by Squadron Leader D.P Tidy
Lieutenant-Colonel M.S. Osler, DFC and bar
Malcolm Stephen Osler (known inevitably as 'Bennie' after the famous Springbok rugby player), joined No. 1 South African Air Force Squadron, then flying Hurricanes, in the Western Desert, on 25th June 1941, and was made a Flight Commander. On 30th the Squadron met eight Junkers Ju 87s(1) and eight Messerschmitt Bf 109s(2) and immediately attacked the Stukas. Captain Osler and Lieutenant Ronnie Simpson each destroyed one, before the fighters got at them; Bennie then damaged a Bf 109, but Lieutenant A. S. Russell was lost and presumed killed.
Captain Vivian Voss, MBE, to whom all aviation historians owe a great debt for his book "The Story of No.1 Squadron SAAF" (Mercantile Atlas) described therein the combat as follows: 'Uneventful operations had been carried out for several days, but on the last day of June our pilots ran into a formidable force of enemy aircraft. The job was a protective patrol of a convoy of ships taking stores to the garrison in Tobruk. The three pilots who took off at 1240 hours, to take over from the previous section, were Captain Bennie Osler, Lt. Ronnie Simpson and Lt. A. S. Russell. They were patrolling from south to north at respectively 8 000, 11 000 and 15 000 feet when Lt. Russell sighted eight Ju 87s approaching from the south in a wide vic, with eight Me 109s as escort above them. He warned the other two over the R/T (radio telephone) and at the same time the Stukas went into line astern and dived on the ships. Both Capt. Osler and Lt. Simpson attacked the Stukas, each of them putting a rear-gunner out of action, and shortly afterwards the two Ju 87s crashed into the sea. Two Me 109s came down on Captain Osler, who broke away from the bombers to engage them, and he succeeded in outmanoeuvring them and getting a long burst from quarter astern into one of them. This left the formation and headed west, with Capt. Osler on its tail. It was evidently damaged as it was losing height steadily and although normally the faster machine, was gradually being overhauled by the Hurricane. But the latter had been shot through the oil tank, and the oil temperature was rising rapidly. Capt. Osler had no option but to make for Sidi Barrani. When he left the 109, it was down to 200 feet above the sea, with small chance of reaching its base.
When Ronnie Simpson attacked the first Ju 87 he was so close to it that he nearly rammed it. As he was firing at a second Ju 87 he was attacked by a Me 109 and had to break away. After some quick manoeuvring he was about to deliver a frontal attack, from below, on the 109, when his guns jammed, and he had to run for Sidi Barrani. As he left the ships he found two 109s above his tail, and two more below on the starboard side. To increase his speed he pulled the plug, and although the e/a (enemy aircraft) were still gaining on him they turned back to rejoin the Stukas.
Lt. Russell did not return. After his initial warning nothing more was heard or seen of him, and it was not known what part he took in the combat. His death had later to be presumed.'
Christopher Shores and Hans Ring in "Fighters Over the Desert" (Neville Spearman) which book was reviewed in Vol.1, No.6 of this Journal, state that no claim was made by JG (Jagdgeschwader) 27(3) whose Bf 109s were escorting the Ju 87s, so Russell was probably the victim of a Ju 87 rear-gunner, or of a pilot of 7/JG 26, possibly Leutnant Mietusch.
On 2nd August 1941, No.1 Squadron SAAF carried out a patrol over a convoy north-west of Sidi Barrani, intercepting a formation of Ju 87s of 1/Stuka Gruppe I escorted by 20 Bf 109s and Macchi MC 200s. Twelve Hurricane were ordered to patrol over two of HM destroyers from 1831 hours to dusk. The destroyers were 35 miles north-west of Sidi Barrani and were proceeding towards Tobruk. Major Wilmot led the formation. At 1950 hours, towards the end of the patrol, a mixed force of 20 enemy fighters, consisting of Bf 109s and MC 200s was seen coming out of the sun. The Hurricanes, wrote Captain Voss (op cit) : '. . . were flying at 7000 feet and the enemy aircraft were 2000 to 3000 feet above them. Major Wilmot split his Hurricanes into two formations, one of eight aircraft, led by himself, to engage the fighters, the other of four aircraft to protect the ship from the attention of bombers which it was anticipated would shortly appear. The enemy fighters swept overhead swung around, and came at the Hurricanes from the rear The latter in the meantime had split into pairs so as to offer no collective target. Major \Vilmot opened the score by delivering a head-on attack on a 109, pressing his gun button at 400 yards and only releasing it when the 109 flashed beneath him. He lost sight of it then, but Piet Venter saw the 109 pull up, turn as though to attack again then spiral into the sea. One of the Hurricanes was observed to do a head-on attack on a 109, but was hit itself, and was last seen streaming black and white smoke.'
