RAF Waterbeach – Stirlings to Lancasters (Part 2).

In Part 1 we saw how Waterbeach was built. How the Conversion Units were created in response to the demands of Bomber Command and how crews were being  trained in old and war weary aircraft. In this next part we see how the station transitioned from the Stirling to the Lancaster and how Waterbeach’s squadrons fared with the aerial war.

Training exercises in old and worn aircraft were often the cause of mishaps, accidents and tragedies, and as was seen in other training squadrons, the casualty rates were sometimes high. One of the first accidents for 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) at Waterbeach was caused by a malfunction in the extractor controls of N3642 which was being flown solo at the time by Sgt. K. Richards. The damage to the aircraft was so severe that it was downgraded being used as an instructional airframe only. Thankfully Sgt. Richards was unhurt in the incident and went on to fly with a new operational squadron later on.

Several more incidents in the following months led to further badly damaged aircraft, but the first fatalities came on the evening of June 16th 1942 when Stirling N6088 ‘LS-X’ flown by 24-year-old New Zealander F/O. Milan Scansie (s/n: 411491) was seen to fall from the sky over Nottingham with its port wing in flames and parts falling away. The entire crew died as a result of the accident, the cause of which has not yet been verified. The Stirling they were flying, was a veteran of European Operations, it had flown for nearly 250 hours and in twenty-two operational sorties, a remarkable achievement for a Stirling!

Bombing-up a Stirling of No 1651 CU/HCU  Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, 30 April 1942.© IWM (CH 5474)

Gaining operational experience was one of the most valuable tasks the trainee crews could undertake, and there was no ‘softly, softly’ approaches for the Conversion Units. The first 1,000 bomber raid to Cologne required every available aircraft and the Conversion Units were called upon to provide some of these aircraft.  In June 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the first operational aircraft casualty would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. Another factor that made this loss so great was the fact that not only did all seven crewmen lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had international caps for the England rugby team.

Born in 1909, Booth is one of sixteen boys from the Malsis School, who is commemorated on the Chapel’s stained glass window. After playing his debut match against Wales, his career ended in a game against Scotland at Murrayfield. In-between these games he achieved seven international caps for England scoring three tries.

The following July and August were to see the start of a catalogue of accidents and operational losses that would reflect not only the poor quality of the machines that trainees were expected to fly, but the disadvantages that the Stirling became famous for. The night of July 28th/29th being one of the worst with the loss of four aircraft in a mission to Hamburg, followed on the 30th by a further loss of an aircraft whilst on a training flight. In two nights alone, twenty-four airmen had lost their lives with a further one being injured and four taken prisoner.

Waterbeach would prove to be a safe haven again on the night of August 10th/11th 1942, when aircraft sent to drop SOE troops at zones ‘Giles‘ and ‘John‘ found their home base at Fairford fog-bound. Spread far and wide the sight of Waterbeach’s runway must have been a very welcome sight indeed.

In the early days of October 1942, on the 7th, the two flights, 214 and 15 Squadron Conversion Flights were amalgamated fully into 1651 Conversion Unit raising the number of personnel to over 1,000. This change would mean that 1651 would now be designated 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) allowing for the first time, flight engineers and second air gunners to join the crews. Training would then continue, some of it for only a matter of a few weeks, as would more losses.

Whilst the transition between Conversion and Heavy Conversion Unit went smoothly, the 2nd and 18th saw two more training accidents. Whilst both incidents only involved one crewman – the pilot – both accidents involved the aircraft developing a swing that became uncontrollable – the resultant crash leaving both aircraft severely damaged.

1942 turned to 1943, and by the end of the year 1651 HCU would eventually depart Waterbeach. With a further small number of training accidents, some due to the aircraft swinging, some due to mechanical failures, others were due to forces outside of the control of Waterbeach crews.

On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, a Lancaster from 97 Squadron from RAF Bourn was diverted to land at Waterbeach. On landing, the aircraft overshot the runway colliding with Stirling MK.I  (BF393), wrecking both aircraft. Of the seven aircrew in the Lancaster, the pilot Sgt. Anthony Reilly (s/n: 1005145) was killed with a further three injured, thankfully there were no injures associated with the parked Stirling.

May would also see an increase of the numbers of Heavy Conversion Units at Waterbeach, but inadequate planning meant that this unit was spread across three separate airfields, a situation that proved too much and so within a month, they were all moved to RAF Woolfox Lodge. This short interlude by 1665 HCU played no major part in Waterbeach’s history.

