8 March 1917 – Turkish retreat

Out in Palestine, the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force under SIr Archibald Murray   have completed preparations to attack the main Turkish positions at Shellal as a preliminary to the main assault on Gaza. However, cavalry patrols on the night of 4 March discovered that the Turks were evacuating the whole of their elaborate defences.

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The RFC was ordered at once to hamper the withdrawal as much as possible by bombing. So, at dawn on 5 March, 6 machines from 14 Squadron RFC and 1 Squadron AFC (67 (Australian) Squadron RFC) bombed the station at Tel el Sheria. The anti-aircraft fire was heavy. Lieutenant Adrian Trevor Cole from 67 Squadron had his petrol tank shot through and was forced to land on his way home, but he escaped unhurt.

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Richard Williams

His colleague Captain Richard Williams, too, was nearly lost mainly though his own error. He recounts the tale:

“When I arrived at Sheria, I throttled down to lose height and bomb the railway station. I was just getting ready and was about 2,000 feet up when I got archies’ all round me-by Jove they did stick, too! I went in and dropped my two 112-lb. bombs and the engine stopped. I am for Constantinople now, all right, I thought. I thought an archie had got my engine, for they were going off all round me the whole time. I tried all the petrol taps and could get no result; then undid my belt and stood up to see if anything was wrong in front, but saw nothing. During all this time I was being peppered with archies and I said to myself, ‘ Well, you might see I am coming down. I dropped two smoke balls as distress signals to our other machines, but they seemed an awful way off and a long way above me. By this time I was nearly on the ground and was picking out a spot to land on, when I looked at my switch on the outside of the machine. It was off. I switched on and, thank Heaven! the engine started firing. She choked a bit at first, so I throttled back and then gradually opened up. The engine picked up and I was going again. By this time I was under 500 feet and was making for the Turks. They must have opened fully six or eight machine-guns at me, so I turned to get out of that.”

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Ernest Ayscoghe Floyer

14 Squadron were not so lucky. Lieutenants Ernest Ayscoghe Floyer and Clement Victor Palmer were shot down by anti-aircraft fire in their DH1A (4608) and captured.

A similar raid on 6 March was carried out without losses, but on 7 March, the aircraft of Lieutenant John Vincent Tunbridge from 1 Squadron AFC was hit by AA fire and he was forced to land at Rafa. He set off on foot and was eventually rescued by Lieutenants Percy William Snell and Joseph Anthony Morgan who spotted him while on patrol and and landed to pick him up. An evening raid on 7 march passed without losses.

The following day six aircraft attacked Junction Station, north of Arak el Menshiye. However there was more excitement when a Fokker appeared over the El Arish aerodrome. Two aircraft scrambled to attack, but only a message bag was dropped and in any case the aircraft flew off before it could be attacked.

The message-bag contained letters from Floyer and Palmer and and one addressed to a German prisoner with the British. 14 Squadron promptly sent off two machines to Beersheba with a reply message, thanking the Germans for the letters, and apologising for sending up two machines to attack the message-carrier.

Attacks were also made by day and night, on Beersheba, the junction of the Beersheba railway with the Jerusalem-Jaffa line, and on enemy cavalry and infantry camps. In all, 21 tons of bombs was dropped over the 4 days. Whilst the attacks caused some casualties and damage, in the end they achieved no strategic results, as the Turkish forces withdrew in good order and have now settled in new positions at Gaza and Tel el Sheria, fourteen miles north and north-east of Shellal. The Turks are now out of reach until the railway can be extended at least as far as Rafah.

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