Donald Adamson

Dreaming in black and white

Photographs and Documents relating to World War II


This section is concerned with photographs and documents which relate to the Second World War. In particular, it follows the progress of my father, John McLaren Adamson, through the war.

He left Dunfermline High School in the summer of 1939. There was the possibility of a mathematics degree at Edinburgh University, but as the third son of a crippled coal miner there were issues with money and fees. It would be nearly fifty years before he graduated with a degree in mathematics. Instead he sat the Civil Service examination, and entered the Admiralty as a Clerical Officer. He was based at Rosyth Dockyard.


On 16 October 1939, he was in the Dockyard when German aircraft attacked . Minor damage was caused to three warships and four enemy planes were shot down. No damage was caused to the dockyard, but there was a grandstand view of the German bombers being chased off by fighters from RAF Turnhouse.

November 13 1940 saw John Adamson’s 19th birthday. Discussions with some of his Dunfermline High School friends concluded with the view that the RAF were the people to join. So four of them got the train across the Forth Bridge  to Edinburgh and volunteered for the Royal Air Force.


The recruits were assessed by No 16 ACSB (I think this stands for Aviation Candidate Selection Board), in Edinburgh, and sent for appropriate training. As the son of a coal miner, albeit having passed into a grammar school, and being University entrance qualified, he felt that this was the main reason why he was not selected for flying crew. Indeed the least strong academically (but from a solidly middle-class background) went for pilot training, although he later ended as a rear gunner on a Lancaster. Sadly he was killed towards the end of the war. Another ended the war as a navigator in a squadron in Ceylon. The fourth was a wireless operator. In the 1970’s John Adamson chaired many civil service selection boards.

On 5 May 1941, we learn that John Adamson was 5ft 10 1/2 ins tall; had a chest of 32 ins, had auburn hair, blue eyes, and a fresh complexion. He lived with his parents at 17 Fod Street, Halbeath, Dunfermline, Fife, and his father — confusingly also John McLaren Adamson — was his next of kin. 17 Fod Street was new council stock housing, and was a ground floor apartment.


However John Adamson was sent to train as a wireless mechanic, and joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 3 June 1941.  There is a good chance that selection to be trained as a wireless mechanic, on the ground, saved his life. He was trained at Blackpool in the first instance, and reported to the Recruit Disposal Unit, Blackpool. There he was assigned to 9 Signals Recruit Centre on 10 Basic Course on 29 June. There is a picture of his RAF wireless mechanic training class:

John Adamson is in the middle of the back row, with his distinctive mass of red hair. Interestingly, the age profile of the class looks quite old, especially compared to the 19 year old Adamson. It may be that some of these men worked in wireless repair businesses in civilian life, and were supplemented by youngsters who were strong on mathematics and physics? In any event, the course seems to have been longer than simply training as a wireless operator.

It wasn’t all work for the young John Adamson. There is photograph of him in a sea-side location, possibly near Blackpool, which probably dates from the autumn of 1941. On the back of this is the name and address of a Polish girl, serving in the Polish army.

On 7 November 1941, Adamson was transferred to 1 SS (Signal School) at RAF Cranwell to complete his wireless mechanic training. He passed out of this course on 13 January 1942, with a 59% exam marking and the rank of Aircraftsman 2.


Having turned 20 in November 1941, it wasn’t long before he was on his way abroad. John Adamson’s RAF record shows that orders for him to report to RAF Turnhouse on 16 February 1942 and then to join 240 Squadron who were flying Catalina flying boats from Northern Ireland, were cancelled. 240 Squadron were sent in March 1942 to India to fly missions over the Bay of Bengal and Burma. Instead John Adamson was posted to the Middle East. Before he went, he had a photographic portrait done, which was hand coloured, and given to his parents.

Thus, on 16 February 1942, he was in a convoy (WS 16) leaving the Clyde heading for Egypt via West Africa, South Africa and the Red Sea. There were stops at Freetown (not allowed to land) and Durban (arrived 21 March 1942; departed 25 March). The young Adamson was very impressed with the relaxed atmosphere in Durban and in particular the street lighting, without any black-out. The name of the troop ship was the Volendam. This was a Holland-America line vessel of 15,000 tons which was built in Glasgow in 1922. It was designed for 1900 passengers and this was increased to 2,350 for war convoys. The Volendam arrived at Suez on 11 April 1942. He was sent to attend a course at Middle East Signal School on 4 June, and was then attached to RAF HQ Western Desert on 28 June 1942.


In early 1942, the Allies were holding the Gazala Line, which was a series of positions stretching south from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea into the desert. It was a series of minefields, and troop positions in ‘boxes’ of trenches and barbed wire, only loosely connected, but supported by armoured formations and with the RAF contesting the sky with the Luftwaffe. On 26 May, Panzerarmee Afrika (Generaloberst Erwin Rommel) attacked. By 21 June, the British Imperial troops were in full retreat back into Egypt. The Germans had won a significant victory. The British stopped not far west of Alexandria, in the El Alamein positions. There they fought the defensive battle of 1st El Alamein (July 1942) and checked the advance of Rommel. Again between 30 August and 5 September 1942, the newly appointed Bernard Montgomery thwarted the last great offensive attack by Rommel. This was the Battle of Alam Halfa.

