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"Eleven Men Died -- Why?" from Tactical and Technical Trends

An article reprinted from a British RAF publication on the tragic loss of three Blenheim bomber crews in the Libyan desert during WWII, from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 28, July 1, 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


The following article is taken from the June 1943 issue of AFGIB (Air Forces General Information Bulletin). This was reprinted from the RAF publication Tee Emm and reconstructs the story of what happened to the crews of 3 Blenheim bombers lost in the Libyan desert.

*          *          *

Here is the tale of how eleven Air Force men died.

They did not die fighting against the enemy. Their deaths were not even remotely caused by enemy action. Yet they died one of the most horrible deaths known to human beings--slowly, by thirst.

Three Blenheim aircraft, each with a crew of four, took off from Kufra Oasis in the Libyan desert on a reconnaissance patrol. They carried out the patrol successfully and returned to base two and a half hours later. For some reason, however, they did not land, but flew away from Kufra again.

After half an hour one Blenheim force-landed with engine trouble and the other two followed.

Discussion of their position showed that they were lost, and one pilot took off and flew between south and west to look for base. He returned after half an hour having found nothing, and in the afternoon he took off again, this time flying south and east, but again unsuccessfully. During this time all three aircraft were transmitting by radio but got no answer.

According to the only survivor of the twelve, they had been so confident of being soon picked up that they did not ration their water. Thus as much as 20 gallons had been drunk by the following morning, when they started rationing. During the second day another pilot took off and flew north. Once more the flight was unsuccessful, as were all attempts to receive wireless messages.

On the third day another pilot tried flying west, this being the only direction unsearched. He did not return.

The water had given out that morning, and during the afternoon they broke open the compasses and drank the alcohol. They also used the fire extinguishers to keep themselves cool. As a result, they broke out in terrible blisters and sores.

Next morning the first man died. During the following 4 days, after suffering agonies of thirst and torment from having drunk the alcohol, which led one man to shoot himself, all the men had died but one, when at last the missing aircraft were located on the eighth day after they had been lost.

The search had been hampered by two things. First of these was lack of accurate information. The transmission from the aircraft was very weak but the direction-finder procedure of the three radio operators was poor throughout, and they evidently were not properly aware of the direction-finder procedure at Kufra.

The second thing was the bad terrain, coupled with sandstorms which prevented accurate observation from the air. On the other hand, the searching aircraft did not start operating till the fourth day, and though they then flew 9 hours daily, they were not working on a properly coordinated plan. The first proper, navigationally planned search was successful within 5 hours.

Now what were the causes of this ghastly and unnecessary loss of life--this loss, too, of all the time and money expended on the crews' training, and this wasted war-effort of six searching aircraft and crews which might have been operationally employed?

Primarily it was bad navigation. It was basically due, as was afterwards proved, to the inability or slackness of any of the three navigators to keep a proper log. As a result, they had completely lost themselves half an hour's flying time from base. How completely they were lost is shown by the fact that they searched towards all four points of the compass for the base they had left but 30 minutes before. Blame also attaches to the radio operators, who did not work correctly their direction finder and so keep in touch.

Then when on the ground the crews, knowing they were lost, failed utterly to take their plight seriously, as anyone should who is engaged on desert flying. They did not ration water till it was too late. They made foolish use of the compass alcohol and the fire extinguishers. They failed to lay out any strips or make smudge fires, which might have guided the searching aircraft.

Even so, they might have been saved if the searching aircraft had cooperated promptly and methodically. For various reasons no search was made on the second day, and on the third and fourth days weather made proper search impossible. And for 3 days after that only vague sweeps were made, instead of navigationally planned searches.

Finally, it would seem that the tragedy was in great part due to poor leadership. A good flight commander would almost certainly not have allowed much of what did happen to occur. One gets the impression that the stranded men did more or less as fancy dictated or as they thought best after general consultation, instead of being made to work under the strict orders of their leader. In fact, the whole sad business might easily have been avoided in the first place if the flight commander had obeyed a standing order that during desert reconnaissance by a flight, one aircraft at least should remain on the ground; and again if, after carrying out the reconnaissance, he had landed his aircraft safely and not taken them off for half an hour on a completely unauthorized flight. But orders were not obeyed.

If even one life is saved in the future from knowledge and understanding of what happened, and why, then those 11 unhappy men will not have died in vain.


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