The last 1651 HCU  accident occurred at Waterbeach on October 27th 1943 when Stirling N3704 piloted by F/O. K Becroft DFC, another New Zealander, and F/S. F Burrows, an Australian, landed with its undercarriage still retracted. Neither airmen were hurt in the accident, but it was F/O Becroft’s third accident in a Stirling in the last year. Whilst no further accidents were to occur at Waterbeach, a 1651 HCU aircraft did have the misfortune to crash-land at RAF Witchford a few miles away, after suffering brake failure, on the last day of the month.

November 1943 would bring further changes to Waterbeach as 1651 CU pulled out, moving to Wratting Common to allow room for the new radial engined version of the famous Lancaster bomber – the Lancaster MK.II of 514 Squadron and her associated Conversion Unit 1678 HCU. This move was in response to a reorganisation of No. 3 Group, the whole process of transferring taking a mere few days, primarily by road.

514 were formed on 1st September 1943, and 1678 HCU on the 16th September, both whilst at Foulsham (under the control of No.3 Group) and would go on to specialise in blind bombing techniques. Like many of Bomber Command’s Squadrons, 514 Sqn would draw their crews from a broad spectrum of the Commonwealth countries, giving it a real multi-national feel.

The squadrons first mission took place on the night of November 26th/27th and it would be to the German heartland, and Berlin. This would be their second trip into the Lions den in three days and would see eight aircraft  leave Waterbeach each carrying 4,000lb bombs and a wide range of incendiaries. Leaving between 17:45 and 17:55, they would arrive over the target at around 21:30 dropping their bombs from a height of between 20,000 and 21,000 feet. Large fires were seen from the bomber stream, some crews saying from 100 miles away, indicating that the city was “well alight”. On this mission, one aircraft returned at 19:28 with engine problems jettisoning its bombs before returning and another was reported ‘missing’ over the target area. It was later found that the aircraft was shot down over Germendorf killing all on board. Lancaster MK.II (DS814) ‘JI-M’ was piloted by twenty-one year old Canadian F/O. Maurice R. Cantin (RCAF).

RAF Waterbeach

The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.

It was during this period of the war that the Stirling was withdrawn from front line operations, its losses far outweighing its benefits. From this point on no further action over Germany would include the Stirling, and the hunters now focused on the Halifaxes and Lancasters. On this night alone over 40 Lancasters were lost (either over the target or crashing in England) with the majority of the crews being killed. This would prove to be one of the most devastating raids of Berlin causing extensive damage, loss of life and casualties.

The terrible winter of 1943/44 made operational flying very difficult. Ice was a problem as was thick cloud over the target area. With numerous bombing missions taking place, many to Berlin again, Harris’s desire to destroy the German Capital was proving difficult. Whilst many front line squadrons were suffering high casualties, for 514 Sqn, losses would be light.

The first loss of 1944 would not occur until January 14th/15th in a raid to Brunswick. During this night two Lancasters would be lost, that of LL679 ‘JI-J2’ and LL685 ‘JI-G2’ with the loss of fourteen airmen. For a raid that cost thirty-eight Lancasters, equivalent to 7.6% of the force, it provided very disappointing results, many of the bombs falling on open countryside or in the suburbs of the city.

Berlin would be hit hard during January. Over almost three consecutive nights, 27th-31st Lancasters would strike at the heart of the Reich, 514 Sqn losing  no aircraft in their part even though nineteen aircraft would participate in the mission. Of those nineteen, four would not get off the ground and one would return early.

February 1944 was a big month for both the RAF and USAAF as more combined operations began against the aircraft production and supply facilities. On the 19th/20th, Leipzig was hit by 823 aircraft of which 561 were Lancasters. 514 Sqn would lose three aircraft that night: DS736 ‘JI-D2’, piloted by F/S. Norman Hall, DS823 ‘J1-M’ piloted by F/S. Walter Henry and LL681 ‘JI-J’ piloted by F/L. Leonard Kingwell, there were no survivors from any of the three aircraft.

Schweinfurt ball bearing factories were once again targeted on the night of the 24th/25th, a foreboding target that had proven so disastrous for the USAAF in the previous October. Luckily for 514 Sqn though, losses were much lighter, with only one crew failing to return home.

As the summer arrived in England, so too did the invasion of continental Europe. May meant that the RAF’s bomber force would switch from the industrial targets of Germany to strategic bombing of defences, marshalling yards, communication lines and fortifications all along western France and in particular the Normandy area. Allied leaders stressed the importance of blocking a German reinforcements through the rail network, as a result, the entire system west of the Rhine became a target with Bomber Command being given the lion’s share to attack. Seventy-nine rail centres were chosen for the attacks, and by D-Day all those assigned to Bomber Command had received their attention.

