The following article is taken from the June 1943 issue of AFGIB (Air
Forces General Information Bulletin). This was reprinted from the RAF
publication Tee Emm and reconstructs the story of what happened to the crews
of 3 Blenheim bombers lost in the Libyan desert.
* * *
Here is the tale of how eleven Air Force men died.
They did not die fighting against the enemy. Their deaths were not even
remotely caused by enemy action. Yet they died one of the most horrible deaths
known to human beings--slowly, by thirst.
Three Blenheim aircraft, each with a crew of four, took off from Kufra
Oasis in the Libyan desert on a reconnaissance patrol. They carried out the
patrol successfully and returned to base two and a half hours later. For some
reason, however, they did not land, but flew away from Kufra again.
After half an hour one Blenheim force-landed with engine trouble and the
other two followed.
Discussion of their position showed that they were lost, and one pilot took
off and flew between south and west to look for base. He returned after half an
hour having found nothing, and in the afternoon he took off again, this time flying
south and east, but again unsuccessfully. During this time all three aircraft were
transmitting by radio but got no answer.
According to the only survivor of the twelve, they had been so confident of
being soon picked up that they did not ration their water. Thus as much as 20
gallons had been drunk by the following morning, when they started rationing.
During the second day another pilot took off and flew north. Once more the flight
was unsuccessful, as were all attempts to receive wireless messages.
On the third day another pilot tried flying west, this being the only direction
unsearched. He did not return.
The water had given out that morning, and during the afternoon they broke
open the compasses and drank the alcohol. They also used the fire extinguishers
to keep themselves cool. As a result, they broke out in terrible blisters and sores.
Next morning the first man died. During the following 4 days, after
suffering agonies of thirst and torment from having drunk the alcohol, which led one man
to shoot himself, all the men had died but one, when at last the missing aircraft
were located on the eighth day after they had been lost.
The search had been hampered by two things. First of these was lack of
accurate information. The transmission from the aircraft was very weak but the
direction-finder procedure of the three radio operators was poor throughout, and
they evidently were not properly aware of the direction-finder procedure at Kufra.
The second thing was the bad terrain, coupled with sandstorms which
prevented accurate observation from the air. On the other hand, the searching
aircraft did not start operating till the fourth day, and though they then flew 9 hours
daily, they were not working on a properly coordinated plan. The first proper,
navigationally planned search was successful within 5 hours.
Now what were the causes of this ghastly and unnecessary loss of life--this
loss, too, of all the time and money expended on the crews' training, and this
wasted war-effort of six searching aircraft and crews which might have been
Primarily it was bad navigation. It was basically due, as was afterwards
proved, to the inability or slackness of any of the three navigators to keep a proper
log. As a result, they had completely lost themselves half an hour's flying time
from base. How completely they were lost is shown by the fact that they searched
towards all four points of the compass for the base they had left but 30 minutes
before. Blame also attaches to the radio operators, who did not work correctly
their direction finder and so keep in touch.
Then when on the ground the crews, knowing they were lost, failed utterly
to take their plight seriously, as anyone should who is engaged on desert flying.
They did not ration water till it was too late. They made foolish use of the
compass alcohol and the fire extinguishers. They failed to lay out any strips or make
smudge fires, which might have guided the searching aircraft.
Even so, they might have been saved if the searching aircraft had
cooperated promptly and methodically. For various reasons no search was made on the
second day, and on the third and fourth days weather made proper search impossible.
And for 3 days after that only vague sweeps were made, instead of navigationally
Finally, it would seem that the tragedy was in great part due to poor
leadership. A good flight commander would almost certainly not have allowed much of
what did happen to occur. One gets the impression that the stranded men did more
or less as fancy dictated or as they thought best after general consultation, instead
of being made to work under the strict orders of their leader. In fact, the whole
sad business might easily have been avoided in the first place if the flight
commander had obeyed a standing order that during desert reconnaissance by a flight,
one aircraft at least should remain on the ground; and again if, after carrying out
the reconnaissance, he had landed his aircraft safely and not taken them off for
half an hour on a completely unauthorized flight. But orders were not obeyed.
If even one life is saved in the future from knowledge and understanding of
what happened, and why, then those 11 unhappy men will not have died in vain.