Spitfire: Improving Morale

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No. 451 Squadron was one of the fighter units of the RAAF which spent most of its wartime career in the Mediterranean...

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No. 451 Squadron was one of the fighter units of the RAAF which spent most of its wartime career in the Mediterranean. Formally formed as an army cooperation unit at Bankstown, New South Wales, it was manned with Australian personnel arriving to Egypt from Sydney in April-May 1941. Thrown into the changing fortunes of the war in the Western Desert, they participated in the defence of Tobruk and Operation Crusader.

After a year, the rather badly battered unit was re-fitted in Egypt and sent to Syria and Cyprus, where it stayed for the remainder of 1942. After a somewhat long-drawn debate with the Australian officials regarding the unit’s purpose, No. 451 Squadron was redesignated as a fighter squadron and once again joined the African fighting. Alas, the hopes of the crews to see more action came to nothing as the squadron saw combat on only one occasion during the first six months of 1943. ┬áThe morale at the time remained very low; the RAAF Historical Section has written that this period marked “the nadir of the squadron”. The squadron CO even officially applied to RAAF Overseas Headquarters that the unit be transferred to Australia, but this was rejected.

The squadron’s lack of employment finally changed in 1944, when the unit was equipped with Spitfires. These were second-hand Spitfires Mk. Vb Trop, but even though obsolete by the best standards of the day, they were far more appreciated than the previously used Hurricanes.

The presented photo, dated 5 February 1944, shows a lineup of Squadron’s aircraft being serviced, probably at El Gamil airfield, Egypt. Of note are the different types of propellers used by the aircraft and the nickname “Olive II” on the detached cowling panel of the nearest aircraft. Also, the use of solid wheel hub covers was very common in Africa, to protect the wheel breaks from the desert dust.

The Spitfires became very popular with the squadron’s pilots as it gave them an opportunity to participate in offensive action. Indeed, on 18 April 1944, No. 451 Squadron transferred to Corsica, where it saw much combat, including engaging German aircraft on a number of occasions.

[Australian War Memorial, P00448.183]

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