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  1. “[T]he Kittyhawk Mk.I was not an easy aircraft to fly properly and, as a result, we lost a good number of pilots while training. Some Hurricane pilots just flatly refused to fly it, preferring to go back to the Hurricane squadrons. In the first few months after conversion to Kittyhawks, all the squadrons lost heavily to the 109s." -- Wing Commander J F Edwards DFC* DFM "The air war in Africa favoured the "experts" to a high degree. The wing men, "Kaczmeraks"*, and No. 2s had only a small chance to gain any victories. The majority of the victories of the German fighters were the result of surprise attacks, during which in most cases only the formation leader was able to fire. Such quick, sparrowlike attacks were seldom followed by a dogfight." -- Major Rudolph Sinner, JG27 (latterly JG54 and JG7) You say "sink or swim" what a cruel, cruel phrase I'd rather fly -- Sleater-Kinney, "The End of You" On 17 June 1942, as the British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa faced the shipwreck of their hopes, eleven Hurricane IIcs of 274 Squadron were detailed to escort Boston light bombers on a ground attack sortie. A few days before, the HARPOON convoy from Gibraltar to Malta had lost four of its six merchant ships, and two escorts: the big Tribal-class destroyer HMS Bedouin, and the smaller Hunt-class Free Polish ORP Kujawiak. VIGOROUS, from Alexandria to Malta, had failed even to arrive, being forced to turn back in an effort to avoid annihilation. The meager tonnage of supplies delivered meant that Malta could no longer function offensively: it would now be forced to serve the war effort in the Mediterranean by absorbing as much Axis firepower as possible, and the fuel remaining on the island was reserved for the defending fighters. Coterminate with these disasters, Rommel was in the process of winning his greatest victory in the desert, the Battle of Gazala. The day before the shattered remnants of HARPOON made landfall, Auchinleck ordered the Eighth Army, battered after its piecemeal attacks had lead to a comprehensive defeat in detail and the loss of almost all of its splendid new American tanks, brought at such great risk across a vast ocean, to begin a retreat that would quickly become a disastrous rout. Not for the first time in the war, but almost for the last, it fell to the Royal Air Force to buy the time the Army needed to escape, to recover, and to hopefully fight again. The Hurricanes of 274 made contact with the Bostons late and struggled to keep up with the bombers. Initially they were bounced by Macchi 202s of 10 Gruppo (who claimed four P-40s and a Hurricane, to two MC.202s for the RAF -- neither side lost any aircraft), and then by a more dangerous foe: four Bf109F-4s of Stab. II./JG27, lead by the 50-claim "experte" Oberleutnant Otto "Ein-Zwei-Drei Otto" Schulz, aged 31, a long-service Luftwaffe veteran who'd joined in 1934 and served as a flying instructor pre-war. Schulz was notable not only for his extensive experience, probably as great as any man flying fighters in the Luftwaffe in 1942, but for his habit of strafing aircraft he'd downed to make sure of his victories. Canadian Flight Lieutenant W A G "Wally" Conrad spotted the 109s coming in to the attack and attempted a climbing turn to meet them, only to realize too late that his radio was unserviceable, and his warnings to his squadronmates had gone unheeded. The four 109s ignored the remainder of 274 Squadron, which passed on along with their charges, blissfully unaware of the life-and-death struggle receding astern.** Conrad, now alone against four 109s, threw his aircraft into a series of tight descending turns, hoping to make for the deck and run for home. He was a skilled pilot with three confirmed victories, and for a time, it worked, but fifty feet off the ground, the 109s herded him in front of Schulz's guns at last, and a cannon shell entered the cockpit and exploded directly under the throttle quadrant, wounding Conrad in his left hand, wrist, and both legs. Dropping his flaps, the Canadian rode his wounded aircraft down. As he clambered out of his shattered Hurricane, Conrad looked up to see a 109F coming back towards him, firing as it went. With nowhere to run in the featureless desert, the Flight Lieutenant crouched helplessly behind his aircraft's engine, hoping the Merlin could perform one final service and absorb the worst of the incoming fire. Schulz's Messerschmitt came around for another pass. Flight Lieutenant James "Eddie" Edwards (the nickname by which he is better-known, "Stocky", was not used in the western desert) had been flying an escort mission with 260 Squadron for another group of Bostons when they were bounced by 109s of III./JG53. 