RAF Gravesend – A mecca for RAF squadrons.

Another trip along the North Kent coast in Trail 44, brings us from Herne Bay past Allhallows to the former RAF Gravesend. Another of Britain’s airfields that has since disappeared under housing, it has a history going back to the heydays of aviation and the 1920s. It was, during the war, a fighter airfield and was home to many famous names including James “Ginger” Lacey DFM and Squadron Leader Peter Townsend. A number of RAF squadrons used the site, as did American units in the build up to D-day. A wide range of aircraft from single engined biplanes to multi-engined fighters and even air-sea rescue aircraft could have been seen here during those war years. Gravesend was certainly a major player in Britain’s war time history and thanks to Mitch Peeke, we can visit the site once more.

RAF Gravesend

Gravesend aerodrome was born during the heyday of public interest in aviation in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The original site was nothing more than two fields off Thong Lane in Chalk, which was used by some aviators of the day as an unofficial landing ground. One such pilot was the Australian aviator Captain Edgar Percival, who often landed his own light aircraft there when visiting his brother, a well-known Doctor in Gravesend. It is widely thought that it was Percival, who was after all a frequent user of those fields, who first suggested the actual building of an airport there.

Whether he did or whether he didn’t, the two men who founded the airport’s holding company, Gravesend Aviation Ltd., in June of 1932, were Mr. T. A. B. Turnan and Mr. W. A. C. Kingham. A local builder, Mr. Herbert Gooding, was engaged to build the Control Tower/Clubhouse building. In September of that year, with the construction work well advanced, Herbert Gooding and a man named Jim Mollison (the husband of the British aviatrix Amy Johnson), joined the Board of Directors of Gravesend Aviation Ltd.

The Mayor of Gravesend, Councillor E. Aldridge JP, officially opened the newly constructed airport as “Gravesend-London East”, on Wednesday 12th October 1932. To mark this Gala occasion, the National Aviation Air Days Display Team, led by Sir Alan Cobham, visited the new airport and gave flying demonstrations to thrill those people present. Also on display for visitors was a curious flying machine called the Autogiro, a sort of cross between a helicopter and a small aircraft, that had been built for a Spanish aviator by the name of Senor Cierva.

At the time of its opening, Gravesend airport covered 148 acres. Its two 933 yard-long runways were grass and the airfield buildings comprised the combined Control Tower/Clubhouse, two smallish barn-style hangars and some other, small ancillary workshop and stores buildings. Located in open countryside on the high, relatively flat ground on the western side of Thong Lane, between the Gravesend-Rochester road and what is now the A2 (Watling Street), Gravesend airport boasted an Air-Taxi service and a flying school among its amenities.

In November of 1932, just one month after the airport’s opening, Herbert Gooding took over as Managing Director of Gravesend Aviation Ltd. It seems likely that Mr. Gooding had effectively been “saddled” with the airport that he’d largely built. The original Directors, Messrs. Turnan and Kingham, possibly had run out of cash with which to pay Mr. Gooding for his construction work. They disappeared at this time, probably having paid Mr. Gooding with their own company shares. Jim Mollison, though married to Amy Johnson, had never been anything more than a “sleeping” director anyway, so it fell solely to Gooding to try to recoup his investment by making the airport a commercial success.

The original idea behind the airport had been to encourage the rapidly expanding European airlines to use Gravesend as an alternative London terminal to the often-fogbound Croydon airport, and this, Gooding now set out to accomplish. Although a number of airlines such as KLM, Swissair, Imperial Airways and even Deutsche Lufthansa did indeed make use of Gravesend, they didn’t utilise it on anything like the scale that had been hoped for. Perhaps it was thought at the time that Gravesend just wasn’t quite close enough to London, geographically.

Then in 1933, a year after the airport had been officially opened; Captain Edgar Percival established his aeroplane works in the small hangar next to the flying school. It was from here that he started to turn out the Percival Gull and Mew Gull aircraft. These were possibly the finest light and sports aeroplanes respectively, of their day, and in fact pilots flying these aircraft set many inter-war aviation records. Such pilots, for example, as Alex Henshaw, (who later became a Spitfire test pilot), Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnson, and another well-known aviatrix, Jean Batten, as well as Edgar Percival himself.

Gravesend airport 1935 – Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg). During this time, a much larger, third hangar had been constructed by A.J. & J. Law Ltd. of Merton, alongside the existing two. This new hangar, forever referred to as the “Law hangar”, was 130 feet wide and 100 feet long, with integral offices and workshops running down each of its two sides. The Law hangar was completed in the early part of 1934 and prominently bore the legend “GRAVESEND LONDON EAST” above the hangar doors.

