Secret flight ends in the sea

Name: Bob Tregenza
Date: 1942-1945
Unit: 109 Squadron
Location: German POW camp, Stalag IVB

Flight Sergeant Bob Tregenza had to keep a secret for the three and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war.

The Wellington bomber in which he was flying was forced to ditch in the sea near the island of Rhodes on the night of 7 March 1942. He was subsequently captured by the Italians and later transferred to a German POW camp, Stalag IVB.

But he was actually on a top secret training exercise learning how to detect enemy radar equipment being installed in key positions in southern Europe and North Africa when the aircraft developed problems and the pilot was forced to ditch it.

Due to the secrecy of the mission it was necessary to jettison all the scientific gear in the aircraft to prevent it falling into enemy hands and giving the game away. The pilot, Sgt Mervyn Knowles, then deliberately ditched the aircraft in deep water to ensure it could not be salvaged.

Sgt Tregenza had been recruited to work as an observer on the special flights of 109 Squadron that was working with 257 Wing in the Middle East. He was being trained by Lt PTW Baker RNVR, a signals expert who had carried out many flights investigating enemy radar positions.

Because it was felt Baker should be more involved in analysing the information and was too valuable to risk on further such flights, he was training others to take his place. It was on Sgt Tregenza's first training fight that the aircraft was forced to ditch.

Baker's official report of the events related how the aircraft ditched. He said one of Tregenza's shoulders had been dislocated and when they entered the icy water their dinghy was jammed and unusable.

The crew was forced to swim ashore in full flying clothing, a task that took about 1 ½ hours, with Tregenza in agony.

When they finally reached the shore they found a welcoming party of Italian soldiers and were taken to a nearby guardhouse where they were stripped of their wet clothes and given a blanket each.

They were then transported by lorry to the local artillery HQ at Rodi and the injured were finally given treatment at the local hospital. None of the crew had realised until then that Tregenza's shoulder had been dislocated and that he had been in such pain.

Uppermost in their minds was the necessity to keep the truth of their mission from the Italians, particularly after it was found that a naval officer (Lt Baker) was among the crew. They managed to persuade the Italians that he had merely hitched an illegal ride on the flight to visit some friends.

Sgt Tregenza, mindful of the need to let the authorities know what had happened, consulted with Baker and eventually sent a cryptic postcard which advised of their capture, that they had jettisoned most of the equipment and that the aircraft had sunk in deep water.

It was this communication which helped keep Baker's identity safe. Lt Baker was eventually repatriated in the first exchange of prisoners through Turkey about a year after being captured and wrote his report of the incident, recommending Tregenza for a decoration.

Meanwhile Sgt Tregenza remained in captivity until the end of the war when he returned to civilian life and brought up six children, still unable to talk about his mission.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that Baker's report of events was released under the 30-year rule and Sgt Tregenza's role in maintaining secrecy against the odds was made public.

Details of these events are recounted in the book The Enemy is Listening by Aileen Clayton in 1980 (Hutchinson & Co).

The material for this article was supplied by Mr Trevor Tregenza of South Australia


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Secret flight ends in the sea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 January 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/secret-flight-ends-sea
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