An Eagle over Husky: Flying Officer George Noel Keith, RCAF

My Master’s thesis was an operational history – that is, it focuses on the air combat formations involved in Operation Husky – and there was little room for personal stories. One of the purposes of this blog is to remedy this shortcoming.

P/O George Noel Keith prior to his Mediterranean transfer. Image courtesy of acesofww2.com.

Pilot Officer George Noel Keith prior to his Mediterranean transfer. (Image courtesy of acesofww2.com)

George Noel Keith was born in Cardston, Alberta in 1921. He and his family made their home in Taber, Alberta before he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in Calgary on 16 October 1940. George made his way through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in 1941. He graduated Initial Training School in late January, completed Elementary Flying Training School in late March, and graduated Service Flying Training School in late June 1941. Keith was then posted overseas, joining No. 402 “City of Winnipeg” Squadron RCAF which flew a fighter-bomber, the Hurricane IIB, until changing to Spitfire VBs in time for the tragic Dieppe Raid of August 1942.

Keith was commissioned as a pilot officer (P/O) in May 1942. He was credited with damaging a pair of Focke-Wulf 190s prior to being reassigned to the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations in the New Year. P/O Keith was taken on strength by No. 72 Squadron RAF on 8 March 1943. The unit was based in northwestern Tunisia, supporting American and British ground forces in their fight against the Axis bridgehead in that country. Keith scored his first victory on 3 April, shooting down a Messerschmitt Bf 109. The remainder of the campaign in Tunisia was quite eventful for Keith. He claimed two Bf 109s destroyed and one probably destroyed on 6 May. His aircraft was damaged on two occasions and he had to make a forced landing after suffering radiator damage on a shipping sweep.

The North African campaign wrapped up on 13 May when Axis forces numbering over 230,000 surrendered. Now promoted, Flying Officer (F/O) Keith co-led the squadron’s complement in the 20 May victory parade in Tunis. According to Luftwaffe historian Williamson Murray, Hitler’s decision to commit the Luftwaffe to keep the Mediterranean closed for six more months meant fighting an attritional battle in unfavourable conditions, resulting in losses it could ill-afford. Keith and his unit’s role in this was significant: No. 72 Squadron had been the highest scoring RAF squadron of the campaign.

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Members of No. 72 Squadron RAF in Tunisia, 1943. George Noel Keith is smiling with the tilted wedge cap between the two men in the front row on the right of the Spitfire.

In June 1943 Keith and No. 72 Squadron moved to Malta where they prepared to support the Allied landings in Sicily, code-named Operation Husky. A similar fate would befall the Axis air forces in defence of the island. The summer of 1943 would see the greatest air battle of the Mediterranean war take place. Keith opened the score for No. 72 Squadron on 18 June, shooting down his fourth Bf 109 in a sweep over Comiso airfield in southern Sicily. His victim was Major Gerhard Michalski, Gruppenkommandeure of II/JG 53 and noted German air ace. Major Michalski suffered a broken ankle and wounded leg. He survived, bailing out of his aircraft to be taken to an Axis hospital in Ragusa.

The Axis air forces had largely been holding their bombers in reserve to meet the expected Allied landing wherever it might occur. In the days following the landings German and Italian bombers and fighter-bombers focused their efforts on shipping off the beaches. F/O Keith and his squadron played an important role in making the enemy pay for these attacks and defending the vulnerable ships below. On 11 July Keith became an ace, destroying his fifth and sixth Axis aircraft, an Italian Macchi C.200 and a German Junkers 88 (Ju 88). Low on fuel, Keith made a forced landing at the Pachino aerodrome which had been captured the day before by his countrymen, the Royal Canadian Regiment of 1st Canadian Division. He refuelled and returned safely to Malta.

On 12 and 13 July No. 72 Squadron continued to fly patrols between Augusta and Syracuse, and Augusta and Catania. On the first day, F/O Keith shot down a Ju 88 that was making for Allied ships offshore. In a later sortie, he claimed a Bf 109 probably destroyed. Of three Bf 109s brought down by his flight on 13 July Keith claimed one destroyed and one shared. These would be his last claims of the war, bringing his totals to 8.5 destroyed (1 shared), 2 probably destroyed, and 2 damaged. It seems that he was recommended for a decoration after the events of 12 July. His Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) citation reads as follows:

Flying Officer Keith is a fine section leader whose skill and determination have been outstanding. He has destroyed seven aircraft in recent operations. – Award effective 20 August 1943 as per London Gazette

Tragedy struck on 4 August. After No. 72 Squadron had delivered a dozen Boston light bombers to their targets in the Catania area the unit was vectored onto possible enemies near Mount Etna. As the squadron turned for home (now at Pachino in south-east Sicily) they strafed a blockhouse at Mascali, leaving it afire. At 100 feet the aircraft were vulnerable to enemy flak and Keith’s Spitfire took a hit. He managed to climb to 2,000 feet but the aircraft would not maintain height. He bailed out over the sea at 800 feet but his leg struck the Spitfire’s tailplane as he exited. Air-Sea Rescue quickly retrieved him and he was rushed to surgeons at a nearby mobile field hospital but succumbed to his wounds later that day.

Flying Officer George Noel Keith, DFC was buried at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery along with nearly 500 of his countrymen. He left behind his parents, Willard Augustus Keith, and Esther Pearl Keith.

Agira

Agira Canadian War Cemetery. (Image courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website)

References:

Tom Docherty, Swift to Battle: No 72 Fighter Squadron RAF, Volume II 1942-1947: North Africa, Malta, Sicily, Southern France, and Austria (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2009), pp. 59, 64, 71, 76, 79, 82, 90, 92, 99, 101-2, 113, 119. Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945. See Table XXX and pp. 163-166: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/AAF-Luftwaffe/ Royal Canadian Air Force Association, Honours and Awards, 1914-1945 Data, RCAF Personnel – 1939-1945: http://rcafassociation.ca/uploads/airforce/2009/07/ALPHA-KE.html

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