On the days before the invasion the aircraft were painted with the well-known black and white invasion stripes, used to allow easy identification of allied aircraft by friendlies. On the early morning of June 6th, twenty-two 514 Sqn aircraft set off to attack fortifications at  Ouistreham, the port at the mouth of the Canal de Caen à la Mer, the canal that serves Caen found on the eastern flank of the allied beachhead area.

RAF Waterbeach

The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.

Considering that the June raids set new records for the number of Bomber Command raids, 514 Sqn suffered no casualties. The first coming in the days after when two Lancasters (DS822) ‘JI-T’ and (LL727)  ‘JI-C2’ were lost over France. With a loss of four, the remainder of the two crews were either captured or managed to escape.

By June 1944 the need for the HCU had diminished, crews no longer needing the training to transfer to heavy bombers, and so 1678 HCU was disbanded in the usual grand style that was becoming famous in RAF circles.

It was also at this time, mid June, that 514 Sqn began to replace it MK.II Lancasters with the more famous Merlin engined MK.I and IIIs. The change itself didn’t herald a significant change in operations, now dogged by bad weather the constant cancellation of missions began to affect morale as crews were stood down often at a moments notice. The poor weather continued for most of the summer, what operations did take place were in support of the Allied forces as they advanced through France. Harris remained under the control of Eisenhower and so the focus of attacks continued to be Western France and German supply lines to the invasion area.

July into August saw a return to Germany for the bombers, a new experience for many crews of Bomber Command. By the October, raids were now being carried out in daylight hours. The first enemy jet aircraft were encountered and morale was high. However, the year would not end quietly.

December 29th 1944 was a hazy day with severe frost, fourteen aircraft were allocated for operations whilst H2S and G.H. training was provided for the non-operational crews. Out on the dispersal, the operational aircraft were being loaded with their bombs and prepared for the forthcoming flight, when suddenly one of the bombs being loaded on to Lancaster (PD325) ‘JI-L2’ fell and exploded. The explosion completely destroyed the aircraft and severely damaged seven others including NG141 which was parked alongside. The blast, heard as far away as Mildenhall, had repercussions across the airfield damaging windows and sending aircraft parts far and wide. Nine members of the ground crew attending to the aircraft also died, some simply ‘disappeared’ as did a tractor along with its portable generator. Following the incident, which was thought to have been caused by an ‘old stock’ bomb, the Station Commander cancelled operations for the day, partly in case time-delayed bombs exploded. To clear them and make the area safe, bomb disposal teams were brought in to remove those that were left remaining in the aircraft’s bomb bays.

1945 brought good fortune as the war came to an end. ‘Manna’ operations became the order of the day along with ‘Exodus’ flights bringing POWs back home for their captive camps across the continent. Slowly flights were wound down and on August 22nd 1945, 514 Squadron was disbanded at Waterbeach. Whilst they had been here, 514 Sqn had lost sixty-six aircraft on operational missions with the loss of over 400 aircrew, some of whom are buried in the neighbouring Cemetery at Waterbeach.

Thus ended the wartime exploits of RAF Waterbeach, despite crews leaving and the aircraft being taken away, Waterbeach’s wartime legacy would go on, strongly embedded in Britain’s aviation history. The peace would not last long though, for within a month a new era would dawn, a new aircraft type would arrive and Waterbeach would begin to see a change in operational flying take place.

In the final part of this trail we see how Waterbeach entered a new age of flying and how its wartime legacy was carried on through the front line fighters of the RAF as the jet age arrived.

 

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12 thoughts on “RAF Waterbeach – Stirlings to Lancasters (Part 2).

  1. The trainees really were thrown in at the deep end, weren’t they?! Have to agree with mr Cox that taking Stirlings out of service probably saved a lot of aircrew lives!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An excellent account of what was a ghastly part of the war for Bomber Command. Bravery almost beyond our understanding.
    I’m not sure we always realise how devastating the weapons of that era were, until perhaps we read about an accidental bomb explosion as happened to one of the young men I am currently writing about. When I was a boy in South Derbyshire, my family, at least, had not forgotten the explosion at Fauld near Uttoxeter. If you have five minutes, Wikipedia, as always, is very good
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Fauld_explosion

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you John. It was so tragic, as these things so very often are. Taking the lives of those not directly involved in combat makes it even worse in many ways. I had heard of the RAF Fauld explosion, if we are not truly respectful of these weapons they will, one day, bite us back.

      Like

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