Greetings fellow curiosity seekers,

I tend to be wordy, for those who love detail. Apologies to all others...

Can anyone point me to an official document giving the approximate time on 15 July 1942 when Liberator AL566 “Y” of 159 Squadron was lost on an op to Benghazi?

Christopher Shores, in his book “History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945, Vol. 2: North African Desert, February 1942 - March 1943“, states that AL566 was shot down at 1750. This sounds close, based upon the flight logbook of an air gunner who flew that day aboard then-S/Ldr J. Leighton Beck’s AL544. Takeoff of AL544 was at 1340 on a 9-hour op, so the halfway point was at 1810 and the return to base was at 2240.

I’d love to see another official source, if possible.

All seven crewmen died – one New Zealander, four Australians, and two Englishmen:

RAAF 402134 P/O John Campbell POTTIE (Captain)
RAAF 402634 F/Sgt Hilary Eldred BIRK (Pilot)
RAF 521648 W/O William Stevenson MILLER (Observer)
RAAF 402036 P/O Henry LEISK, H (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner)
RAAF 402092 P/O George Gilmour MALLABY (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner)
RNZAF 402118 F/Sgt Martin Costin FELL MID (Air Gunner)
RAF 812278 Sgt John Stephen Arthur HODGE.

Only Birk’s body was recovered; he is buried in Benghazi War Cemetery. The others are commemorated on the Alamein Memorial.

July ’42 records are missing from the 159 Sqn Operations Record Book, and the ORB of Headquarters, 242 Wing – to which 159 Sqn was attached – does not give times.

The on-line Nat’l Archives of Australia A705 casualty files of two of the Australians aboard, POTTIE and LEISK, include no documents which mention the time of the action.

Here is more from Shores:

Wednesday, 15 July 1942
Six US B-24s and Liberators of 159 Squadron undertook the long flight from St Jean
[Palestine] to attack the harbour and shipping at Benghazi. One RAF crew saw another of the unit’s aircraft under attack by fighters, this spiraling down into the sea. This was also reported by the American crews (see also Chapter Ten). At 1750 two MC.200s of 150° Gruppo had intercepted Liberators over Benghazi. M.llo Augusto Manetti, of 363a Squadriglia, claimed one shot down in flames and Serg Magg Bruno Benassi, of the same unit, chased and hit another, claimed as a probable.

For the record, there is slightly different unit info, in the book’s separate listing of Italian claims by the two MC.200 pilots involved:

364a Sq, 150°Gr Aut CT Serg Magg Augusto Manetti
363a Sq, 150°Gr Aut CT Serg Magg Bruno Benassi.

I’ve been told that Chapter Ten of the Shores book has no further detail; I do not have a copy of the book.

So, is there corroborating time evidence from British records?

There is a possibility that US records at the National Archives, not far from my home, will provide details, but I haven’t been able to snoop there yet.

Here is a short summary of the aerial action, from “Royal Air Force BOMBER LOSSES IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND MEDITERRANEAN, Volume 1: 1939 – 1942” by David Gunby and Pelham Temple:

Took off St Jean to attack the harbour and shipping at Benghazi. Another crew saw the aircraft under attack by fighters and spiralling into the sea. Sgt Birk’s body was washed ashore at Guiliana and is buried in Benghazi War Cemetery; the others are commemorated on the Alamein Memorial.

In the A705 casualty files of POTTIE and LEISK I found this rich detail from a 1948 letter to the Imperial War Graves Commission from No. 5 Missing Research & Enquiry Service, but, again, there is no time given:

LIBERATOR A.L.566 – 159 Sqdn. – 15th July, 1942.

The following is a report on the loss of the above aircraft and crew [the crew was listed] by S/Ldr. Beck of 159 Sqdn [S/Ldr J. Leighton Beck] who was leading the sortie to Benghazi on 15th July, 1942:-

“I was leading two formations of three aircraft each on an operational sortie to Benghazi on 15th July, 1942. Aircraft AL566, Captain P/O. Pottie was flying on my port side in number 3 position in the first formation, and on the run up to the target appeared to be in correct Vic formation for bombing.

Our leading formation encountered heavy and accurate A/A fire over the target and just after the formation bombed, Aircraft AL566 was seen, by my rear gunner, to fall back out of formation and lose height. Immediately after this a fighter which was circling in the vicinity dived towards AL.566, which made a steep turn to port away from the formation. The two aircraft circled each other for a short time, and then AL.566 was seen to spiral into the sea.

