© 2009 454 & 459 RAAF Squadrons
454 RAAF Squadron
FLTLT Charles Alexander Irvine
Service Number: 411409
Born: 12 Jul 1920
Place of Birth: Dargaville, NZ
Flight Number: FA409
Flying Officer Charles Irvine was listed as POW. The story of his last flight where he was leading flight FA409 in the worst tragedy in Sqd 454’s history can be found in Alamein to the Alps by Air Commodore Mark Lax CSM pages 55-59. Below is an extract from the book
Until recently the whereabouts of Flying Officer Charles Irvine was unknown. Thanks to one of our descendents John Rich who managed to locate Flying Officer Charles Irvine - Now living in NZ age 96.
Black Friday - The Raid on Crete
In mid-1943, RAF authorities sought to both relieve German pressure from Operation Huskey - the Allied invasion of Sicily – and avenge the execution of 100 Cretans who had been shot after assisting a Commando raid on the island. The Sicily operation began on 10 July when the Allies’ assault forces hit the beaches to begin the long push toward Germany’s southern flank, while the Cretan Commando raid had limited success. Consequently, a retaliatory raid called Operation Thesis was ordered. There would be a massive combined air strike against various ports and military establishments on Crete. This would require careful planning. Three wings of Air Defence Eastern Mediterranean (ADEM) Hurricanes formed the main push, together with 227 Squadron Beaufighters and added to the formation was 454. In all, 93 Hurricanes, seven Beaufighters and eight Baltimores would take part. 80 Squadron’s Spitfires would cover the withdrawal.
That 454 Squadron was to be used must have come as a surprise to all, since their training and prior tasks involved sea reconnaissance, not over land bombing. Squadron Leader Lionel Folkard, then the OC Flying, recalled in his published memoirs the jolt the unit received …
It was not until July 1943 that the even tenor of our lives was disturbed, when a senior fighter command officer arrived from England (where he had been leading fighter sweeps over France) to organise a special attack on Crete – by two squadrons of fighters and the Baltimores of my squadron…
That senior officer was Group Captain Max Aitken, at the time in charge of fighter tactics in the Eastern Mediterranean Headquarters in Cairo. Aitken had come to fame as an ace in the Battle of Britain and was the son of Lord Beaverbrook, the Newspaper magnate and British wartime Minister for Aircraft Production. He had been assigned the planning task for Operation Thesis with the objective of using the fighters to saturate enemy defences while the bombers conducted follow-on land and shipping strikes against Suda Bay, Heraklion and other targets of opportunity. The date for the raid was set at Friday, 23 July 1943.
Crete was a mountainous island that stood out clearly, even at low level. It also meant that the enemy held the advantage, the terrain masking many potential targets while allowing good cover and positioning for anti-aircraft guns, a fact already proven during the successful, but high casualty German parachute assault of 1941. For Thesis, the raid was planned as a coordinated strike by the fighters with the Beaufighters to sweep ahead of the bombers. The Hurricanes were intended for area defence against enemy fighters. The Baltimores were to attack factories, barracks, road traffic and other targets on the east end of the island. Altogether, 120 aircraft were involved. While simple in theory, it would require the utmost secrecy, radio silence, careful coordination and precise timing.
Eight crews were selected for the mission from those considered fully operational and it would be their first real bombing action. Excitement ran high as all prepared. 454 were to provide two box formations of four aircraft each. Each aircraft was armed with six 250 lb bombs. Folkard was subsequently detailed to lead the squadron’s eight aircraft on the 230 mile flight. The result was an absolute disaster with five aircraft lost over Crete, one crash landing on return and only two landing back at base – a 75% casualty rate.
Flying in Baltimore AG995 at 200 feet to avoid alerting the defences, Folkard later described the episode that ensued …
We crossed the south coast near the eastern end of the island which was less mountainous and immediately the ground defences opened up on us. We had to climb to get over the central spine of mountains and I think it was at this time that the defences scored their first hits, although there were none on my own aircraft. Once over the mountains we came down to low-level again, and then went along the coast towards Suda Bay. We were now under 100 feet and the ground fire was intense. We had flown less than half way to the target before we suffered serious damage. My aircraft was the first to be hit.
When I took stock, I found the port engine was on fire and I was wounded in the left leg, also my right arm was hanging by a shred, and I was losing a great deal of blood onto the cockpit floor.