Bennie Osler and Corrie van Vliet (No.9 in this series) with Lts. Durose and Coetzee flying as their respective number twos, stayed over the ships. Captain Voss continues (op cit): 'About three minutes after the fighters appeared 20 Ju 87s were sighted. Corrie van Vliet, who was flying at 11 000 feet, was unable to intercept the Stukas before two of them had bombed, but he went down steeply on then as they were diving away from the ships . . . As Bennie Osler was about to go down on the Ju 87s he was engaged by a 109. After a short sparring match, during which he got in a burst on it, he dived on the bombers which had been split up by Corrie van Vliet's section, and many of which were now jettisoning their bombs in the sea. Picking out two of the Stukas on the port side of the ships, he opened fire on them, knocking out the rear-gunners immediately He closed in rapidly to 50 yards, delivering alternate attacks on the bombers, until the leading machine emitted a great plume of flame and smoke.' His next burst took away the entire rudder and tailplane of the second Stuka which dived into the sea with the first, which went in vertically.
The fighters pressed home their attacks with great determination for the Luftwaffe, (despite the Stukas dropping many of their bombs in the sea), and claimed four kills. They were from I/JG 27, and the claims were made by Unteroffizier Steinhausen, (two) and by Oberfeldwebel Espenlaub and Unteroffizier Keppler (one each), according to Short and Ring (op cit).
SAAF losses were Lts. A. A. L. Tatham, A. A. Tennant and A. Ruffel, the initial A having proved very unlucky that day. Captain Voss describes how Tony Ruffel survived. 'Lts. Tatham and Tennant were killed in this combat. Months later the almost incredible news came through that Tony Ruffel was alive in a POW camp in Germany. When Tony's aircraft was shot down, he himself was slightly wounded. He hit the water nearly 40 miles from the coast and set out to swim for it. He lost consciousness for a while, and drifted, kept up by his Mae West, then swam till exhausted, drifted again, and eventually reached the coast. He was delirious when the Germans picked him up.
On 28th August 1941, Bennie again tangled with the Bf 109s of I/JG 27, but this time they would not mix it, and although he got in a beam attack on one which was diving on a lagging Hurricane,it did a climbing turn to port and disappeared. A month later, above Halfaya Pass, Bennie was one of four Hurricane pilots who formed a defensive A circle against 24 Bf 109s, including those of I/JG 27 again, led bv the great Marseille,(4) who claimed four Hurricanes himself, and Oberleutnent Homuth and Oberfeldwebel Kowalski claimed two more for the formation. Mello MacRobert, Corrie van Vliet and Lt. Dold were all shot down, but were all able to get back safely, MacRobert being picked up by Lt. H. C. W. Liebenberg in a daring rescue with a Hurricane. Bennie Osler got in a good burst from full beam to quarter astern in one of the attacks, and saw pieces fly off the 109, before it went slowly down towards the escarpment.
On 15th November, Bennie, with Johnny Seccombe as his No.2, was patrolling Landing Ground 130(5) at 15 000 feet when enemy aircraft were reported approaching from the south-west. They turned out to be eight G-50s escorting a lone Savoia-Marchetti SM 79. Unobserved, Bennie and Johnny climbed into the sun, and shot down two of the G-50s. The rest fled, leaving the SM 79 to fend for itself.
