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In the skies over Libya: wartime exploits of an ace pilot: in the desert skies of north Africa, stocky" Edwards piloted his obsolete kittyhawk fighter against the best of he German Luftwaffe--and won!

LAST MONTH, WE HEARD about James "Stocky" Edwards's experiences when he first battled Rommel's Messerschmitts in the skies over Libya in 1942. But his story did not end there.

Living in the desert was difficult with khamsins, violent sandstorms caused by hot desert wind. Anytime one of these storms would sweep over the Allied base, all the planes would be grounded. Hiding from the kbamsins' strong winds proved futile, with the wind snapping tent poles, taking down walls and still carrying dry electrical charges in their wake. Still, the pilots dealt with these challenges. One advantage of the flat, dry terrain, however, was that, as battle lines changed, the base could easily move accordingly. Edwards experienced no less than 28 new base camp locations during his tenure in North Africa.

"We had to pack everything up and transport it routinely. Everything essential would fit into our kit bag. One truck would go ahead and would be there when we landed. They would create a basic camp, and level a landing ground for the planes to touch down on. A few days later the rest of what we had would arrive--cots and mattresses, food and water. And then 10 days later we would pack everything up again," Edwards recalled of his squadron's nomadic lifestyle.

Edwards found this way of life simple and practical. He wore long pants, desert boots, and used a horsehide he found to stretch over his cot to keep the cold from creeping into his bones during the cold desert nights. Only one quart of water was provided to each man daily. Edwards, who was just 20 years old at the time, wasn't yet shaving regularly, providing him with more water than others--though nowhere near enough for him to have a proper bath. Clothes were washed with gasoline, which worked like dry cleaning fluid, and the desert heat left the clothes dry and odourless.

"It was a very clean way of living. We were usually about 20 miles in from the ocean. There were camps set up along the water by the Italians, but they had flies and dead bodies that smelled.

"We always had food and water, although not much. You'd have to reuse the water to clean your mouth, so we all had bad teeth. But we never ate much--you just didn't back then--we were all lean," the ace explained.

After only a few months in the desert holding off the Germans with mixed success, No, 94 Squadron was ordered out of the line. The most experienced half-dozen pilots, however, were asked to stay and join No. 260 Squadron; Edwards was one of them. At this point Edwards had flown 16 operational sorties and he was flying the riskier task of top cover, instead of close cover. For the first time the Kittyhawks were carrying bombs on their strafing mission, hitting the Germans with all possible ordnance in an effort to turn the tide. Edwards had now mastered the Kittyhawk, and his credo in the air became "To fly and do my job, and to live and fly again." He was aggressive, but not reckless.

During the summer months of 1942, the Allies were struggling to contain the eastward German advances as Rommel broke through the front line from Gazala to Bir Hacheim, and quickly surrounded Tobruk.

Edwards and his squadron were flying sorties twice daily. On one operation Edwards shot down and killed the Luftwaffe ace Otto "Bins, Zwei, Drei" Schulz, who was credited with 51 victories. Without pause, the Germans' armoured columns were approaching Cairo and Alexandria, and a state of panic had befallen the exhausted Allied pilots.

The turning point came at El Alamein, where the British troops were able to finally halt the Axis advance. Although Tobruk was surrounded, Rommel was unable to capture this key port city. This created a long and vulnerable supply trail to the German front-line troops. The Axis' logistics had stretched too far, thereby weakening their advance.

When the battle in El Alamein began, No. 260 Squadron was based in Alexandria, some 100 kilometres behind the raging conflict. Exhausted by months of continuous battle, the pilots were only able to refuel physically and mentally in brief, fleeting moments.

In the desert, experience and skill counted for more than rank. At the time, Edwards was still a sergeant, but he was leading operational sorties and found other men looking to him for guidance. A few months later he would jump several ranks when commissioned as a flight lieutenant, but it didn't mean much real change in his responsibilities.

During the second phase of the battle of El Alamein in October 1942, No. 260 Squadron was fully immersed in a 20-day offensive battle, which contributed to the final reversal of the Axis advance.

It would still require months of fighting to finally lead the Allies back into Libya and Tunisia. The Americans had finally entered the North African theatre, with landings in Algeria. This opened a second front against the Axis forces in Tunisia, which led to their eventual surrender in May 1943. Edwards flew until the end of the North African campaign, completing nearly 200 operational sorties.

"I flew with the RAF although there were a few of us that were Canadian. When we were in Tunisia they gave our leaders leave to go back to England to visit family and loved ones. On their way back they were shot down over the Bay of Biscay, so suddenly we had no leaders. We were all promoted and separated," explained Edwards of the bittersweet conclusion of hostilities in North Africa.

From Tunisia Edwards traveled to Egypt to train pilots on the Kittyhawk, then returned to operational duty in Italy. He would achieve the rank of wing commander before flying in support of the D-Day landings. At this point, many soldiers had switched to flying the legendary Spitfires, which were more agile in the air. Younger than most of the men he was commanding, Edwards nevertheless took on the leadership role with great vigour.

"With D-Day I was commanding four squadrons. What I found was that if you get the men to like you, then they'll go to the ends of the earth for you. It's a universal rule of war," explains Edwards. Bringing his wartime experience full circle to the present day; Edwards reflected on the recent downfall of the former Libyan president.

"I think it's the same with Gadliaft, that's why people followed him and fought for him. I don't agree with him or what he did, but he gave them a regime to believe in and fight for. He was a man of his people."

Edwards would eomplete the war with a tally of 19 victories, two shared kills, 6.5 probables, 17 damaged and 12 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. He would fly 373 sorties in total and go on to share his experience with legions of troops throughout his post-war air force career. He is Canada's highest-scoring living ace.

"In the desert experience and skill counted for more than rank. At the time, Edwards was still a sergeant, but he was leading operational sorties and found other men looking to him for guidance"
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Author:Tillotson, Donna
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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