Rommel was to claim that British air superiority played a decisive factor in winning the battle, being unaware of British Ultra intelligence. Rommel noted that the damaging attacks had a great impact on Axis motorised forces and forced him to break off his offensive. Rommel adapted to the increasing Allied dominance in the air by keeping his forces dispersed. The price of the battle to the Axis was not just a tactical defeat and retreat. With the Alam Halfa failure, Rommel was deprived not only of the operational ability to initiate offensives, he lost the operational and tactical ability to defend the German base in Africa. Axis strategic aims in the African theatre were no longer possible. In all of this air reconnaissance was important. 

Caption on rear reads: “Phil and myself with native labourer, somewhere near Cairo”.

The diet of the 8th Army was pretty limited, but enlivened by eggs that could be bargained from enterprising and entrepreneurial locals. Years after the war, my father would greet the sight of eggs for sale with the phrase “Oggi for Shy” which he maintained was the pidgin used when the local Egyptians were selling eggs to the troops. Apparently a favourite trick was to fry the eggs on the bonnet of a truck.

Cartoon from ‘Two Types’ by Jon, for the 8th Army Times.

A few enlarged photographs follow of John Adamson and his RAF mates, working in the air reconnaissance, ground crew radio sections follow. Their job essentially was to receive intelligence from the pilots in the air, and relay that knowledge back to HQ. To do this they were equipped with radio trucks, ordinary lorries, jeeps and even armoured cars.

Caption on rear reads “Taken near Cairo: myself in centre at back”.

This looks as if taken in front of the RAF reconnaissance radio truck.

In September 1942, and just after Alam Halfa, the reconnaissance squadrons of Desert Air Force were brought together in 285 Wing. This was based at Burg el Arab, and was formed with 2PRU (Spitfire VB), 1437 Flight (Maryland and Baltimore), and 60 (SAAF) Squadron at Wadi Natrun (Maryland). They were joined in October by 208 and 40 (SAAF) squadrons (Hurricane I/IIA/IIB).

A photograph exists from this time which was just before the Battle of El Alamein.

This is captioned on rear: “Taken just before Alamein. Birmingham chap and George at back, Phil and myself at front”.

By late October, Montgomery was ready to begin the attack at El Alamein. 195,000 men and 1,029 tanks began the offensive against the 116,000 men and 547 tanks of Panzer Army Africa. It was to be a huge set-piece battle over two weeks, and would prove to be a decisive victory for the Allies.

John Adamson was at Burg el Arab about 20 km behind the battle lines, and where both the reconnaissance elements and the HQ of the Desert Air Force were based. On the night of 23 October, he recalled seeing the massive artillery barrage of a 1,000 field guns light up the night sky for four hours. he must have hoped that many of his friends from Dunfermline, now serving with 7 Black Watch, part of 51st Highland Division, would come through unscathed. Not all did.

Barrage at El Alamein 23 October 1942

The Battle of El Alamein is usually divided into five phases, consisting of the break-in (23–24 October), the crumbling (24–25 October), the counter (26–28 October), Operation Supercharge (1–2 November) and the break-out (3–7 November). Churchill said: “It may almost be said, “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat”.

The Allies frequently had numerical superiority in the Western Desert but never had it been so complete in quantity and quality. With the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies gained a comprehensive superiority. Montgomery envisioned the battle as an attrition operation, similar to those fought in World War I and correctly predicted the length of the battle and the number of Allied casualties. Allied artillery was superbly handled and Allied air support was excellent, in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica.  which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. Air supremacy had a huge effect on the battle and not only because of its physical impact. As Montgomery later wrote, “The moral effect of air action [on the enemy] is very great and out of all proportion to the material damage inflicted. In the reverse direction, the sight and sound of our own air forces operating against the enemy have an equally satisfactory effect on our own troops. A combination of the two has a profound influence on the most important single factor in war—morale”.

So what was Adamson and his pals doing in the aftermath of Alamein?

By the evening of 10 November the New Zealand Division, heading for Sollum, had 4th Light Armoured Brigade at the foot of the Halfya Pass while 7th Armoured Division was conducting another detour to the south aiming to swing round and take Fort Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz. On the morning of 11 November, 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade stormed the pass taking 600 Italian prisoners.

By the end of the day on the 11th, the Egyptian border area was clear, but Montgomery was forced to order that the pursuit should—for the time being—be continued by armoured cars and artillery only because of the difficulty in supplying larger formations west of Bardia until the supply infrastructure could catch up.

John Adamson celebrated his 21st Birthday on 13 November 1942. On that morning he was making the tea from a jerrycan in the desert at Sollum, on the Libya/Egypt border.  He was about a day behind the advanced elements of 8th Army.