Folkard somehow managed to crash land on a sandy beach near Heraklion after which he lost consciousness. It was amazing that anyone survived although the muster was not looking good. One of his gunners was Doug Hutchinson, an Australian who had joined the unit just three weeks prior. Doug described what happened next…
The land had been mined, but we left most of the explosions behind us as we skated over the ground, finally coming to rest. I had been in the turret for this trip and when it was evident we were to crash I threw the turret round to face forward and threw my arms around my face. The turret broke and I was first out. I found the fuselage had broken open beneath the turret and I dragged Keith Wedgwood through this gap. I dragged him clear of the burning aircraft, but he appeared to be dead. I then turned my attention to the others and could see Jasper (Wally) Dyer the navigator who had taken Percy Willson’s place for the trip, in the nose of the plane bleeding profusely. The nose cone was broken and I helped him out and clear. The plane by this time was well on fire and I went to help Lionel, who was in a bad way. I managed to get him out and clear just before the plane blew up. We had a full load of bombs. We then took stock of ourselves and found we were in a mess. Wally had been badly hit in the forehead, Lionel badly hit in the left leg and his right arm was nearly off.
Only then did Doug realise part of his left foot was missing and he had other shrapnel injuries. They became Prisoners of War and were destined for Luft Stalag III at Sagan in Silesia. Sagan was the site of what became known as the ‘Great Escape’, but that is another story.
Aircraft & Crew - First Wave
Aircraft AG995: Squadron Leader L.H. Folkard, RAFVR - POW
Lead Flying Officer W.W. Dyer, RAFVR - POW
Warrant Officer K.S. Wedgwood, RAAF - KIA
Flying Officer D.F. Hutchinson, RAAF - POW
Aircraft AG952: Flight Sergeant R.M. McCrabb, RAAF - OK
Flight Sergeant R.K. Davies, RAAF - OK
Flight Sergeant J.B. Ross, RAAF - OK
Flight Sergeant L.D. Main, RAAF - OK
Aircraft FA300: Warrant Officer F.R. Morgan, RAAF - OK
Flight Sergeant R.N. Lawson, RNZAF - OK
Flight Sergeant E.L. Grimwade, RAAF - OK
Flight Sergeant W.T. Hayes, RNZAF - OK
Aircraft FA390A Flight Sergeant R.G. Akhurst, RAFVR - OK
Sergeant E. Nichterlain, RAAF - WIA
Flight Sergeant R.H. Lawrence, RAAF - OK
Flight Sergeant J. Bastian, RAAF - OK
Aircraft & Crew - Second Wave
Aircraft FA409 Flying Officer C.A. Irvine, RNZAF - POW
Flying Officer A.F. Betteridge, RAAF - KIA
Flight Sergeant M.F. McLurg, RAAF - POW
Flight Sergeant D.W. Baker, RNZAF - POW
Aircraft AG869 Warrant Officer F.P. Bayly, RAAF - KIA
Warrant Officer L.W. Moon, RAAF - KIA
Warrant Officer D.B. Giles, RAAF - KIA
Warrant Officer J.E. Goddard, RAAF - KIA
Aircraft FA247 Pilot Officer L.D. Blomley, RAFVR - KIA
Pilot Officer J. Fletcher , RAAF - KIA
Pilot Officer B.S. Reilly, RAAF - KIA
Flight Sergeant E.F. Baker, RAAF - KIA
Aircraft FA224 Warrant Officer G.W. Harnett, RAAF - KIA
Flying Officer J.F. Rich, RAAF - KIA
Flying Officer C.F. Cox, RAAF - KIA
Warrant Officer R.O. Harris, RAAF - KIA
With regards to forced landings in enemy territory, the Operations Order Book directed that aircraft ‘not in any circumstances be destroyed even if it is certain they will fall into enemy hands’. Only the instrument panel, tyres or magnetos to be rendered inoperable if possible (to prevent flight), but it was mandatory for the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment to be smashed. This secret device could be used by the enemy to track and identify allied aircraft, so would be a very valuable tool in the cat-and-mouse game of electronic warfare that had emerged during this conflict.43 The order was directed after several crew previously had been caught by the enemy after forced landings loitering at the site as they tried to destroy the aircraft equipment.
Three crews made it back – those skippered by Max McCrabb, Fred Morgan and Ray Akhurst. While McCrabb and Morgan had flak damage, they landed safely back at Gambut III, but Akhurst didn’t quite make it.
Charles A IRVINE
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