In December of 1936, Captain Percival moved his business to Luton. This may have seemed like a disaster for Gooding and his airport at the time, but as luck would have it, a company called Essex Aero Ltd., moved into Percival’s vacated premises almost immediately and stayed at Gravesend, building a thriving business from aircraft overhaul and maintenance, though their real forte was the preparation of racing aircraft and the manufacture of specialist aircraft parts.

Business at Gravesend airport was positively booming when Gooding sold the place to Airports Ltd., the owners of the recently built Gatwick airport. It was felt that if anyone could make a proper commercial success out of using Gravesend for its originally intended purpose, these people could. They certainly tried, but in the end sadly, even they couldn’t; and they quickly offered the site to Gravesend Borough Council, for use as a municipal airport. There followed protracted negotiations over terms, price, etc., all of which were suspended when, because of the increasingly ominous rumblings from Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the Air Ministry stepped in.

It was the expansion of the Royal Air Force that ultimately saved Gravesend. In 1937, No 20 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School was established at Gravesend to train pilots for the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm.

The training of service pilots began in October of 1937. The school operated the De Havilland Tiger Moth and the Hawker Hart at that time. Accommodation for the instructors and the student pilots wasn’t exactly salubrious. For the most part, they used the clubhouse, together with rooms in some of the local houses.

Meanwhile, as the trainee service pilots learned their craft daily, (and not without accident!) the civil aviation side of Gravesend continued, with record attempts to the fore.  In 1938, the twin-engined De Havilland Comet, G-ACSS that was used to set a record for the flight to New Zealand and back, was fully prepared for its successful record attempt by Essex Aero, as was Alex Henshaw’s Percival Mew Gull, which he used the following year to make a record-breaking flight from England to Capetown and back. Both of these record flights departed from Gravesend and were well publicised at the time.

The origin of the Hawker Hurricane. This visiting Hawker Fury MkI, K2062 belonging to No.1 Squadron, was photographed at Gravesend airport in 1938. Photo: S Parsonson via Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg).

But in the same year that Alex Henshaw set his record, war with Germany looked to be a near certainty and the Air Ministry duly set in motion the formalities needed to requisition Gravesend airport, in the increasingly likely event of war.

When war indeed came that September, No 20 E&RFTS was relocated, Airports Ltd surrendered their lease to the Air Ministry and the RAF duly took over Gravesend airport as a satellite fighter station in the Hornchurch sector. Essex Aero however, stayed; taking on a vast amount of contract work for the Air Ministry. Among the items they soon found themselves making, were fuel tanks for Spitfires.

The first fighter squadron to be based at what was now RAF Gravesend was 32 Squadron, who moved in with their Hurricanes in January of 1940. They were followed by 610 (County of Chester) Squadron with their Spitfires, who helped cover the Dunkerque evacuation. Following the deaths in action of two successive commanding officers within a short space of time, 610 Squadron was moved to Biggin Hill in July and 604 Squadron moved into RAF Gravesend temporarily with their Bristol Blenheims, whilst training as a night fighter unit. Also on temporary detachment at this time from their usual base at Biggin Hill, were the Spitfires of 72 Squadron.

It was during this period that the two decoy airfields at Luddesdown and Cliffe were completed, to help protect Gravesend. It was thought to have been an obvious matter to the Germans that the RAF would take over the airport at the commencement of hostilities. After all, the Germans certainly knew that Croydon airport was now a fighter station.

Accommodation was always to remain something of a problem at Gravesend. The clubhouse of course had some rooms, but nowhere near enough to house an operational fighter squadron’s complement of pilots, let alone the ground crews, station maintenance crews, or even the administration staff. In the end, most pilots were billeted either in the Control Tower/Clubhouse accommodation, or at nearby Cobham Hall, the ancestral home of Lord Darnley. (In fact, Lord Darnley nearly lost his home during the Battle of Britain. Not to German bombs, but to the hi-jinks of some of 501 Squadron’s pilots, who nearly burned the place down letting off steam on one drunken evening!).

