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Combat and command: a major challenge to Richthofen's Jastas, 24 years later Raymond Collishaw crippled the Italian Air Force.

"Never before in the field of human conflict has one man done so much and is remembered by so few." So it's not immortal prose or very original! But it does say volumes about Raymond Collishaw, the virtually unknown Canadian airman who was credited with at least 60 victories and commanded a squadron in WWI. By the fall of 1940, Air Commodore Collishaw was at the point in another war as he commanded ten RAF squadrons in North Africa which literally crippled the Italian Air Force.

Ray Collishaw left his job on the Fisheries Protection Service on the west coast and came to Toronto to learn to fly at the Curtiss School during the summer of 1915. The school closed for the winter before he got off the ground. Fortunately the Royal Navy worked out a deal whereby candidates for the Royal Naval Air Service were assigned to HMCS Nirobe until they could be accommodated overseas.

By August 1916, Collishaw was assigned to Three Wing where he flew a Sopwith 1.1/2 strutter to Luxeuil. The base was located in south-eastern France where delivery of aircraft was slow, and operations long delayed. But Luxeuil was like Banff with French cooking for the Canadians who soon had a poker club going with Yank volunteers who were flying with the French.

OCTOBER RAID

Collishaw took part in a raid on Oberndorf in October and, shortly afterwards, was ferrying a Sopwith to a new base without a gunner when jumped by six enemy fighters. Their initial blast shattered his cockpit instruments and goggles. Semi blind, he flung the Sopwith about and one over-enthusiastic enemy pilot crashed into a tree as he pursued the Canadian deeper into Germany. Eventually the enemy scouts abandoned the chase and Collishaw turned for home, using the sun to navigate.

When his eyes cleared, he saw an airfield and decided to put down for gasoline and directions. As he touched down the row of aircraft in front of a tent hanger became more familiar because they bore black crosses on their fuselage. The Sopwith picked up speed and, with a few eager bumps, sought a more convivial portion of the wild blue yonder.

TECHNICAL PROBLEMS?

Collishaw had goggle trouble again some three months later. By then he was flying on the Western Front with Squadron Commander Redford Mulock's Naval Three. In an engagement with enemy fighters at 17,000 feet his gun jammed -- a regular occurrence at the time -- and once again enemy bullets shattered his goggles. He reached around the windscreen while trying to clear the guns and froze his face. Bloody April had reached its zenith before Collishaw was released from hospital and became a flight commander with Naval Ten.

CHILLY DIP

According to Collishaw, the action on the Western Front came as a bit of a shock to the pilots who considered themselves to be "slightly hot stuff." His book, Air Command, says the transition was "like plunging into an ice-cold bath after paddling about in a heated swimming pool."

But they adapted quickly on Naval Ten where 13 of 15 squadron pilots were Canadians who flew the Sopwith Triplane and Collishaw scored his fifth victory on their first patrol out of the Dunkirk area. Nowhere did the image of Canadian fighter pilots find greater expression than in the Black Flight which moved into Droglandt. As a reaction to the brightly coloured aircraft of Richthofen's circus, Collishaw's all-Canadian flight was satisfied to paint portions of their aircraft black and become known as the Black Flight. Collishaw had Black Maria stencilled below the rim of his cockpit. Ellis Reid was Black Roger; John Sharman became Black Death while Gerry Nash flew Black Sheep and Mel Alexander reigned as Black Prince.

BLACK FLIGHT

On 6 June the Black Flight engaged 17 enemy aircraft and, in a 35-minute duel, destroyed five and sent five down out of control. That month Collishaw added 16 enemy aircraft to his total. Gerry Nash was shot down by German ace Karl Allmenroder on 24 June and taken prisoner. Three days later Nash heard church bells ring in the village where he was being held.

A guard told Nash the bells were ringing for Allmenroder's funeral. The German pilot had been shot down by Collishaw. Oddly enough, Collishaw fired a distant burst at an Albatros on 27 June. It staggered and went into a long glide but Collishaw did not pursue nor claim a victory.

On July 6th Collishaw led his flight into a battle in which some 30 of Richthofen's fighters were attacking half a dozen Fe2D's. The Fee two-seaters had circled the wagons and were giving a good account of themselves. The only thing tougher than the aircraft were the men who flew them. Observer Albert Woodbridge was such a man. "I fired my forward and aft guns until they were hot--jumping from one to another," he recalled. He had knocked down four aircraft when two more approached. "Two of them came at us head-on and I think the first one was Richthofen.... I could see my tracers splashing along the barrels of his Spandeaus and I knew the pilot was sitting right behind them."

Richthofen was hit on the head and tumbled blindly downward, enduring the agony of death without its release. He recovered in time to land behind his lines but the experience would haunt him for the rest of his numbered days. Meanwhile, Collishaw's flight swept down and Collishaw got six hostiles while Mel Alexander and Ellis Reid each got two. The air war intensified as the ground war bogged in the mud of Passchendaele, and pilots were on call or in the air from dawn until dusk. Naval Ten accounted for 79 machines in six weeks and, according to Collishaw, the summer had become "strictly a war of attrition and it was simply a question of who was going to give out first ..."

Collishaw took command of Naval Three in late January 1918. In spite of the administrative duties which the command imposed, he managed to score 19 more victories before the Armistice to bring his total up to 59. While on duty in Russia in 1919, Collishaw was credited with a Red machine.

