Second Lt. Robert Frederick Elliott was born September 5, 1918 in Rich Square, North Carolina. Like many boys of his generation his interest in aviation was inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic. In the depression-stricken mid-1930’s he was able to talk his aunt, Olivia Hall, into paying for his flight lessons. In 1937 Elliott enlisted in the regular Army and went to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama for basic training.
While stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Elliott enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the Army Air Corps on July 29, 1940. Army enlistment records indicate Elliott only completed his high school education, although a letter from his aunt dated March 21, 1940 indicates that she helped to pay his current semester tuition at North Carolina State College in Raleigh, and a 1944 newspaper article stated that Elliott was a graduate of State College, Raleigh.
Elliott was sent to Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas for basic flight training and then went on to Kelly Field, near San Antonio, for advanced flight training. On March 14, 1941 he earned his wings and his commission as 2nd Lieutenant, graduating with the Class of 41B.
First CombatIn mid-September, while stationed at Atcham, the 49th FS participated in fighter sweep operations, codenamed “Wildflower,” along the Belgian/Dutch coast and flew several bomber escort missions to targets in France. No German aircraft were sighted during these missions.
They also honed their combat skills by working on tactics and gunnery, and learning what they could from experienced RAF pilots. As part of their training, squadron pilots were sent in groups to a base in Wales for a week of aerial gunnery practice. Lt. Elliott was sent with the second batch. It was during this time that Lt. Elliott had his accident in P-38F 41-7677.
Deployment to North Africa
At the end of October, the 14th FG departed Atcham and headed to North Africa to participate in Operation Torch. By mid-November both the ground detachment and the airplanes were at Tafaroui, North Africa. After a few days at Tafaroui, the squadron moved to Maison Blanche, near Algiers, where the first North African combat missions were flown on November 18. The squadron then moved to Youks-les-Baines, Algeria on November 22.
Shot Down in Tunisia
On November 27 Lt. Elliot and Lt. Arthur Cole, a pilot from the 48th FS, took off to attack an armored column that had been reported by intelligence. Upon arriving in the report area no targets were found, so the two diverted to Kasserine Pass. This pass was the main route into Tunis from the southwest so it was heavily fortified by the Germans. Arthur Cole described the strafing run into the pass like “walking down a bowling alley lane while every bowler in the house tried to throw a strike at you.” Lt. Elliott’s plane was hit, and though heavily damaged, managed to continue to fly. It soon became evident that they were not going to make it back to base before dark. This was a critical issue for two reasons: the lack of nighttime navigational aids in the region, and lack of runway lighting at their base. Lt. Cole suggested that they try to land on a dry lake and then both could fly out in his plane in the morning. Lt. Cole landed first, but his landing gear collapsed due to the rough surface. He radioed Lt. Elliott to land gear up, which he did safely. Both men were unhurt, but both airplanes were substantially damaged. The next morning they set their P-38s on fire, and with the help of friendly Arabs they returned to base. While on their trek back to base, they ran into a reporter who snapped their picture. This picture of Lt. Elliott and Lt. Cole obtaining directions from a native ran in several United States newspapers in early December.
Lt. Elliott was credited with damaging an Me 109 fighter airplane on December 3, while on a combat mission in his P-38. During his time in North Africa, Lt. Elliott was also credited with destroying an airplane on the ground and several locomotives.
On December 5 at 12:20 in the afternoon, six P-38 fighters from the 49th FS took off to escort nine A-20 bombers on a mission to bomb Bizerte Airdrome. The six P-38 pilots were Capt. Harold E. Lewis, Lt. Charles L. Earnhart, Lt. John P. Stief, Lt. Robert F. Elliott, Lt. Robert N. Carlton, and Lt. Russell F. Gustke.
During the last 10 miles to the target, the flight encountered intense flak, but it was on the flight out of the target that the Lightnings were attacked by 10 or 15 Luftwaffe Me 109 fighters. The attack occurred approximately 10 miles west of Bizerte Airdrome. The six P-38 fighters turned into the attack. Lt. Carlton and Lt. Gustke each claimed an Me 109, while Lt. Earnhart claimed two probables (unconfirmed downed Me 109s) and two damaged Me 109s.
The attack also took its toll on the six P-38s. Lt. Carlton was the only pilot of the six to return home unscathed. Lt. Earnhart crash-landed near Souk el Arba and returned to base uninjured. Lt. Gustke crash-landed in the desert and survived the landing. When he saw a group of Arabs approaching his airplane, he opened his parachute to release the silk as a distraction. While the Arabs fought over the silk, he escaped unnoticed. He made his way to a nearby residence and the friendly occupants helped him return to base.
Capt. Lewis, Lt. Stief, and Lt. Elliott all failed to return. Capt. Lewis was later confirmed killed in action by the Commanding Officer of Battery B 175th Field Artillery Battalion. Lt. Stief was also later confirmed killed in action by British Ambulance with the Royal Army Medical Corps. To this day, Lt. Elliott is still missing. No trace of his body or his airplane has ever been found. It is possible that his airplane went down in one of the lakes near Bizerte.
The book Fighters over Tunisia, by Christopher Shores, indicates that three P-38s were claimed shot down on December 5 by Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 51. The pilots were Hpt. Hartmann Grasser, Oblt. Hans Heydrich, and Lt. Ralph Furch.
However, Jagdeschwader 53 – A History of the “Pik As” Geschwader May 1942 – January 1944 by Jochen Prien indicates that the pilots of Jagdgeschwader (JG) 53 are likely the opponents that the 49th FS fought that day. The list of victories for JG 53 show seven P-38s were shot down on December 5. The pilots who claimed those victories were:
The above five victories were claimed between 13:22 and 13:34 hours. While no locations are given in the records, this is roughly the same time that the 49th FS was engaged in combat. When considering the victory tallies listed above, it is obvious that the 49th FS pilots were fighting experienced Luftwaffe combat veterans.
Lt. Franz Schiess of JG 53 (Stab – HQ) shot down the other two P-38s that day, but those victories were claimed two hours after the first five, so they were likely downed during a different engagement.
Bob Elliott’s family did not learn that he was missing until the following February, more than two months after the attack.
At the end of January, 1943, many of the 49th FG’s combat-weary pilots were rotated back home to the United States. One of those pilots visited the Elliott’s residence and told them of the fateful action that took place on December 5, 1942. This visit helped the family accept Elliott’s fate when his status was changed from “missing” to “killed” on December 6, 1943.
On February 19, 1944 Lt. Elliott’s father, Bonus M. Elliott, received Lt. Elliott’s posthumously awarded Air Medal from Brigadier General Francis M. Brady.
Today, Robert F. Elliot is memorialized at the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.