The station’s Ground crews were billeted at either the Laughing Waters Roadhouse (the original site of which is now occupied by The Inn on the Lake) about one mile up Thong Lane, or just the other side of Watling Street in somewhat spartan accommodation encampments, where “home” was a village of Nissen huts hidden in Ashenbank Woods. (Nothing remains of these encampments today save for three of the large underground Air Raid Shelters). Those who could not be accommodated in the huts were billeted in Bell tents pitched around the airfield perimeter. No doubt this was fine during the spring and summer, but not so good during the winter.

On 27th July 1940, 604 and 72 Squadrons moved out and 501 Squadron took up residence, being based there throughout the greater part of the Battle of Britain period, during which time the sector boundary was changed, so that Gravesend then came under the aegis of Biggin Hill. 66(F) Squadron arrived to relieve 501 in September, but as the Battle of Britain raged and German bombs mercilessly pounded Fighter Command’s other airfields, Gravesend got off lightly, especially compared to the sector command station at Biggin Hill.

Pilots of 66(F) Squadron in the clubhouse at RAF Gravesend in September 1940. From left to right, standing: Flight Lieutenant Bobby Oxspring, Squadron Leader Rupert Leigh and Flight Lieutenant Ken Gillies. From left to right, seated: Pilot Officer C Bodie, Pilot Officer A Watkinson, Pilot Officer H Heron, Pilot Officer H (Dizzy) Allen, Hewitt (Squadron Adjutant), Pilot Officer J Hutton (Squadron Intelligence Officer) and Pilot Officer Hugh Reilley. Photo: The Times, via Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg).

Although the Luftwaffe reconnaissance branch belatedly photographed Gravesend airfield again in November of 1940 and updated their target identification sheet, (Gravesend was given the target designation G.B. 10 89 Flugplatz) one can only conjecture that prior to that, the decoy site at Cliffe must have performed its role superbly. The fact that only two German bombs ever landed on RAF Gravesend during the entire Battle of Britain period, and then only in passing, would seem to support this, as the decoy airfield at Cliffe was bombed many times. Each time the Germans bombed the decoy airfield at Cliffe, with its equally fake Hurricanes dispersed around it, RAF work gangs would fill in the craters. This activity in turn seemed to convince the Germans that Cliffe ought to be bombed again. In the meantime, the real fighter station at Gravesend was left virtually unmolested. On the only occasion when Gravesend airfield was specifically targeted, the Germans bombed the wrong side of Thong Lane and missed the airfield completely.

Given the fact that during the pre-war period, Lufthansa flights had regularly made use of Gravesend airport to deposit passengers, it seems all the more astonishing that the Luftwaffe were seemingly unable to find the place again when distributing their stock of bombs. Ultimately, the night decoy airfield at Luddesdown also attracted little attention from the Luftwaffe either.

Piece of paper from the Sergeants Mess at RAF Gravesend in 1940, bearing the signatures of some of the Sergeant Pilots of 501 Squadron. Clearly legible is that of James “Ginger” Lacey DFM, who became the top-scoring RAF Battle of Britain pilot, and Geoffrey Pearson, (last one down, right hand column) who was killed in combat, aged just twenty-one. Via Kent County Library Services.

In October, at Churchill’s insistence, 421 Flight was formed at Gravesend from a nucleus of 66(F) Squadron’s pilots. In recognition of their origin, 421 Flight’s aircraft wore the same squadron identification letters as 66(F) Squadron’s aircraft, (LZ) but with a hyphen between them. Their job was to act as singleton flying observers to incoming enemy raids. A job with rather a high risk element!

With the manifest failure of the Luftwaffe’s daylight offensive, 66(F) Squadron and 421 Flight moved out of Gravesend at the end of October, and 141 Squadron with their Boulton-Paul Defiants moved in. They were joined soon afterwards by the Hurricanes of 85 Squadron, a former day-fighting unit led by Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, to take up the challenging role of night-fighting. These two squadrons stayed at Gravesend throughout the remainder of 1940. Townsend’s squadron moved out just after New Year, leaving 141 Squadron as the resident unit into the spring of 1941, though another Defiant-equipped squadron, 264 Squadron, joined them for a short time while the Luftwaffe continued with their efforts to destroy London by night. When the Luftwaffe finally abandoned that enterprise late in May of 1941, the night fighters moved out and Gravesend once again saw the Spitfires of several different day-fighting squadrons based there to carry out offensive sweeps over occupied France.

In 1941, the height of the control tower was raised by one level and during more major works that were carried out during 1942 and 1943, the two existing 933-yard grass runways were extended. The north-south runway was lengthened to 1, 700 yards and the east-west runway to 1, 800 yards. The station’s storage facilities were also enlarged and runway lighting was finally installed, as was Summerfield runway tracking, in an attempt to combat the autumn and winter mud. Also enlarged was the ground crew accommodation camp at nearby Ashenbank Wood.