In the opinion of those in my crew who witnessed the event, and myself, it is felt that AL.566 was hit by flak, after or during bombing, (my aircraft was hit in 9 places) which caused it to fall out of formation, and in endeavouring to avoid the fighter, by violent evasive action of steep turns, must have stalled thereby causing a spin.

None of my gunners saw the fighter actually firing which fact has influenced my opinion as stated above, i.e. the AL.566 was badly hit by flak which caused the aircraft to become out of control.”

Wing Commander J. Leighton Beck’s book, “Chocks Away!” has nothing about this op, though he was the flight commander.

Note that there is false information about AL566 likely being shot down by U-561. It was not; there is no doubt whatsoever. The U-boat claim was in an area hundreds of miles from the Benghazi area, where AL566 came down. AL566 was lost in a formation with other Liberators, and it’s loss was witnessed. The timing is also far too late, based on the known 1340 takeoff time of S/Ldr Beck’s AL544 and the 9-hour length of the op.

Here is the incorrect info from “U Boat vs Aircraft” by Norman Franks and Eric Zimmerman. It is a noble try to solve this mystery, but it is now known to be incorrect. These details have been summarize as fact on-line at:

The webmaster requests corrections, so I will contact him.

The full details from the book:

Fatal Detachment – 15/7/42
No. 159 Squadron was formed as a heavy bomber unit at the begnning of 1942, equipped with the American Consolidated Liberator, destined for the Middle East. However, before it became established, the Squadron was posted out to the Far East. During the move, in the early summer, a detachment of aircraft remained in Palestine, some of which were used on anti-submarine duties. On one such sortie, a Squadron Liberator II is believed to have come across U-561, commanded by Kapitäleutnant Robert Bartels. At least, there is certainly no other obvious candidate.

Details of exactly what occurred from the RAF side are sparse, simply because the aircraft failed to return. Nor apparently did it report the discovery of the U-boat to its base, or if it did, that message did not get through, for as far as the RAF were concerned, Liberator AL566 did not return. This is surprising, because while the submarine crew reported two attacks, over an hour apart, there is every indication that there was only this one Liberator involved. The identification of the B24 was also complicated because the U-boat crew saw the high-winged four-engined aircraft with its large fuselage as a flying boat – noting that it was probably a Sunderland.

The first attack came at 2207 hours in German Grid CP8259 – east-north-east of Port Said in the Eastern Mediterranean. The aircraft was spotted by its navigation lights and as it closed in it was met by 20 mm gunfire, the gunners claiming hits. As it went over the boat further flak was sent up and the aircraft banked away to port, the sub crash-dived. No bombs were dropped.

However, the Liberator crew must have remained in the area for the next hour, and one explanation of why no sighting report 3was received, was that it had indeed been hit and its radio knocked out. In the event, U-561 surfaced just over an hour later in the same location, and at 2315 a ‘flying-boat’ was observed on a parallel course, at a height of 30-40 metres.

With his patience rewarded, the Lib pilot brought his aircraft round and four flares were dropped as a head-on approach became obvious to the German gunners. They opened fire and immediately saw their shells strike home. Smoke began to stream from the aircraft which was seen to jettison its bombs, but the aircraft continued to come on, its gunners strafing the boat despite the flames and, as the U-boat crew described it, with the aircraft starting to break up. Two large objects detached themselves from the machine – possibly men baling out – that were seen to fall slowly to the sea. Moments later the aircraft itself plunged burning into the waves and broke apart. If the action described was indeed that which involved this B24 and U-561, then the gallant but luckless RAF crew had been:

[The AL566 crew are listed by rank, name, and crew position.]

Only one body from the crew was recovered, that of Sergeant Hilary Eldred Birk from Croyden, New South Wales, washed ashore some time later and buried at Benghazi.


If someone can provide any further detail, particularly regarding the time of AL566’s downing, I would be most grateful.

I must add that our stellar New Zealand contributor, author/historian Errol Martyn, helped me with some excellent info on the loss of AL566 roughly ten years ago. Recently Czech Republic researcher Pavel Turk asked me what I knew of AL566’s loss, and again I began concentrating upon this loss. Pavel and I have traded details. I offered to post a query on the Forum for him.