454 and 459 RAAF Squadrons
Warrant Officer Samuel (Sam) George BIRTLES
454 RAAF Squadron
Service No. 418049
Place of Birth: Albury, NSW
Date of Enlistment: 25 Apr 1942
Prisoner of War: Stalag Luft VII - 05/05/1943 - 23/08/1944
Date of Discharge: 07 Dec 1945
Rank: Warrant Officer
Date of Death: 22 Mar 2001
L-R: Jim McGrath (WAG) Sam Birtles (Nav),
Keith Howard (Pilot), Chris Murray (WAG)
(1) No. 201 Naval Co\Operation Group Middle East till July 1944
(2) RAF Desert Air Force Italy to August 1945.
Baltimore V Crew:
Pilot - Keith 'Snow' Howard -- (Died 23.6.99)
Navigator/Bomb Aimer - Sam Birtles -- (Died 22.3.01)
Wireless Operators Air Gunners - Chris Murray,
Dick Litchfield, (KIA) (Vice Jim McGrath).
Sam Birtles enlisted in April 1942, was trained in Australia at Mt. Gambier (Navigation), Port Pirie (Bombing & Gunnery) and N' hill (Astro-navigation) left for Canada as a Sergeant for a General Reconnaissance (GR) course at Prince Edward Island.
Keith and Sam sailed on the USS Hermitage. They trained separately in Canada, but met up again and crewed with Chris Murray and Jim McGrath at 75 RAF Operational Training Unit, Giananclis, Egypt. They were posted to 454 RAAF Baltimore Squadron operating from Berka111 at Benghasi, Cyrenaica, and flew day low level escorts (convoys), anti-submarine patrols in the Mediterranean before being rostered for photo reconnaissance of shipping and harbours in the fortified Aegean Sea Islands.
Reference to their jointly authored book "A Piece of Cake in the Middle East", Keith Howard and Sam Birtles published in 1944 (ISBN No.0-646-20358-4) indicate some early "dicey" sorties - one weathering a frightful "Khamsin" sand and dust storm with visability measured in yards and fuel exhausted. After some 20 sorties from Benghasi they transferred with 454 to Italy to join Desert Air Force (DAF) as a short range, day, medium-level, close army support, pattern bombing Squadron, to help "crack" and breakthrough the Gothic Line defences behind which Kesselring waned to stop the drive for Vienna. The Appenine Mountain Range provided a priceless barrier to sustain the Gothic Line. It ran on a Northwest/Southeast axis. 454, with strong experienced leadership soon mastered the "Tedder Carpet Bombing" technique, and was eagerly used by 8th Army in battering the Line's strong points.
The RAF and Army had been stripped of superior strike power for the Allied campaign in France aimed at Germany's heartland, hence 454,s new Italian role.
These new Tactical Air Force techniques seemed to new pilots to be like "driving a car without brakes, and a slipping clutch". Small east-west strips proved to be an early problem but the pilots soon settled into the requirements at Pescara. "We commenced flying having to re-fuel, re-arm and bomb up our own aircraft - the ground crew were still en route by ship", reported Howard. Birtles, Howard and crew were soon fully commissioned at Falconara, where rain and glutinous mud were the norm in Aug/Sept,1944. A maximum effort by 8th Army required the same from 454 and other bomber squadrons. Despite atrocious weather records for bomb delivery and serviceability became common.
After a crew change (Dick Litchfiled for Jim McGrath as WAG) an important mission, which guaranteed heavy flak defences was planned. Dick and Sam decided to wear their chest parachutes rather than have them handy to clip on when needed. It was a life saving decision! Nevertheless Sam was a little unimpressed by his less than busy Nav (B) role, the lead Nav (B) having full responsibility for the formation strike. August 23, 1944 was the special day. Sam in shorts and short sleeved shirt was ready despite the height 15,000 feet and cold. The Commanding Officer was leading. The target was on the Gothic Line high in the Appenines, hopefully their over target report would be "apples" for a good hit. "Bombs away! Doors closed!" Still flying straight and level the flak bursts hit the formation. Three were lost. Howard's aircraft was badly hit, Sam, Keith and Chris somehow "hit the silk" at 14000 feet, Dick did not. Shortly after landing "on his bum" Sam was captured by a paratroop patrol from the Herman Goring Division, who had a healthy respect for Australians, having encountered the AIF's 6th Division on Crete. After an adventurous trip by trains to Germany, lengthy interrogation, and four and a half months in hospital including receipt of a Red Cross Captive Kit with simple personal amenities and encountering some Australian doctors captured in Greece, he became a special aircrew POW handy for hostage bargaining by the German High Command.
Sam's experiences in a 8 man cooperative POW group make interesting reading in their book. On Friday, 19th January,1945, Sam's group commenced a long, long "march" in atrocious snow and icy conditions (with little food, shelter or care) westward away from the Russians and towards the advancing Western Allies. They were viewed as bargaining hostages for "improved surrender terms". For 3 weeks and 165 miles they marched - many dropping by the wayside. Eventually their agony was relieved (a little) and, on being liberated by the Russians were handed over to the British. Sam and Keith were reunited for the first time since they were shot down in the UK.
Sam's post war story has its highs and very serious lows. Returning to Italy in 1973 to view where he landed, and marriage to Beverley were highlights , lowlights included double leg amputations.
His 454/459 colleagues and mates everywhere applaud his courage and cheerfulness in extreme adversity (in war and peace), his independent, somewhat irreverent style and his co-operative approach to the task at hand. When the "chips" were down, Sam played hard and fair like the very talented amateur Aussie Rules footballer he was. He certainly helped 454 earn its accolade "From Alamein to the Alps".