Spitfire LF VB BM271/SK-E Kenya Daisy of No 165 Squadron returns to its dispersal at Gravesend on 16 October 1942. © IWM CH 7686

In December of 1942, 277 Squadron, an RAF Air-Sea Rescue unit, duly took up residence. An unusual unit inasmuch as they flew a variety of aircraft at the same time. They had the amphibious Supermarine Walrus, which one would expect given the nature of their work, but they also had Westland Lysanders, Boulton-Paul Defiants and Spitfires. They were stationed at RAF Gravesend for a total of sixteen months, making them the record holders for the longest stay of any squadron at Gravesend.

The enlargement and improvement of the station had made possible the accommodation of three squadrons and in fact, three fighter squadrons of the USAAF were stationed at Gravesend for a while. Having longer and better runways also meant that battle-damaged heavy bombers returning from raids on Germany now stood a reasonably good chance of making a successful emergency landing at Gravesend, too.

In the early part of 1944, 140 Wing of the 2nd Tactical Air Force was based at Gravesend with their Mosquito fighter-bombers. The Wing comprised two Australian squadrons and one New Zealand squadron. The Wing’s task was that of “softening up” targets prior to the Normandy landings. With the success of the D-Day landings, 140 Wing continued their operations but shortly after D-Day, a new menace totally curtailed the station’s flying activities.

On 13th June, the very first V-1 “Doodlebug” landed at nearby Swanscombe, having flown almost directly over RAF Gravesend. In the coming weeks, the sheer numbers of these high speed pilot-less rocket-bombs passing very close to, if not actually over the RAF station, meant that flying from there was now a hazardous undertaking. 140 Wing moved out.

With the aircraft gone, RAF Gravesend became a command centre for the vast number of barrage balloon units that were brought into the surrounding area to help deal with the V-1 menace. The station also became a local air traffic control centre, to ensure that no friendly aircraft fell foul of the balloons. The V-1 campaign petered out toward the end of 1944 as the advancing Allied armies rapidly overran the launching sites and five months into 1945, the war ended.

With the end of the war, Gravesend was put into a care and maintenance state and surplus service equipment was stored in the Law hangar for a while. Only Essex Aero continued to work there, as they had throughout the war, eventually taking over the Law hangar, too.

Although Essex Aero tried hard to carry on from where they had left off just before the war, the nature of civilian aircraft and aviation had changed a great deal. Air racing and record-breaking was no longer in the public eye, as they had been in the thirties. The Air Training Corps now ran a gliding operation from Gravesend, and Essex Aero continued to make specialist aircraft parts and revolutionary Magnesium Alloy products, but the biggest problem facing them was the fact that Gravesend Borough Council steadfastly refused to grant the necessary planning permission that would allow the wartime runway extensions to be properly incorporated into the post-war aerodrome.

In April 1956, unable to work on the more numerous but ever-larger civilian aircraft types, because the pre-war dimensions of the airfield would not permit them to land there, Essex Aero went into liquidation.

In June of 1956, the Air Ministry relinquished their lease on the airfield and demolition and clearance work began in 1958. First to go were the two Barn-style hangars. The Law hangar was dismantled and re-erected on Northfleet Industrial Estate, minus its offices and workshops, where it served as a bonded warehouse until the late 1990’s. The rest of the buildings, except the Control Tower/Clubhouse, which became the site offices of the developers, were bulldozed to make way for a massive new housing estate, known today as Riverview Park. In 1961, the control tower was finally demolished and the last houses were built where it had stood. No visible trace of the once vital fighter station was left to remind anyone of what had been there.

A final view to the south from the Control Tower of Gravesend aerodrome, prior to its demolition in 1961. The stacks of bricks piled up on the old hangar floors are for the construction of the houses that made up the final stage of the development. These houses were built where the airport buildings once stood, thus removing the last visible trace of this once vital fighter station. Photo: P Connolly, Gravesend Airport Research Group, via Ron Neudegg.

Yet RAF Gravesend had one last, hidden, reminder of its presence left to reveal. In April of 1990, many of the houses on the estate had suddenly to be evacuated when an unusual item was found buried in one of the gardens.

