Monday 11 February 2013

Stabbers in the Sky

266 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF

By Mitch Stirling

'Hlabezulu', an Ndebele expression, describes 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron perfectly... deadly 'Stabbers in the Sky'. It's impossible to write about them in words that adequately describe the bravery of those young men, who were boys. And as the years slip by I'm becoming more and more aware of the fact that the survivors of the squadron - and a whole generation of World War 11 pilots - will be gone before too many more years go by. It is their time. Even the name 'Rhodesia' has been consigned to the history books these days and it is a sobering thought that within the next 70 years, or so, the last born and bred Rhodesian will have departed. The price paid by all our Rhodesian 'boys' in defence of King and Country was enormous and the Hawker Typhoon pilots of Hlabezulu were no exception. Their role as a low-level attack squadron made them particularly vulnerable to ground fire and anti-aircraft barrages. Said one Tiffie pilot, "The flak was so thick that we could have put wheels down and taxied on it"...

The Typhoon was a fearsome beast with a 2 000 hp Napier Sabre engine that would torque violently on take-off. Urgent demands had been made by RAF Operations for a 400 mph high-performance fighter/bomber to counter the Focke-Wulf Fw190 and this resulted in serious aerodynamic problems in the early design of the Typhoon. The integrity of the prototypes was very doubtful; whole tail sections were departing the airframe in high-speed or violent manoeuvres. In-all, 21 young RAF pilots and 25 aircraft were lost to initial teething problems and, over the years, modifications had to be added to new-model Typhoons and retro-fitted to the older ones. Stiffening the elevator controls and changing to a bigger tailplane and a four- blade propeller solved most of the problems. But the complex sleeve-valve engine cylinders presented another problem in cold weather start-up, and the primitive cockpit presented yet another. Early Typhoons had a car-door-type cockpit with a wind-down window and an external rear view mirror. Lack of ventilation and heat from the engine made things very uncomfortable for the driver... and carbon monoxide seepage from the Sabres was deadly. Extended exhaust stubs were tried, unsuccessfully, to deflect fumes... so oxygen masks became standard operating procedure for the pilots from start-up to shut-down. All of this made things very difficult for a pilot trying to get out in a hurry and it was not until the welcome addition of a sliding bubble-cockpit in 1943 that things improved.

Ken Rogers in Mae West. 
Spade-type column and control grip with firing button Diagnostic white nose-cone and black and white stripes on the underbelly. Chin-mount radiator and air scoop were other distinguishing features of the Tiffie.

Spade-type column and control grip with firing button

 The Typhoon ( a total of 3317 were built ) entered service operation in 1941 and by the following year 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron had set up base at RAF Duxford in support of the Normandy invasion. By this time the aircraft had matured into a lethal fighting machine that could take on the Fw190 with confidence. It was agile and quick and, with its 4 belt-fed 20mm Hispano cannons and 8 armour-piercing or HE rocket projectiles, it had found its niche. It was a highly successful destroyer of enemy bridges, tanks, trains, shipping and, on one occasion, the Nazi HQ admin and office buildings in Dordrecht, Holland. That particular raid eliminated numerous senior Nazi officers - the biggest single hit on German high ranks for the duration of the war. One observer on the ground watched the Typhoons as they carefully avoided a school building next door and hit their target with 'pin-point' accuracy. Anti-aircraft gun emplacements and machine gun nests were also designated targets and Bomphoons were engaged as well with their 500kg and 250 kg bombs and incendiaries. They destroyed the Gestapo HQ at Enterpestraat in Amsterdam and were involved in 'dropping' the Bridge on Lek at Vianen. Stacked in the sky in 'Cab Ranks', Typhoons could supply continuous support to ground troops.

Brian Biddulph and Tusky Hayworth in flying kit.

Ken Roger's log book showing attack on Nazi HQ.  Signed Sq/Ldr J.H. Deall DFC.

Alfred Mells from Gatooma was credited with the first 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron kill on 9 August 1942 when he shot down a Ju88 off the Norfolk coast. But many other Rhodesians in the squadron lost their lives. Two fellow pilots were killed operating out of Exeter when they were jumped by Fw 109's over the Channel - Johnny Small and Brian Biddulph kia. There is some speculation that Brian may have spun-in, but Ken Rogers maintains he lost the tail of his aircraft in a tight, evasive turn - which would be consistent with the problems of elevator flutter and buffeting. Brian and his brother John (killed in a Hampden bomber in 1942) were big childhood 'shamwaris' of Ken Rogers. Roy Downes (CAA and Air Rhodesia) remembers them well from his own childhood days in Salisbury when all their parents were great friends. The name Biddulphs, of course, is synonymous with their parents' removals business

266 (Rhodesia) Squadron kia list reads: 21 young men lost in the space of four years. The poignant epitaph on Dougal Drummond's headstone in the Commonwealth Cemetery at Guidel, France, says it all...


With thanks to Stan Rogers for photographs and log book entry. And to John Wynne Hopkins for the photo of headstone.


Thanks to Mitch (Air Rhodesia) for sharing this article and photographs with ORAFs.
Thanks also to Stan Rogers and John Wynne for the use of their material.

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at 

Recommended reading.
Tribute to Group Captain Charles Green

Charles Green Entered into rest.

John Deall Promoted

John Deall Entered into rest.

(Please visit our previous posts and archives)

Ref. Rhodesian Air Force, ORAFs, Civil aviation

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