Adamson and his distinctive hair in the middle, in shadow. It is marked on the reverse of the small photograph which is considerably enlarged “Sollum, 21st Birthday”.  Looks like a conventional RAF truck rather than a radio van behind them.


Rommel conducted a text-book retreat, destroying all equipment and infrastructure left behind and peppering the land behind him with mines and booby traps. Eighth Army reached Sirte on 25 December but west of Sirte, were forced to pause to consolidate their strung out formations, to prepare an attack at Wadi Zemzem near Buerat 230 mi (370 km) east of Tripoli. Rommel had, with the agreement of Field Marshal Bastico, sent a request to the Italian Comando Supremo in Rome to withdraw to Tunisia where the terrain would better suit a defensive action and where he could link with the Axis army forming there, in response to the Operation Torch landings. Mussolini replied on 19 December that thePanzer Army must resist to the last man at Buerat.

On 15 January 1943, General Montgomery launched the 51st (Highland) Division in a frontal attack while sending the 2nd New Zealand Division and the 7th Armoured Division around the inland flank of the Axis line. Weakened by the withdrawal of 21st Panzer Division to Tunisia to strengthen Von Armin’s Fifth Panzer Army (5. Panzerarmee), Rommel conducted a fighting retreat. The port of Tripoli, some 150 mi (240 km) further west, was taken on 23 January as Rommel continued to withdraw to the French-built southern defences of Tunisia, the Mareth Line .

Caption on rear of photograph: “Phil, Reg, Myself, with George in front”.

In this period, the radio operators of 285 Wing and Western Desert Air Force HQ were taking their lorries and armoured cars south and west into the desert in order to better pick-up the radio information from the aircraft. On one occasion, a radio van broke down in the desert and they had to be found and towed back by the Long Range Desert Group.  It was apparently quite an embarrassing experience with the jokes very much at the expense of the RAF. On another occasion, Adamson was avoiding the direct sunshine as usual, having red-hair and very pale skin, by reading a newspaper under an armoured car when the camp was attacked by enemy aircraft. His friend was sunbathing on the upper plates of the armoured car, and he was killed.

The sense of being a long way from home was a recurrent theme. There was no prospect of home leave (or indeed any leave for months at a time), and the grim realisation settled in that it would likely be years before they saw their families again.

Cartoon ‘The Two Types’ by Jon for 8th Army Times


Rommel was by this time in contact with von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army, which had been fighting against the multi-national British First Army in northern Tunisia, since shortly after Operation Torch the previous autumn. Hitler was determined to retain hold of Tunisia and Rommel finally started to receive replacement men and materials. The Axis now faced a war in Africa on two fronts with Eighth Army approaching from the east and the British, French and Americans from the west. Rommel’s German-Italian Panzer Army was renamed the Italian First Army under General Giovanni Messe and Rommel assumed command of the new Army Group Africa, responsible for both fronts. The two Allied armies were placed under 18th Army Group with Harold Alexander in command. The failure of British First Army forces in the run for Tunis in December 1942 led to a prolongation of the North African campaign which would not end until the Italian-German forces in North Africa capitulated in May 1943. On 16 March 1943, John Adamson was transferred from RAF HQ Western Desert to its reconnaissance wing, 285 Wing. He was to remain with 285 Wing through to the end of the war. He was not attached to a squadron, and so was in the HQ cadre of 285 Wing. He was also re-classified to Aircraftsman 1, having passed an exam with 70.5%, and being deemed to be of ‘satisfactory’ proficiency.

It was at this point that John Adamson encountered our American allies for the first time. He was impressed. Invited because of 285 Wing reconnaissance work and expertise (he had been in the desert for about a year at this time), there was a trip to a US airfield, which had food and catering the Desert Air Force could only dream of. The Americans were new to combat against the Germans and both keen to learn and also generous hosts. The gift of a drum of peanut butter (then unknown in Britain) gave him one of the worst stomach aches ever, but the thought was a kindly one.

At this point, the focus turned to preparation for the invasion of Sicily, but in the meantime, sport formed a big part of everyone’s week. For Adamson, this was a chance to show his football skills. He was a centre-half like his cousin, Matt Hoggan of Raith Rovers, and was capable of playing at a high level.

Captioned on rear “The RAF football team, Tunis”.

Tunis would be the jumping-off point for an invasion of the soft under-belly of Europe — Italy.


The allied landings in Sicily (Operation Husky) saw 285 Wing, Desert Air Force, provide tactical reconnaissance. The Wing then comprised 225 Squadron RAF (Wing Commander Millington), 40 Squadron SAAF (Lt-Col Nel), a flight of Photographic Reconnaissance Spitfires, No 3 Mobile Field Photographic Section and an Army and RAF Photographic Interpretation Unit. The Wing HQ, was split between Operations (including Army/Air Liaison (Major Ludgater) and also Intelligence (Fl-Lt Ormiston)) and Administration (which included Fl-Lt Wilson – adjutant; Fl-Lt Gourlay Cipher Officer Fl-Lt Godfrey – Mechanical Transport Officer; Fl-Lt Beveridge – Equipment Officer and Fl-Lt Hart – Signals Officer). This is known because the commander of the wing, Group Captain Walter Butler was killed in an unfortunate accident when an American Warhawk aircraft swung off the airstrip and crashed into Butler’s hurricane. The new commander was G. Millington, promoted from 225 Squadron, and he subsequently wrote a book about the operations of 285 Wing in Italy. This was published in 1961 ‘The Unseen Eye’, which went into paperback in 1965.