Fifty years previously, in June of 1940, the prospect of a German invasion looked very real. As we have seen, measures were taken to protect the airfield such as the setting up of the two decoy fields and the building of perimeter defence positions. Another, since totally forgotten measure, was the laying of “pipe mines” that would be exploded to deny the use of the airfield to the Germans should they succeed in invading England. It was one of these mines that had been found.

It transpired that Dolphin Developments Ltd, the building contractors who had constructed Riverview Park, were completely unaware of the presence of these mines and had happily built the entire estate on top of them. The original plans of the minefield were finally procured and the Royal Engineers were called in to locate and remove the rest of the mines. Once this operation had been successfully completed, the very last wartime vestige of RAF Gravesend had been removed.

Yet the story of RAF Gravesend doesn’t quite end there. When “Cascades” Leisure Centre was built on the eastern side of Thong Lane, almost opposite where the main entrance to the RAF station once was, they put up a plaque of remembrance to the station and the pilots who had lost their lives flying from there during the Battle of Britain. The original plaque was initially located on an outside wall. Unfortunately, the name of the first of those pilots, Phillip Cox of 501 Squadron, was somehow shamefully omitted.

RAF Gravesend

Cascades Leisure Centre, Thong Lane, Chalk, near Gravesend (Mitch Peeke)

The plaque stayed there, despite the inglorious error, for many years until 2003; when Sunday 2nd March saw the dedication of an all-new memorial to commemorate RAF Gravesend, the part it played in the Battle of Britain and a new plaque commemorating all fifteen of the pilots who died in combat whilst flying from the airfield during the battle.

The memorial itself is a large Black Marble plaque with Gold lettering, bearing both the RAF and the Fighter Command crests; one set either side of the gilded legend “RAF GRAVESEND”. The plaque is set into a purpose-built, stone-clad wall outside the gates of the Leisure Centre, and faces the houses that now stand close to where the airfield’s main entrance once was. The new plaque, finally listing all fifteen pilots, can now be found on the wall in the reception of the Leisure Centre, along with other displays which include a brief history of the airfield and the two squadrons that flew from there during the Battle of Britain. A few years later, photographs of all of the fifteen pilots were put into a collective frame and added to the display.

There was a full dedication ceremony flanked by standard-bearing parties of Air Cadets from the two local units, 402 Gravesend and 2511 Longfield Squadrons, led by Flight Lieutenant Tony Barker, the Commanding Officer of 2511 Squadron. Reverend Group Captain Richard Lee, lead the service of dedication and thanksgiving. Also included was a short history of the airfield read by Ron Neudegg, a founder of the Gravesend Airport Research Group. The Right Honourable Chris Pond, MP for Gravesham, then read the lesson, before Sergeant Steve Maher of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force sounded the ‘Last Post’ on the bugle. At last was paid a truly fitting tribute to a once vital fighter station and the fifteen pilots who lost their lives while flying from there.

One last, but still little-known fact however, is that if you know where to look, you will find the graves of two of those fifteen pilots quite nearby, in Gravesend Cemetery. The graves are those of Pilot Officer John Wellburn Bland of 501 Squadron, and Pilot Officer Hugh William Reilley of 66(F) Squadron.

The fortunes of the place where the pilots used to relax, The White Hart, have been as up and down as the aircraft those pilots flew. The pub the airmen knew was opened on October 19th 1937, just as the RAF moved into Gravesend Airport and started to train service pilots there. It was a new building, replacing one that had stood there for over a century, which was itself a replacement of the much older original building. The new White Hart was owned by Truman’s Brewery and Daniel Pryor was the first Landlord of this newly built inn. Daniel’s association with the airfield’s pilots probably started with those being trained at No 20 E&RFTS. By the time Daniel’s Den was playing host to the pilots of 501 and later, 66(F) Squadrons’ pilots, a direct line had been set up from the airfield to the pub, to warn pilots of imminent air raids (and probably visits from high-ranking officers!). Daniel Pryor’s tenure lasted till 1943. After a succession of further Landlords, the building was demolished in 1999 to make way for the Harvester Pub and Restaurant that occupies the site today.

In what is surely a strange quirk of fate, more actually remains of the fake airfield at Cliffe marshes, despite the bombing, than the real one at Gravesend, today. At the site of the decoy airfield, the southwest and the western parts of the access track remain, as does the fake control point. The control point is accessible from the track and is a two-roomed, brick-built bunker with a concrete roof. The bunker is entered via a small, door-less corridor. The two rooms are at the end of the short corridor, one on each side. The left-hand room has light, due to a square hatch in the ceiling, the cover of which has long since been removed. The right-hand room is smaller and completely dark, as the whole bunker is window-less. There is nothing inside the bunker today except for a small amount of rubbish and the seemingly inevitable graffiti that adorns the walls. The three-quarter-mile-long grass runways that never actually were, are today home to grazing cattle.

