F. Malcolm Benitz Page last modified:

Frank Malcolm Benitz, DFC
Ditched, Rescued, Captured
RCAF 1940-1945

Into the Drink - Night of 26/27 November, 1942

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Source: Bs.As. Herald
28 October 1943

Operations Record Book –No.104 Squadron, Luqa, MALTA – For the month of November. 1942

26th – Details of Sortie or Flight:
“A Bombing attack was carried out on Gerbini Aerodrome.  Bursts were seen across runways, amongst Hangars and Buildings.  4,000 lb bomb fell half way down runway.  Aircraft "Q" Crash landed in the sea on return from 2nd Sortie.  The crew were not found.”

(The National Archives, England)

On the night of November 26/27, when returning to Malta from his second attack that night on the German airfield at Gerbini in Sicily (20 kilometers inland from Catania), Malcolm was flying on one engine when the second engine of his twin-engine Wellington seized up.  Per his notes, he had recently flown the same aircraft ("Q", s/n W5550) without incident.  He had also returned from other ops on one engine, from further afield, yet this time both engines failed and he was forced to ditch in the sea.

Malcolm could see the lights of Malta, when, with landing lights lit to enable him to gauge the waves, he attempted to stall his aircraft safely onto the sea.  However, the tail caught the crest of a wave tipping the nose down so that it slammed into the next wave, abruptly stopping the aircraft.  Like many pilots, Malcolm was not wearing his shoulder harness.  Consequently, his head hit the instrument panel, knocking him out – and putting a nasty gash on his forehead above his right eye-brow.

Left for dead, Malcolm regained consciousness under water.  He was able to exit the aircraft through the windshield and join the crew in the lifeboat.  Realizing F/O Cope (navigator) was missing, he swam back to the aircraft.  However, Cope had died, either during the forced landing or, knocked out, had drowned.

In the distance they could see the search underway that was deployed to rescue them.  There were flares in the lifeboat, but no pistol with which to fire them.  The pistol had been screwed so tightly to the aircraft (to prevent its theft) it became impossible to retrieve before the aircraft sank, about fifteen minutes after ditching.  All they could do was watch helplessly as the wind and sea currents carried them away from Malta.

Worse yet, most of the supplies had been stolen from the life-raft leaving them with a dozen aspirins and half a pound of chocolate – which they shared parsimoniously.  Worst of all, they had no water.  But fortunately for them, the weather was cool (it was late autumn) and the seas calm.  If it had not rained on the fifth day, they would surely have died of thirst.

From Ray Sherk, fellow POW, e-mail sent 14 April, 2012:

Dear Peter, I doubt that Cochrane is still living. Perhaps S.A. records or archives or an ad in one of the S.A. veterans publications could connect you with his family. As POW's we described the circumstances of our capture with each other. My recollection is that upon return from an operational trip from Malta, your Dad was forced to land in the Med. just short of Malta. (I don't know the date).They survived the water landing within sight of Malta. He was unable to retrieve the Very Pistol, acessible to the pilot, and clamped to the aircraft above the windscreen. The reason being that the ground crew had overtightened the clamp and he couldn't release it, and the aircraft sank. In the dinghy, and within sight of the island, but without signalling equipment, they drifted away and were picked up by an Italian hospital ship 10 days later. Regards, Ray.

Notes & Observations:

  1. Malcolm kept a diary of his "dinghy ride", however during his later escape from POW camp, he left the diary and several other items with Major F.H.G. Cochran of the Transvaal Horse Artillery, South African Army.  We presume they were lost or destroyed for none of the items have reappeared.  (See Malcolm's escape diary, Oct. 2, 1943.)
  2. Cousin Frank A. Watt, bomber and later commercial pilot, thought the Wellington Mk.II was underpowered, and its Merlin X engines heavy and unreliable.
  3. Malcolm accused the Egyptians & Maltese who came on base of stealing the supplies out of the life-raft – consequently, he never had a polite word to say about them.
  4. The Wimpey sank in about fifteen minutes, per Malcolm (as reported in La Nacion, 23 Dec. 1943); the "African headquarters" account (as reported above in The Buenos Aires Herald, 27 Oct. 1943) said the Wimpey sank in 30 seconds, which is implausible – deploying the life-raft alone would have taken longer.

On 29 November, 1942, Malcolm's parents were advised by telegram that he was missing on Active Service.  The telegram was followed by letters from his Squadron Leader (29 Nov.'42) and from the RCAF casualties officer in Ottawa (30 Nov.'42).  The letters were likely not received until late December.

Rescue - 5 December, 1942

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Rescue at Sea, 5 Dec. 1942
(Source: J. Frank M. Bell & Frank A. Watt)

On their tenth day in the life-raft, December 5, an Italian hospital ship came close enough to hail them.  Someone on the ship asked if they were Australian.  Malcolm swears that had they been, they would have been left to fend for themselves.  As it was, the ship did not stop.  It did, eventually, but in the meantime Malcolm's and his crew's shouts of joy had changed to vehement insults as it continued on its way.  They had not realised that, because of its weight and consequent momentum, it takes a long time for a ship to stop.  (Years later he embellished his story, claiming the ship only stopped because its crew understood his insults in Spanish: "hijos de puta" sounds a bit like "figlios di puttana".)

