• The Head On Shot

The following is a natrative that Col. Meldeau wrote before his death about one of his experiences as a combat pilot while in North Africa. It was never published and was transcribed by his son Anthony after his death.

Having been trained in Canada as a member of the RCAF,and with 55 missions in Spits in England, I transferred to the U.S.Army Air Force in September, 1942. The assignment was to the 309th Squadron, 31st Fighter Group, back in West Hampnett which was lucky as the 31st had Spitfires and unlucky as we were on the invasion of North Africa and my wife of the WAAF was stationed at 11th Group, Headquarters RAF in London. I would not see her again for more than a year.

Arriving at Gibraltar, we put the wings on our planes and flew to Oran in North Africa. Feb.6 found us at Thelepte in Tunisia just in time to get our Aerodrome, captured by the enemy on 17 February during the Battle of Kasserine Pass.

After we retook the airfield, we resumed operations from Thelepte. By April 1, I had 20 missions in Africa to my credit including one Me-109 at El Guittar. The air battle heated up and we had gains and losses daily.

The enemy was now operating from 3 airfields at La Fauconnerie, east-southeast of us. And to make matters worse, they were attacking the base at Thelepte daily with large gaggles of Me-109's and bombers at night. Our losses were starting to grow.

This was due to the fact that our Spitfires Mark VB did well with the Me-109E, especially when we could lure them into an all out dogfight. However, the Germans had sent down from France several of their top scoring aces (I believe there were three ) so as to build up their high scores.

Their aircraft were Me-109G models and were conspicuous with their gold painted noses.

The enemy tactic was to engage us with their Me-109E in volume while the hunter killer aces flew thousands of feet overhead and came down fast after the loners.

By now, Joe Byrd, Lt. Juhnke, Berry, Chandler, Bob Mitterline, Joe Kied, Thomas Barber, Sgt. Early, Lt. Strode, and Strode, and Tiger Wright had been shot down. However many returned on foot only to go down again on another day. April 1 I lost my good friends, Francis Strole and Lt. Juhnke east of El Guittar.

During the mixup before departure Lt. Juhnke took my plane WZO together with my helmet and parachute and I got off late as 13th man flying WZZ.

Lt. Juhnke was shot down by a plane with a "yellow nose". This was the third time he had been shot down, but this time his parachute failed to open. My chute!

After the mission I was given Lt. Juhnke's plane WZZ as a replacement for WZO. I also inherited his parachute, helmet, and mask which were too big and later the mask keep sliding down when pulling high Gs in battle.

That night everyone was despondent by the deaths of Strole and Juhnke, especially depressing was the futility of combat with that Me-109G with our Mark V Spitfires. He simply swept down at high speed, killed his prey, and then went straight up several thousand feet for another pass.

I will always remember one special thing about that evening. A number of the pilots, John Paulk, Henery Huntington, Bryson and others were around the fire to keep warm. The conversation was how to deal with that Me-109G.

Someone suggested that we go for him head on reducing the odds to 50-50. Everyone got enthusiastic about this, but I remember having misgivings. I preferred to stick my nose down and pick up speed until my prop was clipping the shrubbery.

Later I went to my foxhole and had trouble sleeping with Lt. Strole's empty cot and Lt. Juhnke's gear beside me.

April 2 Mission: Escort 48 A-20s and 4 P-39s for an attack on the airfield at La Fauconnerie. The bombers got there [not always the case]. I was to lead an element of Blue flight 309th Squadron (307 and 308th also had aircraft on this mission).

After joining the bombers, we proceeded to target. The advanced P-39s reported no targets on the airfield and no wonder! Visible was an immense dust cloud from the area to the north. The enemy had moved their aircraft and were coming up to do battle.

The bombers dropped their bombs on a useless target and turned full bore westward toward safety. I don't remember what happened to the low P-39s but I suppose they were all shot down as usual.

Shortly after turning west, we were attacked by about 20 Me-109s and engaged in a fierce battle to protect the bombers. One A-20 bomber was badly hit and dropped back in slow flight to await the inevitable. Colonel Fred Dean, our lead, ordered several of us back to defend the bomber. Arriving at the A-20 bomber we found that he was badly hit and slowly losing altitude.