RAF Gravesend

The new memorial situated in Thong Lane, Gravesend, to commemorate the part played in the Battle of Britain by RAF Gravesend. Photo: Mitch Peeke.

Apart from the bunker, there is no lasting or purpose-built memorial to the part played by the dummy airfield, even though it saved untold damage being done to the real fighter station at Gravesend, not to mention the corresponding casualties that would have been sustained among the personnel stationed there. Sadly, RAF Cliffe is now but a little-known and seldom remembered place. Above all, like the vital fighter station it once protected, it is yet another example of this country’s disappearing heritage.

By Mitch Peeke.

Editors note: in 2016 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected an airfield marker outside of Cascades Leisure Centre to commemorate and mark the location of RAF Gravesend. 

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, RAF Hardwick – Update

I recently published a post about the life and death of 1st. Lt. William Rueckert, who was killed on his first and only operational mission from RAF Hardwick in Norfolk.

William, Dee and Little Bill Dorothea ‘Dee’, Little Bill and William

Since then, I have been able to obtain, thanks to the Air Force Historical Research Agency Maxwell AFB, copies of another accident report that William was involved in.

The story was retold by Dee, William’s young wife as occurring at Biggs Field, El Paso in Texas and involved a B-24 colliding with another aircraft. It is now believed this was in fact a collision at Lemoore AAF as the details of the incident are very similar to those originally told by Dee.

At the time, the Army Air Corps used a range of aircraft to train pilots in basic flying, one of the more powerful and complex models was the single engined aircraft the Vultee BT-13 (replaced by the Vultee BT-15). On May 20th, 1943, William was flying solo in BT-15 #42-1957 at Lemoore AAF, and was approaching to land.

The official records (crash number 43-5-20-6) held at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, states that:

At 17:02, May 20, 1943, while upon final approach at Lemoore Field at the termination of a routine training flight, Student Officer, 1st. Lt. W.G. Rueckert collided with A/C  D.W. Christedsen [sic].

Both airplanes were approaching the field in the usual manner. The wind was slightly from the right at 10 mph. Position of the approaching ships gave the control ship stationed on the south-west corner of the mat no cause for alarm. A/C Christensen in ship 32 was in front below and to the right of Lt. Rueckert in ship 12. Several hundred yards from the south-west edge of the mat. Lt. Rueckert noticeably dropped the nose of his ship which struck the A/C Christensen’s airplane behind the canopy. Both airplanes remained in contact and fell to the edge of the mat from a height of about 50 feet. A/C Christensen plane landed on its back, exploded and burned killing A/C Christensen immediately. Lt. Rueckert’s landed nose first, broke clear of the other plane and the pilot jumped out and attempted to extinguish the blaze with his fire extinguisher. He sustained a cut on his forehead and shock. The fire truck and ambulance arrived immediately afterward, put out the blaze and conveyed Lt. Rueckert to the hospital.

Lt. Rueckert stated that he never saw A/C Christensen’s plane in the traffic pattern.

It is probable that one or both pilots were making improper correction for wind drift although witnesses were located at angles which made it impossible to verify this fact.”

The enquiry that followed concluded:

Failure of pilot in airplane to look around. Poor correction for drift on the part of one or both pilots. Lack of control tower in the vicinity of mat. Present control tower is approximately four thousand feet from the scene of the accident.

Dee would later retell the story to Bill, describing how she went to the hospital and how she had to remove little splinters of the shatter windshield from William’s forehead for weeks after the crash.

As a result it is now believed that the accident William suffered was indeed at Lemoore and not at El Paso. I shall continue to search for any evidence to the contrary, but it is almost certain that this is now the case.

Another small part of the jigsaw has fallen into place, and I once again thank Bill for allowing me to publish his father’s story.

See the full story of William’s life and death at under Heroic Tales – 1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert.

Sources:

Accident number 43-5-20-6 Lemoore Army Air Field provided by the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

Flying Officer John Cruickshank V.C. 210 Sqn (RAF)

In Trail 60 we visited the former RAF Oban (Karrera) on Scotland’s west coast, from which various squadrons operated flying a mix of flying boats notably the Short Sunderland and Consolidated Catalina. 