For Adamson, Sicily was a very welcome change from North Africa. The country was farmed on a European model, with a lack of sand, and attractive lemon and orange groves. As someone who had studied Latin for 6 years at Dunfermline High, the language was accessible, and the classical remains interesting and impressive. he began to learn Italian and in due course became fluent in it.


This change for the better was about to alter very rapidly because John Adamson was in an advanced party assigned to the Salerno landings, which made the seaborne crossing to Salerno in advance of the aircraft from the Wing.  This was a group of younger, single men, led by Flight-Sergeant Gregory. Their job was to prepare an airstrip, at a place called Asa, in the northern part of the beach-head for the arrival of tactical reconnaissance Spitfires.

British troops land at Salerno, September 1943

At Salerno, on 9 September, the decision had been taken to assault without previous naval or aerial bombardment, in order to secure surprise. Tactical surprise was not achieved, as the naval commanders had predicted. As the first wave of troops of the US 36th Division approached the shore at Paestum a loudspeaker from the landing area proclaimed in English, “Come on in and give up. We have you covered.” The troops attacked nonetheless.

The Germans had established artillery and machine-gun posts and scattered tanks through the landing zones which made progress difficult, but the beach areas were successfully taken. Around 0700, on 9 September, a concerted counterattack was made by the 16th Panzer division. It caused heavy casualties, but was beaten off with naval gunfire support. Both the British and the Americans made slow progress, and still had a 10 mile gap between them at the end of day one. They linked up by the end of day two and occupied 35-45 miles of coast line to a depth of six or seven miles.

During September 12-14 the Germans organized a concerted counterattack with six divisions of motorised troops, hoping to throw the Salerno beachhead into the sea before it could link with the British 8th Army. Heavy casualties were inflicted, as the Allied troops were too thinly spread to be able to resist concentrated attacks. The outermost troops were therefore withdrawn in order to reduce the perimeter. The new perimeter was held with the assistance from paratroopers, from strong naval gunfire support, and from well-served Fifth Army artillery. The German attacks reached almost to the beaches but ultimately failed. It had been a close run thing.

Millington reports it thus: “On the evening of 15 September 1943, I led one flight of 225 squadron to Asa, and we arrived there just before sunset………as I levelled out for what ought to have been a smooth landing, there was a sudden bang and a jolt from the aircraft, and it slewed round on its belly, and ended up on the opposite side of the airfield. When I got out I was greeted by Flight-Sergeant Gregory, who had landed a few days earlier with the advance party. He thought I had been struck by a shell from a German heavy calibre gun that had been attempting to hit ships in the convoy lying close to the shore, but whose shells were straddling the airfield. On closer inspection I found that the Sappers who had cleared the air-field had laid neat piles of bricks towards the edge of the landing strip, prior to marking its width. My port wheel had struck one of these just before touching down………..Having dispersed our Spitfires and secured them for the night, I had a chat with Flight-Sergeant Gregory to find out how the advanced party had fared during their sea crossing to Salerno. He gave me a very lurid description of the landings, and some of the sights that I was to witness later confirmed Gregory’s descriptions. ”

My father said very little about it other than it was a grim time, and a lot of people got hurt. I do recall him saying that he was there with the signal section, and when they got handed rifles (presumably around the 12th), he knew that things were going badly wrong. When they got to the airstrip, there were quite a few bodies to be buried — both German paratroops and British. Millington says this “Several British dead of 10 Corps were still lying in ditches waiting to be buried, and of course the stench, aggravated by the heat of the day was enough to turn the best of stomachs….. Never had we we worked quite so closely with the gunners in the field of battle, nor had we been so far forward as to operate from an airfield that was within shelling distance of German medium artillery. When we arrived at the camp-site, shells were whistling to and fro…….adjacent to our camp-site was a troop of medium artillery blasting away at the Germans, and those of us who had studied the behaviour of artillery duels soon realized that if counter-battery fire were to commence, the camp-site was going to be a far from restful place; in fact I ordered all ranks to dig slit trenches and sleep in them….. We were warned by 10 Corps HQ, who were only a few hundred yards away to watch out for enemy infiltration at night; so guards had to be very alert.” Presumably these RAF guards included a very nervous young Adamson.