Suddenly we were attacked by another formation of German Me-109's. Did I count them? Hell no! I remember that there were only 4 of us back there. Henry Huntington, Brown, myself, and the other Spit.

Faced with this we turned and tore into the enemy. Henry Huntington got one on the first pass and I saw hits on my target.

The battle really wound up with the Germans willing to dogfight with their great numerical superiority. Planes were going around and around to the left, to the right, and the whole mess was tumbling over and over and over.

As I dove on one aircraft from the main combat area and prepared to help him become a dead hero, I was suddenly fired upon from above. The new enemy was in too close because I received no hits. His tracers were straddling my fuselage at arms length.

As he swept down on me, I saw his gold colored nose and recognized Me-109G (Abbeville Boy). After he passed me going absolutely straight up to several thousand feet above. I lost him in the sun until there he was again moving down at 400 plus with vapor trails coming from his wingtips.

These trails were typical of the Me-109 during high G-loads such as pulling through from a high-speed dive. When his vapor trails ceased, I broke hard right as I knew he had completed his pursuit curve and was on a collision course necessary to fire. Again his tracers passed to my left and back only inches from a hit.

Just after he went by again, I was attacked by several Me-109s but was able to turn left hard enough to avoid a hit. However, all this maneuvering had my Spitfire down to an unacceptable speed. During a opportunity for a shallow dive to pick up speed I remember hoping that the "yellow nose" would pick on somebody else to give me a rest.

I was now down to 3000 or so feet which was good because that useless mask and goggles slipping down was no help. The few seconds break was short-lived. I looked up and saw the wingtip vortices of that yellow nose devil on his way down, I had a feeling that "This is it".

At that moment I suddenly recalled the "head-on" proposal of the night before and, with the pitiful speed I had left, I pulled the yoke straight back and up. Win or lose, I was too tired to take it any more and just wanted to get it over with. My guns now centered on the enemy, I waited for him to get in range. I had to fire first when his vortices ceased but my speed was dropping too fast and I opened fire with all four machine guns and two cannons when he was still at a slight deflection angle.

As I fired, I saw he was in exact range as my hits were solid for all guns. He had not quite completed his pursuit curve as all firepower was going under me. Suddenly he snapped over on his back and went underneath me which was lucky for both of us because the recoil of firing all guns had just about stopped me in midair with no control left to avoid him.

As the enemy went by spewing smoke, fire, and debris, my Spity went into a spin. Luckily, my pass had taken me to about five thousand feet, just about enough room to recover. On the way down, I saw the enemy plane crash in a flat spin and a parachute went by. By this time, the poor A-20 had taken many more hits and was forced to crash land short of Thelepte. The pilot survived to confirm my victory.

This story was writte by Col. Leonard Houston Meldeau and was transcribed from his notes by his son after his death on May 31, 1995.

1 comment:

  1. My uncle now 92 was in the 81st FG. Flying the British export version of the P-39, the P-400. They had to evacuate Telepte. But had to return after a mission which he and another pilot had to fly on each wing of a pilot who was so wounded with vision impaired, and his P-39 cockpit so shot up that they had to talk him down. There was only one vehicle left at Telepte. Luck of all luck, it had a doctor in the truck. My uncle said; "the doctor said, that shrapnel had got to come out..he handed the severely wounded airman a bottle of whiskey and said...start working on this. My uncle and the other pilot flew off. But Rommel's Afrika Corp was closing in and just as he took off, a bullet entered the perspex of the rear canopy section, but was stopped by his mess kit. It's important to note also that it wasn't until Italy that the 81st. FG lived in at least tents. Tunisia, Sicily...life was dugouts and slit trenches. He was also at the air attack on Telepte described above. It is also a fact that the 81st FG had one of the lowest loss records of the USAAF. The P-39 was a maligned aircraft. When used for what it was built, ground support it did quite well. With well qualified pilots as well. Like "uncle Bud".