260 Squadron had apparently not yet adopted the modern finger-four formation, and was still flying in line astern with a "weaver", despite their CO, "Pedro" Hanbury being a very experienced Battle of Britain veteran who ought to have known better. Edwards lost contact with the rest of the squadron in the ensuing melee, shooting down the 109 of Leutnant Wolf Schaller*** before finding himself alone and at low level, a dangerous place to be with Messerschmitts out and about on frie jagds. At this juncture, he spotted a single 109 at low level in mid-turn, with two or three circling above it. Edwards was running his Kittyhawk's engine flat-out, flying at over 300 MPH on the deck, close to if not at its maximum speed for such a low altitude. He did not see Conrad's downed Hurricane, which with its desert camouflage must have been almost invisible at that speed. Ahead, he saw the 109 coming out of the turn, and banking slightly, he opened fire at sixty degrees deflection, on the border between a three-quarters and a full deflection shot, very difficult for even experienced pilots. Edwards had flown his first operational sortie less than three months before, on 23 March 1942. The burst caught the 109 along the flank, passing from the engine back along the side of the cockpit. Wth Schulz dead or dying already, the Messerschmitt heeled over and smashed itself to pieces against the ground. Before the three circling 109s above could react, Edwards sped onwards for home unmolested. As he passed overhead, Conrad -- who would later become a squadron leader with the famous Canadian Spitfire Wing, a successful evader, and an ace in his own right-- took note of the aircraft markings of his saviour. "Pedro" Hanbury was extremely strict about victory claims, dismissing an intelligence officer whom he didn't trust, and threatening to bring up pilots on charges if he thought they were lying about shooting down enemy aircraft****. Edwards didn't file a claim for the aircraft, and it would only come to light and be confirmed in the late 1970s, when Michael Lavigne was doing research for the book Kittyhawk Pilot, which he co-authored with Edwards and which was published in 1983. Notably, Edwards's victory claims have almost entirely been corroborated by postwar research. Conrad would go on to a brilliant wartime career as a Squadron Leader in "Johnnie" Johnson's Canadian Spitfire wing, surviving a midair collision and successfully evading. He died comparatively young, in 1987, in his late sixties; James Edwards had given him the gift of forty-five more years. Edwards, who at some point picked up the nickname "Stocky", died a few weeks ago, on 14 May, aged 100. In his later years, he leant his name to wetlands conservation efforts around his home of Comox, B.C. He wasn't Canada's highest scoring ace, ranking only seventh out of the Second World War, but he stands now and forever as one of the greatest Canadian aviators to have ever lived. Here's a short video of him from just a few years ago: James Edwards has always held a special place in my heart since I first learned of him: every Allied pilot who brought down -- and let's not be delicate, killed -- an experte saved the lives of countless others and made a material contribution to the final victory. I was very fortunate, a few years ago, to have found a copy of Michael Lavigne and Edwards's later book, Kittyhawks over the Sands, to give to Cookenbacher as a host gift when he very kindly endured my company for several doubtless excruciating days in 2016. I had sworn off building Kittyhawks after doing eight(!) at once for a GB in 2015, the images for which are now (probably mercifully) lost. Kit technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the past seven years, and thank god for it, because I'm pretty sure I would kill if someone tried to make me build a Sword or Legato P-40 again. I'll be using Special Hobby's Kittyhawk Ia kit and DK Decals's WDAF Kittyhawks sheet to build J F Edwards's Kittyhawk I HS-P/AK670, which is not the aircraft he flew when he shot down Shulz, which was HS-S, but which dates to the same month and year. The Kittyhawk I differs from the Ia most notably in not having weird little testicular bulges around the 50-calibre guns in the wings, a bridge we'll cross and then burn when we come to it, to discourage pursuit. There are probably other differences, AND IF YOU KNOW ABOUT THEM YOU SHOULD TELL ME NOW, RATHER