British Army signal troops take cover from German shells — Salerno, September 1943; RAF colleagues probably doing likewise at the Asa airstrip

Millington comments about the point of having tactical reconnaissance aircraft in the bridgehead, “Now the planes were based at Asa, next to Corps HQ, the results of our reconnaissance missions were flashed through so that that instead of receiving stale news, the Army was now being supplied with ‘red-hot’ stop-press news upon which they could take action at once.” Millington further noted that it became apparent that the bridgehead would not be expanding until the Germans were forced to retire with the advance of 8th Army from the Straits of Messina. Contact was effectively in place between the two arms of the Allied armies by the 20th of September, and following a rising of the Italian people in Naples on 1 October, the Germans fell back to the Volturno River north of Naples by 6 October 1943.


It was presumably not long after the withdrawal of the Germans to the Volturno line in October 1943, that John Adamson had a short spell in the signals section at a British HQ, which had re-located to Sorrento. Around about 1970, we stayed in the building which was in the centre of Sorrento, and a hotel. I can recall Dad saying that he had been sleeping in the attics. So in 1998 I decided to try and find the hotel and after some research booked us into the Grand Hotel Vittoria, which is perhaps the grandest hotel in Sorrento, with a driveway from the Piazza Tasso to the top of the cliffs. It dates from 1834 and has a rich history littered with famous guests. Unfortunately John Adamson, even in the attics, wasn’t one of them. I got friendly with the head waiter and asked him about the history of the hotel in the war. He told me that the hotel had become the Headquarters of the American forces in 1943. ‘Not the British?’ I said. ‘No’ he said’ they took over that hotel over there’ — a considerably less imposing building on the other side of the road which drops down to the harbour at Sorrento. The Americans undoubtedly bagged the best place.


John Adamson then rejoined 285 Wing HQ on the Adriatic coast, where there was a complex of former Italian airfields around Foggia. Whilst part of 225 Squadron remained on the west coast, most of the Wing (40 (SAAF) Squadron, 682 Squadron — air photographic flight, and the remained of 225 Squadron )were together on the east coast. Foggia was however crowded, and some distance from Desert Air Force and 8th Army Headquarters at Vasto. As the tactical air reconnaissance resource, the wing was built a new airstrip next to the beach, just south of Vasto, in November 1943. This was constructed with Pierced Steel Plate on top of a hard sandy surface. It was an all weather airstrip, and was just north of the River Trigno. The wing and squadron camp-sites were amongst the sand-dunes. This was the time just before, during and after the Battle of the River Sangro, just to the north., and the Wing had particularly an interest in German communication centres at Pescara and Chieti.

Captioned on rear: “Phil and I, Italy, January 1944”. This shows the Headquarters tents of 285 Wing at Vasto.

Air Commodore Millington explains on Page 112 of his book, ‘The Unseen Eye’ what precisely the signal section of 285 Wing did. “To make things even simpler, and to speed up on the registration of the enemy guns, each Army Group Royal Artillery (A.G.R.A.) was allotted three or four RAF Arty/R. cars as we termed them. These vehicles were simply armoured cars equipped with Very High Frequency (VHF) wireless sets for communication between the gun positions and the aircraft conducting the shoot, and another wireless set to to enable the crew of the car to maintain touch with Wing Headquarters back at Vasto. The crew consisted of two RAF signallers and a driver, and their services were invaluable throughout the campaign. When they were deployed forward the RAF crews were fed and accommodated by the Artillery regiments they were serving, and they were visited frequently by my Signals Officer — Flight-Lieutenant Hart — who soon acquired the nickname of ‘Dicer’ on account of the number of occasions he just missed being shelled during his numerous visits to the front line! The cars were serviced at Wing Headquarters and sent forward as required by the A.G.R.A.s.”

At this time in Italy, there were five A,G.R.A.s. They were 1, 2, 6, 7 and 10 A.G.R.A.s. John Adamson’s war in Italy was spent either in the above mentioned armoured cars supporting these A.G.R.A.s or otherwise at 285 Wing Headquarters. As 285 Wing had tactical reconnaissance squadrons on both the west and east coasts of Italy throughout the campaign, Adamson’s travels in Italy were probably as widespread as any.

Christmas 1943 was spent on the sand dunes at Vasto. It was possible to send a Christmas message home, although this was micro-filmed and then printed in the UK to save weight.

Christmas card 1943 to parents, John and Elizabeth Adamson (Johnnie and Liz).

From this, we can see that the parental home continued to be 17 Fod Street, Halbeath, Dunfermline, Fifeshire. No post codes then! John Adamson was still an Aircraftsman — he was to take the exam for promotion to Leading Aircraftsman in January.  The card is from 285 Wing, Desert Air Force, RAF Middle East and features minarets and an Arabic flavour, with a fly through by RAF aircraft — far removed from the landscape of the Adriatic coast. It went through a censor. The message strikes a slightly wistful tone: “To Mum and Dad, Wishing you a Merry Christmas, and all the best in the New Year. May next year bring us all together again. From Jack”.


