 227’s prime roles were anti shipping strikes and convoy protection in the Aegean theatre of wat, and it was while returning from one such sortie several weeks later that Buchanan had to ditch his flak-damaged Beaufighter in the sea. He and his navigator were seen to get aboard their dinghy safely but subsequent air searches failed to relocate them until days later, by which time “Buck” Buchanan had died of exposure and thirst.
The report of his death in such tragic circumstances deeply affected many of the men who had flown with him over previous years. As one contemporary said of him:
Buck , had he lived in another era, would have been a buccaneer by natural inclination and character. His dandyish outward appearance belied his courage and dash, because he had the guts of a lion when the chips were down. He was one of the very few men whom I’ve always felt highly privileged to have known.
“Buck” Buchanan’s operational record was outstanding by any standards in the context of Beaufighters but he was not alone in establishing a high reputation while flying a “Bristol Brute”. A contemporary with 272 Squadron, Squadron leader Anthony Watson, eventually acheived near-equal fame for his exploits in Beaus. An ex-farmer from Surrey, Tony Watson was a Belnheim pilot with No 203 Squadron in May 1941 involved with the Rashid Ali uprising in Iraq which was threatenign the RAF station at Habbaniyah. During a bomb atack on Fort Rutbah he saw a fellow Blenheim shoot down and, despite nearby rebel armoured cars and troops, cooly landed in open country and retrieved the Blenheim pilot; a feat which brought him a DFC award two months later.
On 8 August 1942, as a flight Lieutenant, Watson joined 272 Squadron as a Flight commander and quickly demonstrated his skill as a fighting pilot by shooting down an SM81 and then strafing a Fiat Cr42 on the ground during an attack on an Italian airfiled. On 25 October Watson led eight Beaufighters into an attack on a force of 35 JU52s with six escorting BF110s north of Tobruk and personally destroyed two JUu52s, while five days later he was one of the five Beau pilots attacking El Adem airfield, destroying two JU52s on the ground, then shooting down a third JU52 as it came in to land. While escorting some Beaufort torpedo-bombers on 2 November Watson, by then promoted to Squadron leader, intercepted and shot dwon a JU88 which attempted to interfere.
On 10 November 1942, just 48 hours after the Anglo-American invasion of Oran, Algeria-Operation Torch_ reconnaissance photos had revealed a force of more than 100 Axis aircraft gathered at El Aouina airfiled, just north of Tunis. Nine Beaufighters from Malta-based 272 Squadron took off shortly after 4 pm and swept in at deck-level across El Aouina, creating havoc among the tightly parked aircraft and destroying at least ten apart from damaging a further 16 for certain; Watson’s share of the carnage being total destruction in flames of a Messerschmitt ME323”Gigant” transport of KG.zb.V.323, and damage to two JU52s. Next day, while patrolling the Cap Bon area Watson joined four other pilots in destroying a Heinkel He115 floatplane over the sea; while on 12 November he was prominent in a mini-massacre of some Italian transport aircraft. On that Thursday he and six other 272 Beaufighters were sweeping the sea between Tunis and Sicily when they spotted six enemy twin-engined aircraft flying northwards near Pantellaria. The engagement was brief with all six Italian SM75s being shot down; Watson destroying two and sharing a third with a Belgian pilot, Charles Delcour. Two days later Watson returned to El Aouina at the head of seven Beaufighters of 272 Squadron, only to be greeted by a a fierce flak barrage from well- allerted ground defences. Strafing a JU52 on the ground, Wason’s Beaufighter was hit in its starboard engine and he has to force-land on a beach six miles away. Setting fire to his wrecked Beau, Watson and his navigator then set out to walk to the Allied lines and eventually returned safely, becoming the latest members of the “Late Arrivals Club”. Shortly after Watson was awarded a DSO, its evetual citation quoting him as credited with eleven enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, apart from “many” more damaged on the ground, and also credited with the sunking of an enemy “schooner”. On 29 December Watson left 272 Squadron to take over comand of No 227 (Beaufighter) Squadron, but his comman was destined to be brief, being reported missing after a sortie to Tunis.
Buchanan and Watson were two leadin personalities from a host of Beaufighter pilots whose depredations of the Axis forces throughout the Mediterranead struggle played a significant part in the ultimate Allied triumphs. Men like George Tuckwell , Sergeant pilot with 272 Squadron who accumulated a voctory tally of eight destroyed, two porbables, and many damaged; or H.H.K. Gunnis, DFC, of 252 Squadron who claimed at least five confirmed combat kills over the desert, In a sense aerial combat victories for the Beaufighter crew who flew day sorties were bonus in many cases; in that their prime function was tactical and semi-strategic support of the Allied armies by acting as long-range “artillery”; strafing and bombing enemy road and sea transports, troops, airfields, installations. Naturally, their function overlapped into pure air fighting, as witness the scale of destruction of Axis transport aircraft.