THAN AFTER I'VE DONE SOMETHING IRREVERSIBLE, BECAUSE THAT HELPS NO ONE AND WHEN YOU DIE YOU WILL HAVE TO LISTEN TO COLDPLAY ENDLESSLY IN HELL. And not even the halfway listenable stuff, just "Yellow". Over. And over. I also got the Eduard PE set, not only the Zoom bits, but photoetch wheel wells and radiator flaps. Will we use all of that? Time will tell. The photoetch set comes with a teeny-tiny photoetch chair that you're supposed to fold like an origami crane to produce an allegedly more accurate and infinitely sexier seat. I don't think I've ever managed to do this in my entire life, but I gave it a go. Oh my heavens! It worked! You then have to do the same thing for the tubular framing that connects the seat to the bulkhead. Always a good idea to represent a series of cylinders with something that barely exists in three dimensions, but Eduard were on a roll, and they were dragging me along for the ride. There's a weird little PE panel with three lightening holes(? maybe) in it that goes in the seat next. As I picked it up, it tensed itself like a panther about to pounce and then flung itself into another dimension, hitting poor old Rufus Sewell right in his reptilian noggin, no doubt. A frantic search then commenced, involving combing over the floor on my hands and knees, much sweeping, and not a few mighty utterances of a word than begins with "F" that is not an Italian car manufacturer. Eventually I gave up, and it was time to f...iat Future Me, the hapless victim of so many of my capers. Out came the PE set reserved for another Kittyhawk kit. You would not believe what a pain it was to coax it into this position: Then it was time to paint some interior bits, so I could get them ready for PE, whereupon it turned out P-40s were painted something called "Curtiss Cockpit Green", which is apparently more yellowish than other interior greens, and of course does not, as far as I could ascertain, have an extant paint colour from one of my preferred suppliers (Colourcoats or Colourcoats, why settle for second best?). In any case, I learned my lesson with those damned Exito decals, have everything at the start of the build or face the annihilating power of Clausewitzian friction. So after much googling, it seems a recipe suggested was Tamiya green and yellow in a 5:1 ratio. I didn't have Tamiya green, but I did have their yellow, and found what I hoped was a passible substitute for green. I mixed them with ten drops of green to two of yellow, though whether my cheap plastic droppers bought in a bag of 500 from Amazon deploy consistent amounts of paint with each drop is perhaps best not ruminated upon. The resulting colour was indeed a slightly yellowish green: It proved absolutely impossible to get a good photo of it on the parts and with the Interior Green lid from a Colourcoats tin next to it for comparison purposes, so just imagine I did and make appeciative noises. I will probably die trying to do the wheel wells, what fun! * Kaczmerak is a Polish last name; the German stereotype of a "Kaczmerak" was friendly, loyal, and stupid. The nickname as applied to wingmen was of course ironic. ** This was typical of the Luftwaffe fighters in North Africa. The Desert Air Force had thirteen fighters shot down on 17 June, with five pilots killed, including two Squadron Leaders; the only bomber lost was a Boston that suffered a landing accident. *** Schaller was captured by Commonwealth forces in Tobruk, released when the port fell to the Axis on the 21st, and was then killed in action shortly thereafter. **** Something about the western desert seemed to bring out the worst impulses in pilots. 4./JG27 infamously had a cartel of pilots, the so-called "Experten-Schwarm", which included the staffelkapitan who worked together to falsify victory claims, submitting at least 58 before they were caught red-handed. One of the quartet appears to have committed suicide after being discovered, but he needn't have bothered, the other three went unpunished, and Oblt Karl-Heinz Bendert would subsequently receive the ritterkreuz and be placed in command of several other staffels in and outside of JG27. On the British side, the ace James "Hamish" Dodds DFM MBE, who claimed one confirmed and one probable on 16 June 1942, was alleged to have made numerous false claims as well by a former squadronmate writing to Christopher Shores -- Shores published this in A History of the Mediterranean Air War Volume 2 in 2012, and Dodds only died in 2014, so Shores presumably was reasonably confident of winning a libel action.
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