Headquarters of 285 Wing was based at Vasto until late May 1944. However 225 squadron operated in support of 5th Army from an airfield at Lago on the coast, a few miles north of Naples. From there they carried out tactical reconnaissance over the Anzio beach-head as well as in the Cassino and Frosinone areas. They were joined in March 1944 by 40 Squadron (S.A.A.F.) on the west coast of Italy, flying out of Macianise airfield near Caserta, as the balance swung from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean coasts, with transfers of troops from 8th Army to 5th Army. This was prior to the taking of Monte Cassino, which had stalled the advance for nearly 6 months, and the consequent eventual break-out from the Anzio beach-head.  The airfields at Vasto, on the River Trigno, were now manned by reinforcements for the Wing, being 318 (Polish) Squadron, and in April they were joined by 208 Squadron.

In this period, as regards what John Adamson was doing I can only rely on fragmentary conversations with my father.  He was both at 285 Wing Headquarters at Vasto for some of the time, and also in RAF armoured cars in support of the heavy gunners of the A.G.R.A.s in the 5th Army area.  I know that he was some miles behind the front-line at Monte Cassino for some time, and also at Anzio for several weeks, in March or April when the desperate  fighting  of January and February had ceased, but the beach-head was still subject to constant shelling from the Germans to contain the Allies. In about 1970, I recall driving past Monte Cassino on the way from Rome to Sorrento, and him looking at the re-built Abbey for a long time from a service station car-park. When I asked him had be been there, he said ‘”no, not there, a few miles south”. Based on what I know now, I think he must have been near the heavy guns of the Royal Artillery regiments, who were pulverizing the Cassino position, based on air reconnaissance from the squadrons of 285 Wing in the vicinity — which would have been 225 and 40 (S.A.A.F.) squadrons.  Precisely when in late 1943 and early 1944 this was, I cannot say.

As regards , Anzio, I think this was just a turn of duty undertaken by the 285 Wing signallers. Strangely, I think he with the American, rather than British artillery there, and he did joke this was because of the rather better American food.  He mentioned that the gun lines were not far off the beach, and the area was under regular shell-fire, such that everyone slept in slit trenches, and it was pretty stressful over time.

Image result for anzio photographs

American beach-head at Anzio, including hospital

Air Commodore Millington says in his book, “The Air Plan for Cassino as far as 285 Wing was concerned, was that a small reconnaissance element, headed by Donald Perrens, my Squadron Leader Operations, would co-ordinate the reconnaissance effort supporting 8th Army opposite Cassino and the Liri Valley. Donald worked alongside David Haysom, who in turn headed the detached elements of Desert Air Force Headquarters. Nos. 208 and 40(S.A.A.F.) Squadrons  were based in early May 1944 at a newly-constructed airstrip at San Angelo, a few miles to the south-east of Cassino. No 318 (Polish) Squadron was to continue on the east coast throughout the allied advance in Italy. During the few weeks before the main offensive against the Gustav Line commenced the Germans massed  a very formidable array of artillery, and it was all that the reconnaissance and fighter-bomber aircraft could do to keep them quiet”.

Millington then explains how 285 Wing helped to break the log-jam at Cassino. “We evolved a new system of dealing with the enemy artillery. From the aerial photographs taken by P.R. (photographic reconnaissance) aircraft over the battlefield, we were able to divide the enemy gun positions into areas, e.g. Area A, Area B, etc. Once the central point of each area had been registered by a troop of four guns the whole of a Division’s artillery could be brought to bear on that Area if required. Therefore, once each area had been established, and its central point registered by our guns, dealing with an active gun area became a simple task for fighter reconnaissance and fighter bomber aeroplanes. When an artillery reconnaissance mission was airborne over the battle field, all the pilots had to say over the R/T to our own formation was: ‘Area A Active”, and await the devastating fire of our divisional artillery. [It was the job of the 285 Wing signallers to make sure that these messages got through to the divisional artillery.] Meanwhile,fighter-bombers on ‘cab rank’ would attack other areas, so that by a carefully co-ordinated plan, using both guns and bombs, the enemy artillery was pounded incessantly throughout the hours of daylight”.

Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino, May 1944

Millington describes the end of the Battles for Cassino thus: “At 11 pm [on 11 May] the big attack was launched. Some 1,000 guns in 8th Army and 600 guns in 5th Army opened up with an intensive barrage……During the early morning of 12th May the gallant Poles managed to surround and attack Monastery Hill, whilst other formations of 8th Army broke through in the Liri Valley……….Then just as if the waste plug had been pulled out of a large swimming bath, the Germans cracked and the hitherto almost impregnable Gustav Line crumbled. ……”.

Once the big advance on Rome started, sappers prepared a new airstrip at Aquino where the Headquarters of 285 Wing moved , together with 208 and 40 (S.A.A.F.) Squadrons.  Aquino is west of Highway 6 and close to Monastery Hill at Cassino. It is a fair bet that Adamson was in this position in mid-May 1944. 318 (Polish) Squadron remained on the Adriatic coast at Vasto, whilst 225 Squadron moved up to the Anzio beach-head to an airstrip at Tre Cancelli.