One of these squadrons, 210 Sqn, was posted from Oban to Sullom Voe, a major deep water harbour on the Shetland Isles. These squadrons were used primarily for maritime patrols – U-boat searches and convoy escorts – flying for many hours out over the Atlantic and northern reaches toward Iceland.

John Cruickshank full length photograph

Flying Officer John Alexander Cruickshank, V.C.© IWM CH 13745

It was from Sullom Voe that 210 Sqn Flying Officer John Cruickshank, earned himself the Victoria Cross for his action against a heavily armed German U-boat. During the attack, Cruickshank and three other crewmen were severely injured, his navigator was killed and the aircraft badly damaged. He continued to fly his aircraft (Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’) before relinquishing control to his second pilot. But knowing he couldn’t land the aircraft, Cruickshank refused morphine, circling over the base until daylight which allowed him to supervise the landing of the Catalina by the Second Pilot. His actions that night undoubtedly went a long way to saving his crew and his aircraft. Cruickshank is the last living recipient to have been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.

Born on 20th May, 1920 in Aberdeen, on Scotland’s north-east coast, Cruickshank spent some of his life in both Aberdeen and Edinburgh being educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, the Aberdeen Grammar School and Daniel Stewart’s College in Edinburgh. Before the war, he was employed by the Commercial Bank of Scotland, joining them in 1938. In 1939 he served in the Territorial Army before joining up in May, the 129 Field Regiment Royal Artillery being mobilised in the following August. 

In June 1941, he transferred across to the Royal Air Force completing his flying training in both the US and Canada before returning to England and an operational squadron. By 1942 he had earned his wings and after further training he was assigned to an operational unit, 210 Squadron who were operating flying boats on maritime and anti-submarine patrols. By 1944 he was an accomplished and experienced pilot, flying many hours with 210 Sqn.

At 13:45 hrs on 17th July 1944, F.O. John Cruickshank, along with his crew: F.O. J.C. Dickson (Navigator); F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett (2nd Pilot); Sgt. F. Fidler (3rd Pilot); F.Sgt. S.B. Harrison (F.Engineer); W.O. W.C. Jenkins (1st W. Op.); F.Sgt. H. Gershenson (2nd W. Op);  Sgt. R.S.C. Proctor (W.Op/Air G.); F.Sgt. F.J. Appleton (W.O/Air G.); and F.Sgt. A.I. Cregan (Rigger) took off in Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’ from Sullom Voe as part of Operation ‘Mascot’, an operation designed to attack and sink the German Battleship ‘Tirpitz’.

Tirpitz was anchored at her mooring in Kaafjord, Norway, and the RAF’s 18 Group role was to protect the attacking fleet from a defensive force of twelve German submarines designated Group Trutz. Cruickshank and 210 Sqn were part of that RAF 18 Group.

Following the unsuccessful attack, the British fleet returned, Group Trutz was re-positioned to lay in wait for them and it was here that Cruickshank made his attack.

At 21:45 at the position 6842N 0612E and a height of 1,500 ft, Cruickshank’s radar operator picked up a signal some 15 miles away, a position west of the Lofoten Islands, west of Narvik. The aircraft turned and vectored onto the vessel. At 5 miles distance they sighted an unknown surface vessel, and went to investigate. 

The aircraft reduced altitude to 200 ft on a course of 2200 noting that the vessel was at that time stationary. After entering cloud, Cruickshank then sighted the vessel again at 2 miles, this time is was moving at a speed of about 20 knots and turning to starboard. The crew at this time considered it to be a ‘friendly’ and so fired a recognition flare whilst signalling the letter of the day. At this point, the vessel began to open fire and it was now certain that it was a U-boat and not a British vessel.

The Catalina, followed the U-boat (believed to be a German type VIIC submarine U-361) as it turned to port, and made a compete circuit remaining at 2 miles distance. Once ahead, the aircraft began its run in. Diving from 1,000 ft to 500 ft, it headed straight for the U-boat, inaccurate flak being met with fire from the Catalina’s front turret. As the aircraft passed the U-boat depth charges were dropped and the blister turrets also opened fire, hits were seen on the coning tower by both front and port blister turret. 