NORTH AFRICA

He remained in the RAF and the day Italy struck at the British in North Africa, Air Commodore Collishaw commanded what later became the Desert Air Force. He had set up his headquarters at Maaten Baggush, some 160 miles from the Libyan border. His role essentially was to provide an advanced defence network for Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal.

He had nine squadrons of Blenheims, Gladiators and Lysanders while the Italians in Lybia had some 400 aircraft on well-serviced stations near Tripoli, Benghazi and Tobruk. After Italy's treacherous declaration of war on the allies on 10 June 1940, Collishaw launched a strike on El Adem, an airfield near Tobruk. One squadron reported that their bombs fell on a parade ground while a ceremonial parade celebrating Italy's entry into the war was in progress. There was little ceremony about the way the parade dissolved. Next day Collishaw's aircraft struck Tobruk harbour and seriously damaged the cruiser San Giordo which was mother ship to Italian submarines.

The following day, Victoria native Woody Woodward shot down his first bomber and then a fighter; he would round out his string at 20 destroyed and five probables. Woodward was a member of the cattleboat brigade who joined the RAF in the late 30's and Collishaw had many of them in his command. Collishaw's superior, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, was responsible for 4.5 million square miles of territory with very limited resources. Collishaw had sustained some losses during the first few days and Longmore asked him to fight a less aggressive war because he saw little chance of replacing parts, aircraft and, above all, crews. Collishaw's pilots took a dim view of being muzzled and Collishaw then embarked on a campaign of psychological warfare and deception to outfox the enemy and maintain morale.

BOMBAY BOMBERS

When somebody found a store of ancient fragmentation bombs, Colly had them put in boxes and loaded them onto lumbering Bombay Transports for nightly excursions over enemy encampments. Each aircraft had 200 unstable bombs which had to be fused in flight. They were then tossed out one bomb at a time, and. The entire process took about four hours which meant the aircraft had to be refuelled in flight. The empty fuel drums where then tossed overboard and the consensus grew that the drums did more damage to the enemy than the bombs. But the operation kept the enemy awake and the offensive spirit alive.

An ancient Hurricane called "Colly's Battleship" was dragged from field to field and left exposed to the lens of Italian reconnaissance cameras. Collishaw also started a cottage industry among Jewish settlers in Palestine who built a host of wooden aircraft to be scattered around advanced airfields.

Marshal Graziani moved some 215,000 Italian troops 60 miles closer and the British retired an equal distance, losing several forward landing strips. But instead of pursuing the attack, Graziani spent three months building substantial fortifications. On the allied side of the line, the army commander, Gen Sir Richard O'Connor, and Collishaw occupied adjacent huts and developed a strong rapport.

NEW WARFARE

The relationship between the two men established a new level of army-airforce cooperation and set the tone for a new form of warfare which later became the 2nd Tactical Air Force. Both remembered the lessons of 1918 when close air support almost enabled the Germans to break through to the coast. One of the major reasons the enemy drive failed was because airfields did not advance with the troops and air support suffered. Both commanders agreed that their drive to dislodge Graziani would be a drive to reestablish the airfields lost in the British retreat. The plan for OPERATION COMPASS -- a major British thrust at Graziani -- became a war for airdromes.

OPERATION COMPASS

The night before O'Connor's ground attack, Collishaw borrowed a page from 1918 when the Australians and Canadians broke out of Amiens as bombers drowned out the sound of assembling tanks. Collishaw had Bristol Bombays pounding a beat where O'Connor's Matilda tanks were being assembled. The tanks swept through Graziani's encampments and drove the Italians back 250 miles to Bengazi and beyond. Collishaw's bombers struck Italian airfields while fighters screened the battle area and swept the way ahead for advancing troops.

On the opening day of the attack, George Keefer of Charlottetown, shot down his first enemy and would add 17 more during his 400 operational hours.

O'Connor destroyed 10 Italian Divisions in two months and 1,100 Italian aircraft were abandoned or destroyed. Collishaw's meagre forces crippled the Italian Air Force for a loss of 26 aircraft from all causes, but it should be remembered that O'Connor's rampaging troops were a big factor in Italian aircraft losses.

The supreme moment in RAF-Army co-operation was short lived. Although O'Connor ended up 200 miles beyond Tobruk, he didn't get the support he needed to deliver a knock-out punch. Prime Minister Churchill had long been thirsting for a foothold in Greece.

Greek Premier Mextaxas refused to accept troops because he feared German retaliation, but he did accept five squadrons which came from Collishaw's group. Mextaxas died of a heart attack a month later, and Churchill convinced his successor to take troops which were drawn from O'Connor's meagre 40,000. With a victory within his grasp, O'Connor was forced to break off without securing Tripoli. General Erwin Rommel's troops had just arrived in Tripoli and he and his officers failed to understand why the British had not been more aggressive.

Greece continued to drain away Collishaw's squadrons. In April, he was given command of a new group formed back at Maaten Baggush where his Wellingtons became involved in the milkrun to Benghazzi. Although Collishaw left North Africa in 1942, his rapport with the army commander and his determination to provide for army needs set a standard which was later evidenced as airpower became a major factor in driving Rommel out of Africa, and the 2nd Tactical Air Force blasted the Falaise Gap closed.
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Author:Shannon, Norman
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Words:2037
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