Keeping up with the advance on Rome, the Wing moved next to an airfield five miles to the east of Rome at Osa, and thence to another airfield at Falerium which is half way between Rome and Orvieto. After fighting around Lake Trasimeno, the wing moved on to an airfield at Castiglione on the west side of the lake.


On 1 August 1944, 285 Wing moved forward once more to a small airfield at Malignano, near to Siena. This was the base from which they would operate over the western sector of the Gothic Line. The Gothic Line was a major German defensive line, which had been pre-prepared. It stretched across Italy from the coast near Pisa, through the Apennines overlooking Florence and thence to the east coast a few miles north of Ancona at Pesaro. As it happens, 1 August 1944 was also the day that John Adamson was promoted to Leading Aircraftman (LAC), having passed a proficiency test with 89% according to his records.

It must have been in August 1944 that John Adamson got a week’s leave in Siena. Nearly thirty years later, I was in Siena with him. He recounted the story of a week’s leave in the old city, where he was lodged with a family with a particularly attractive girl. I wasn’t encouraged to follow up the conversation in any detail, but there was definitely a girl.

Cartoon from ‘Two Types’ by Jon, for the 8th Army Times.

From there 285 Wing moved 208 Squadron, in support of 5th Army, on the western side of Italy forward again to Peretola airfield, outside Florence on September 27. However before then, the balance of the Wing (40 and 318 Squadrons) moved back to the Adriatic coast to support the major assault on the Gothic line being made by 8th Army.  This was on 24/25 August 1944.  The airstrips were at Chiara Valee, Piagiolino, Cassandro, Rimini and finally Bellaria, right on the coast — five miles north of Rimini. The fighting had been bitter as the 8th Army slowly made progress against the heavily dug in Germans in the eastern sector of the Gothic line, who were defending a series of hill tops , and a narrow coastal plain.

John Adamson and the signallers of 285 Wing were out in their armoured cars, working with the Royal Artillery AGRAs (Army Group Royal Artillery) as described earlier. In 1971, we were in holiday in San Marino which was part of the Gothic line. There was a battery of German field guns to the side of a square, and my father thoughtfully looked at these. Then he told me the story of how a few miles to the south, his armoured car had pulled up at an abandoned one-room school house in a valley. They got out and set up their maps on a table in the only room. They were waiting to receive messages from the tactical reconnaissance Spitfires of the Wing, prior to passing those messages back to the Royal Artillery and Wing HQ. They went out for a cigarette. Suddenly there was a whoosh, and the roof of the school disappeared in dust. It has been a direct hit from a German shell, but it was a dud. They went back to the door, and there was a hole in the floor. The shell had failed to explode. Pretty rapidly they got back in the armoured car and moved, lest other shells followed.

If they couldn’t get a decent signal in the terrain which was tall hills and narrow valleys, they took the radio sets up hills to get a better signal, This was hard work as the radio sets of the day were pretty bulky and heavy. They were also prone to easy breakage with their valves.

In October, Adamson was certainly back in Florence, where 225 and 208 squadrons were based.  We stayed there a number of times in the 1970s. One one occasion, they drove from the Peretola airstrip into Florence on a ‘jolly’ in an RAF jeep. When they got into Florence, they got mixed up at the back of a big crowd. Eventually they found what was the hold up. The local Partisans had lynched Fascist sympathizers.  There was nothing that could be done or said. They just went back to the base.


Gradually the attack of 8th Army lost momentum, and eventually ground to a halt on the banks of the River Senio, near Faenza. The crossing of the River Po would have to be delayed until Spring 1945. Similarly in the west, the front ground to a halt in the hills between Florence and Bologna. The emphasis and supplies were increasingly diverted by the Allies to the assault on the Rhine.

On 4 December, 285 Wing left Bellaria and moved to a complex of airfields at Forli, from where 40 (SAAF)  and 318 (Polish) Squadrons supported 8th Army.  208 and 225 Squadrons remained outside Florence in the service of 5th Army. The squadrons were to stay in place until early April 1945.

For John Adamson, football relieved some of the undoubted monotony. I recall football medals from that period, but sadly they have gone now. We do have a photograph of 285 Wing football team at Forli. I believe he played some games at the end of the war for the RAF in Italy, and was one of the few non professionals in the team.

285 Wing football team, This is painted on the football. Adamson’s distinctive red hair in the back row. He played centre half.


On 9 April, a massive air bombardment preceded the crossing of the River Seino by British, Polish and Canadian troops. They headed for the River Santerno. To the west, 5th Army burst through the Argenta Gap and headed west of Bologna. With that, a general German retreat to the Po crossings ensued. The RAF destroyed many of the bridges and ferries, and this helped to ensure that the further rapid German retreat towards Austria and the Alps was with very little heavy equipment. On May 8, with e remaining German forces near Klagenfurt and Villach in Austria, the war came to an end.