Malcolm was able to climb the stairs unaided but two of the crew were so weak they had to be carried.  In a sense they were lucky it was a hospital ship for they were well taken care of, initally being fed only small quatities.  The ship took them to Tripoli (Libya) where they were hospitalised and interned as POWs.

In a letter to his family (dated January 5th, 1943), he wrote: "I was picked up in the sea with my crew by an Italian Hospital ship after we had been floating and drifting 10 days – so we were glad of some food and water! They treated us very well on the ship. My navigator P/O Cope, a grand fellow, was killed when we force-landed in the drink. The rest of us were O.K. I got a slight cut on my forehead."

In a letter to Margaret Douglas (dated January 13, 1943) he provides other details: "I’ve been in the bag since Dec. 5th when an Italian Hospital Ship picked my crew & me up in the Med.  We had been drifting for 10 days after force-landing in the sea and were pretty done-in by then as we had no food or water with us.  They treated us very well on the ship feeding us nothing but liquids the first day, in small quantities.  Unfortunately my navigator was killed when we landed in the sea.  The rest of us got away with a few scratches."

The crew members were:
   F/O F. M. Benitz – pilot
   F/Sgt S. W. "Bill" Thrower – wireless operator
   F/O K. C. W. Cope – navigator, died during ditching, Nov. 27
   Sgt F. Parkinson
   Sgt B. Jones
   Sgt A. Haxton

Provenance of the photo:

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Note on back of photo

The photo (and its negative) came to us via Frank Watt, who had received it from Frankie Bell.  They and Malcolm were all first cousins, and all three had volunteered and become pilots during WW-II.  Following the war, Watt and Benitz returned to civilian life in Argentina.  Bell continued in the R.C.A.F.  One of his postings took him to Europe (Paris) as a representative of the R.C.A.F. at SHAPE (NATO).  We believe it was during this time that he came into possession of the photo.  How exactly, we do not know.  But we can imagine an entirely plausible chance encounter by Frankie with an Italian officer who had been aboard a hospital ship when it rescued an R.A.F. crew in early December, 1942.  (Per the note on the back of the photo, Frankie’s son Jamie took it to Argentina in 1979.)

Prisoner - Tripoli (Libya), 5–20+ December, 1942

On the last full page of his Africa notebook (shown below), Malcolm wrote down a record of what happened after he and his crew were rescued at sea.  It is likely Malcolm wrote these notes long after his ordeal (Please see our discussion about the notebook).  It is also likely that his diary of the “dinghy ride” contained more detail about his first days as a POW, but during his later escape from the POW camp, he left that diary with a fellow escapee (Major F.H.G. Cochran) – it has not reappeared.

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Notebook, last page
(Source: P. Benitz)

5/12/42 Picked up. Italian Hosp Ship
Bill Thrower. Parkinson. Haxton. Jones.
6/12/42 Tripoli. Taken to Surg Hosp. Hair
  Showed & Shave _ in Bed. Stooges in evening
7/12/42 In bed all day. Shower. Watch taken
  In evening to Med Hosp.
8/12/42 In bed all day. Given Ital.Uniform
9/12/42 Taken to Trig el Terhim in afternoon [likely in Tripoli]
  crew & 20 prisoners to Swanee [likely in Tripoli]
9-18/12/42 All 7 officers & 9 men to Terhuna [Tarhunah ].
  50 m.S.Tripoli. Lorry broke down on way
  Met Mather & Maloney. No food for supper
19/.  Shower – better food.
20/  To Comm Tappa to await sub. Met

One of the few WWII experiences Malcolm woult talk about was that of being held prisoner in Tripoli:

  1. In hospital he was told to take a shower, during which his RAF uniforn was stolen, replaced with an inferior quality Italian uniform.
  2. Malcolm met an Italian officer from Buenos Aires, a major in the army.  They did not get on.
  3. During the truck ride to Tarhuna, the truck broke down and they had to return to Tripoli for repairs before completing the journey. 
  4. In late December, 1942, Malcolm and a group of fellow POW officers were transported in an Italian submarine to Taranto (on the south coast of Italy).  He said the submarine stank and its crew was terrified of being discovered and sunk by the Allies.

Places named:

Malcolm probably only heard the place names spoken and did know how their correct spelling.  Here are our best guesses:

Malcolm does not mention that on 6 December, 1942, the day after he was rescued, he wrote Margaret Douglas in England asking her to inform his family that he was OK (His letters are on his POW page).  The card has no date of receipt, but it was probably delayed several weeks going through Red Cross channels.  On 19 January, 1943, the RCAF casualties officer in Ottawa wrote Malcolm's father informing him that Malcolm was now a P.O.W. – the letter likely did not reach "La California" until February, 1943.

© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)