On 1st December, Bennie succeeded Major Baxter as CO of No.1 SAAF Squadron, and was promoted to Major on 6th. The next day he was scrambled from Tobruk, after enemy aircraft near El Adem. Ten Ju 87s were sighted flying in vic, at 4000 feet, with a close escort of MC 200s and G-50s. Above them, at 7000 feet, was a medium cover of 10 MC 202s and above that at 10 000 feet, a high cover of 10 Bf 109s. The resultant scrap cost two Hurricanes destroyed, two damaged, and a pilot killed, for two Bf 109s and a MC 202 destroyed (the latter falling to Bennie) and a G-50 damaged.
On 12th December, 10 Hurricanes took off from Sidi Rezegh for a 1 SAAF Squadron sweep over the Gazala-Tmimi area. Half-an-hour after take-off Captain Voss credited Bennie with another success, not recorded in 'Fighters over the Desert': 'Major Osler made an attack from out of the sun . . . following this up with an astern burst, as a result of which smoke began to issue from the 109, which pulled up and went over on its back. Major Bennie followed it up and gave it another burst in this position from three-quarter astern. At this stage, he was attacked himself by another 109 from out of the sun, and evaded this by diving into the cloud. He gave it one more burst before it disappeared. After a quick glance around the sky, he put his nose down and dived through the cloud. He emerged from it in time to see the 109 crash into the ground and burst into flames.'
Bennie Osler flew 1 SAAF Squadron's first 'Rhubarb' on 13th December and on coming out of cloud, found himself at 5000 feet on the fringe of an enemy formation of 9 Ju 87s and 10 Bf 109s as close escort with four MC 202s behind. He was spotted and after a quick squirt at an MC 202 took refuge in cloud. He came out to see the Macchi burning on the ground. but the fighters stopped him attacking the bombers again. At this time No.274 RAF and No.1 SAAF Squadrons were sending off pairs of Hurricanes at short intervals on 'Rhubarbs', (these were code-named thus, and were offensive operations by fighters designed to make the opposing forces come up and fight).
On 7th January 1942 came news of Bennie's DFC and to celebrate he flew a captured Bf 109F which the Squadron had made serviceable. "Give me a Hurricane any day", was his loyal comment to the old Hurribus. He found the view from the 109 poor, and flew it to Heliopolis on the first stage of its journey to England. Bennie was the first Commonwealth pilot in the desert to fly the 109, and the Squadron was pleased at this distinction.
On 10th May 1942 he left No. 1 SAAF Squadron to return to South Africa and Captain Voss commented: 'He had commanded the Squadron very ably during a difficult period. It was largely due to his own courage and steadfastness that morale was kept high in the last adverse months in the desert when the enemy had a superiority both in numbers and in quality of aircraft, while all the care in the world could not keep the overworked Hurricanes airworthy'.(6)
In September 1943, Bennie was posted to No.244 Wing as a Flight Commander on No.145 RAF Squadron. On his first trip on a Spitfire VIII he got a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 on 2nd October. He was posted to command No.601 RAF Squadron (an Auxiliary Air Force Squadron before the war, with which many South Africans had served before him, including Roger Bushell, Paddy Green, Carl Davis and Mike Peacock). Almost immediately Bennie destroyed a Breda Ba 88 and probably two more on the ground.
On 15th February 1944 he attacked an observation balloon guarded by two Bf 109s, and shot down all three. He was hit by flak and had to put down on the beach-head landing strip, which was shelled by German artillery. He went into a crater, somersaulting three times, but escaped with minor cuts and bruises, and after 10 days in hospital, (much against his will) he was sent to Sorrento on 14 days leave.
On 29th April 1944 he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and received a bar to his DFC. He was then at No.1 MORU (Mobile Operations Room Unit) commanded by Paddy Green (No. 7 in this series) for a short while. Bennie Osler's final confirmed score was 12, with several probables, and shortly after his promotion he became Wing Leader of No.7 SAAF Wing.
Bennie typifies the best SAAF fighter pilots; modest, sound in the air, quiet and competent on the ground. Twenty-five of them were each to be credited with five or more confirmed victories before the war finished, and Bennie was second only to Jack Frost in the number of his victories. (Major Frost was No.6 in this series.)
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