It was almost four years since Adamson had volunteered in Edinburgh, and he had been abroad with Desert Air Force of the RAF for over three.   He had traveled round Africa on a troop ship and served in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Italy. He had seen friends killed but never fired a shot in anger, Instead he had gone to war with a wireless set. He had been near or at Alam Halfa,  Alamein, the Mareth Line, Tunis, Sicily, the Salerno landings, Monte Cassino, Anzio and the Gothic Line. He had survived.


285 Wing finished the war on a grass airfield at Treviso, 20 miles north of Venice. This it shared with 244 Wing which was composed of four Spitfire squadrons.

Group Captain Millington commanded 285 Wing, and he had this to say about Venice. “Venice was in my estimation by far the most beautiful city I had visited, and I was quite determined to pay it several visits before leaving the country and I did!” This was a view shared by John Adamson and many of his pals. Adamson was given a few days leave at a hotel on Venice Lido, and the hotel pass for this and several photographs survive.

Pass for the hotel on Venice Lido. On the rear it shows that he could sign for free meals at the hotel (and did).

This is what the beach at the Lido looked like in 1945.

John Adamson and his mates at Venice Lido. Summer 1945.

It was actually here that Adamson got a poisoned toe, after a cut got infected. They saved his big toe, but the nail grew a curious husky yellow for the rest of his life.

St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, Summer 1945

John Adamson on one of the smaller canals in Venice, 1945

Somewhat battered photograph of the obligatory gondola. Summer 1945.

Later in May, the Wing moved up to a former German occupied aerodrome at Risano, which is just south of Udine.

On 28 May, there was a mass fly-past by the various wings of the Desert Air Force at Udine. Millington led 285 Wing in his Spitfire at the head of 225 Squadron, which he had once commanded.

Millington mentions that a 285 Wing Leave Camp was established at Cortina in the Alps. This small town is a ski resort and hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics. In World War 1, this area was still part of the Austrian Empire, and accordingly the populace  fought against Italy. It was incorporated into Italy in 1921 as part of South Tyrol. In the summer of 1945, many of the adult males were returning from fighting with the German armies. It is therefore not surprising, that an attempt by the RAF ‘to win friends and influence people’ badly misfired. A friendly football match was arranged between the town football team and 285 Wing was held at the sports stadium. The first corner of the game went to the Italians, and as the ball came over, the Italian centre-forward head-butted my father. This caused a cut, but he played on with a bandage wound round his head. Eventually the RAF won 3-2, and the spectators rioted and had to be cleared from the pitch by the military police at bayonet point. None of the townspeople turned up to the after match reception.

In August 1945, Adamson was transferred to 244 Wing, following the disbandment of of 285 Wing, with whom he had served pretty much since its formation in the Western Desert of North Africa. They were employed in various capacities trying to bring some order to immediate post-war Italy.


By December 1945, Adamson was at an airfield near Milan. He sent a Christmas Card home to Dunfermline and this still survives.

Desert Air Force Christmas Card 1945: at pains to show its movement from Egypt to the Alps.  Message of hope of a return from John Adamson to his parents (his name in the family was Jack, because his father had exactly the same christian and middle names : John McLaren. His father was known as Johnny).

The sentiments of the Christmas Card are reinforced in a short letter sent from a camp outside Milan in early January 1946.

The letter reads:

Jack 6/1

Dear Mum

Just a short note to let you know I’ve been held up at this camp in Milan and don’t think now I will be home until about 15th January.

I am looking forward terribly to seeing you again and am getting very inpatient about this hold-up. Oh how I wish this week would pass quickly so that I could be sitting amongst you by the old fireside again. We have a pretty terrible journey ahead of us, but it won’t be long.

Keep well and keep the only chin up.

Your ever loving son


(The reference to a terrible journey is presumably because he is to be flown home in one of the RAF transport planes over the Alps in Winter.)

Adamson’s records show that he was actually back in the 10 January 1945, and posted to 1383 Transport Conversion Unit at Crosby on Eden.

John Adamson’s service and release book from the RAF survives. This shows that he left Crosby on Eden on 17 June and went to Cardington, Bedfordshire, for dispersal. He was demobilized on 19 June 1946, and granted 100 days paid leave.  The book notes that he served in the RAF Volunteer Reserve from 3 June 1941 to 18 June 1946; a period of just over five years. his reference from the RAF reads:

A reliable and conscientious airman with a good knowledge of his trade. He is a willing worker and can be relied upon at all times. He has a quiet and considerate manner, a cheerful outlook and smart appearance. Recommended.


John Adamson returned home to Halbeath, Dunfermline. He had a reserved job in the Admiralty at Rosyth Dockyard to return to. There had been a mistake over tax from his pay during the war when he was abroad. He went to the Pay Section in the Dockyard to sort it out and met his wife to be, Sheila Thomson. They married in 1949.

John Adamson rose steadily through the grades of the Civil Service. He transferred to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, which became the Property Services Agency.  In 1981 he retired with the rank of Under Secretary, which is equivalent to an Air Vice-Marshal. That might have surprised some people in 1945.

He graduated with a BA in Mathematics in 1986.

He died in 1988.

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