The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1 of Trail 41 – The Borders, we return to Charterhall in the beginning of 1943.

During the Battle of Britain many pilots suffered from burns in aircraft fires and crashes. The famous ‘Guinea Pig club’ became synonymous with those men who underwent experimental techniques in reconstructive skin work carried out by of Archibald McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead in Sussex. Some of these men wrote about their experiences, and one, Flight Lieutenant Richard Hillary, sadly lost his life at Charterhall.

Hillary arrived here in November 1942 – after two long years of surgery and hospitalisation. Writing about his experiences in ‘The Last Enemy‘ he opted for night fighter training and was posted to Charterhall. Still disfigured, he had virtually no experience in night flying and none on twin-engined aircraft.

RAF Charterhall

One of two remaining hangars.

The controls of the Blenheim were awkward and difficult to use at the best of times, Hillary, with his disfigured hands, found the Blenheim I more so and often needed help with the undercarriage. Cockpit lighting was another issue experienced by crews, even in later models instrument panels were difficult to read in the dark and this led to several pilots making errors when reading the various dials and gauges. Hillary found this a further challenge, with damaged eyelids his night sight was ‘impaired’ and on January 8th 1943, his aircraft, Blenheim V BA194, struck the ground killing both him and his Radio Operator Flight Sgt. K.W. Fison. The cause of the crash is unclear, whether Hillary’s condition added to the accident is not known, and it is generally thought to be as a result of icing due to the thick, cold Scottish fog. Whatever the cause, it ended the life of two very brave young men, one of whom had fought long and hard to survive in some of the harshest of times.*2

In April 1943 Beauforts began arriving to replace the ageing and very much outdated Blenheim Is. It was also in this month that responsibility of the O.T.Us passed over to 9 Group, and there were now fourteen operational units countrywide. Monthly ‘processing’ of new crews would be increased to an intake of 40 all undertaking a 12 week course before finally being posted to operational squadrons.

The summer of 1943 saw a rapid increase in accidents. Some of these occurred on the ground as well as whilst flying. On June 14th a tragic accident occurred when a Beaufighter piloted by Sgt. Wilkie, swung on take off colliding with another aircraft being refueled. The Bowser exploded in the accident destroying both aircraft and killing two ground staff: Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Francis P. Matthews and Leading Aircraftman George Lotherington.*3

A further incident, also caused by a Beaufighter swinging on take off, caused the first July fatality, when the aircraft hit both a blister hangar and a taxiing Beaufort. The two collisions wrote off the Beaufighter and severely damaged the Beaufort. The pilot of the Beaufighter,  Flight Sgt. W. Andrew (s/n 415280) aged just 21, was killed in the incident.

July was a milestone for 54 O.T.U in that it was the first time that 3,000 flying hours had been exceeded of which 894 had been carried out at night at a cost of 20 accidents – such was the demand for trained operational crews.

During September, new MK VI Beaufighters began to arrive. These were passed directly to Winfield and ‘C’ squadron after delivery and inspection at Charterhall. Even though they were ‘factory new’, they did not prevent further accidents nor deaths occurring. By the end of 1943, 54 O.T.U had amassed 28,940 hours flying time of which 7,012 were at night. A huge total that had enabled the RAF to pass the equivalent of 12 operational squadron crews but it had also taken a serious loss of life.

In January 1944 the unit strength was up to ninety-six aircraft, flying continued where the inclement weather allowed, and the year would start off with no serious accidents or deaths – a welcome break; but 1944 would eventually prove to be Charterhall’s worst year.

May brought a new focus for the trainees when it was decided to make  54 O.T.U operational in support of the impending invasion. Operating in the night fighter role, they were called out on to intercept German aircraft roaming over the north-east of England and southern Scotland. Unfortunately, whilst intruders were detected, no contacts were made during these operations, primarily due to the intruders flying too low for the GCI to pick them up; but it did give some purpose to the heavy losses that were being incurred.

At this time a new aircraft began appearing in ‘C’ Squadron, a model that gave new hope and determination to the crews – the incredible, D.H. Mosquito. By the war’s end, 54 O.T.U. would have used eight different variants of the Mosquito.

The initial batch of two were located at Winfield, rather disappointing perhaps for those at Charterhall, but they were not to be  devoid of their own special breed of aircraft.

The final part of our visit to RAF Charterhall will follow soon, the end of the war is in sight and so starts a new era for RAF Charterhall…

Sources and further reading

*News report on Hillary in ‘The Scotsman‘ Newspaper, 11th November 2001

*3 Commonwealth War Graves Commission website accessed 29/4/17

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8 thoughts on “The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 2)

  1. You have to admire men like Hillary who pushed through their injuries to continue the fight. True heroes in every sense. Just a tragedy that he would be lost like that. There were a lot of tragedies in this post.

    I do have a special thing for the Beaufort. It was one of the first WWII types I became familiar with after seeing a drawing of one of the aircraft that attacked the Scharnhorst and Gneisanau.

    Great write up as always, Andy. Start working on that book mate and send me a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is an almost unbelievable accident rate at R.A.F. Charterhall. I can’ understand that it would be an occupational hazard having so many aircraft using the site, but even so, the accident count does seem unusually high. Was this the norm Andy? Another problem, is the necessity of using aircraft in a role that they were clearly not suited for. Like the example of the Blenheim I being used in the nightfighter role, despite the obvious limitation of having poor instrument lighting. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the crews that took these aircraft into combat, especially the likes of Richard Hillary who had already suffered in combat, and yet, continued to fly and fight. Thank you for bringing his story to light Andy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly was a very high number Rich. I don’t have specific figures but I can imagine many of the OTUs did have similar problems. However, it may have been exaggerated here at Charterhall by a number of factors: 1) old aircraft – many perhaps having been in.combat previously or with high hours on the airframes. 2) an inexperience in twin engines aircraft – the number of a/c ‘swinging’ or incurring other ground accidents is quite high. Many pilots came in after training on, or flying in, single engined aircraft. 3) weather – the good old Scottish weather played a factor in quite a few, icing and cloud being mentioned on more than one occasion. Whilst these accidents were quite high, the number of crews going through and the number of hours flown were substantial. As we see in part three, it was somewhere in the region of 92,000 hours, that equates to something like 2 or 3 a/c in the air for the whole of the time the staton was operational – quite a feat I’m sure you’ll agree! Richard Hillary represented perhaps, the epitome of fighter pilots of the time. A dedication to duty that went beyond all expectations. One that ultimately led to his death. Thanks for you comments as always Rich it’s a fascinating place.

      Liked by 1 person

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