Unfortunately the depth charges didn’t release and so Cruickshank turned the aircraft for a second attack. This time, the U-boat was stationary and firing more accurate flak. The Catalina was hit several times, killing the navigator, F.O. John C. Dickson, and seriously wounding Cruickshank along with three other crewmen. At 50 ft, 6 Depth Charges were released, this time successfully, the two blister turrets confirming wash from the drops but no defined ‘hits’. Immediately after the attack the Catalina entered thick sea fog obscuring any further views. 

Photograph of the U boat attack

A photograph taken from Cruickshank’s Catalina during the attack. It shows the splashes from the first of six depth charges dropped on the second attack, landing astern of the U-boat which was making violent ‘S’ turns in an effort to escape. Machine gun fire from a gun housed in one of the Catalina’s ‘blisters’ can also be seen at top left. © IWM C 4590

At 21:58 the attack was over, the Second Pilot took control of the Catalina, himself injured in the hand. The Wireless Operator F.Sgt. F.J. Appleton, treated the injured dressing their wounds, including those of Cruickshank. F/Sgt Fidler took over the navigation from the killed navigator. He calculated the aircraft’s fuel and consumption and initial results were not good, but with damaged instruments this proved to be difficult.

A message was sent back to Sullom Voe that an ambulance was required urgently. A conversation then began between the ground and the second Pilot in which it was said that the flying boat’s hull had been damaged and the pilot was unable to land the aircraft as he was badly wounded. The Catalina informed Sullom Voe that they had about 5 hours of fuel (450 Gallons) available. It was also clear by this point that the radio wasn’t working. 

Whilst dressing Cruickshank’s wounds Appleton realised how seriously injured the pilot was, but knowing the Second Pilot, F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett, could not land the Catalina, he refused morphine, instead insisting on being carried back to the controls to oversee the landing. 

Garnett set a course for home, and just after 03:00 hrs they arrived over Sullom Voe. With unsuitable weather and darkness still enshrouding the base, the aircraft circled the area burning off fuel and waiting for daylight, beaching being the only option due to the aircraft’s damage. 

For a further hour, some five and half hours after the attack,  the Catalina circled the base, Cruickshank giving instructions, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings. Finally, daylight appeared and the aircraft was able to land, successfully beaching at 04:05 hrs. 

On examination, Cruickshank was found to have seventy-two separate wounds, including his lungs and legs, and the aircraft had been badly damaged. Cruickshank was given an immediate blood transfusion and then transferred to Lerwick hospital, with one further stop over before finally being transferred south. 

Cruickshank made a good recovery but despite this he didn’t return to flying operationally again. On 29th August 1944, his award appeared in The London Gazette, receiving the Victoria Cross from King George at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, on 21st September 1944; he was just 24 years of age. He eventually left the RAF in 1946 and returned to banking, the career he had held before the war.

For his efforts and determination F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett was awarded the DFM.

The submarine was later confirmed as sunk, which that night, enabled the British fleet to sail through a gap in the German Submarine line, a gap made possible by both Cruickshank and one other successful sinking. 

On May 20th 2020 John Cruickshank VC turned 100, his story was widely celebrated and reported about on BBC Scotland.

On 1st September 1944, Number 36682, p. 4073, Cruickshank’s citation appeared in The London Gazette, its states:

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —

Flying Officer John Alexander CRUICKSHANK (126700), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.No. 210 Squadron.

This officer was the captain and pilot of a Catalina flying boat which was recently engaged on an anti-submarine patrol over northern waters. When a U-boat was sighted on the surface, Flying Officer Cruickshank at once turned to the attack. In the face of fierce anti-aircraft fire he manoeuvred into position and ran in to release his depth charges. Unfortunately they failed to drop.

Flying Officer Cruickshank knew that the failure of this attack had deprived him of the advantage of surprise and that his aircraft offered a good target to the enemy’s determined and now heartened gunners.

Without hesitation, he climbed and turned to come in again. The Catalina was met by intense and accurate fire and was repeatedly hit. The navigator/bomb aimer was killed. The second pilot and two other members of the crew were injured. Flying Officer Cruickshank was struck in seventy-two places, receiving two serious wounds in the lungs and ten penetrating wounds in the lower limbs. His aircraft was badly damaged and filled with the fumes of exploding shells. But he did not falter. He pressed home his attack, and released the depth charges himself, straddling the submarine perfectly. The U-boat was sunk.

He then collapsed and the second pilot took over the controls. He recovered shortly afterwards and, though bleeding profusely, insisted on resuming command and retaining it until he was satisfied that the damaged aircraft was under control, that a course had been set for base and that all the necessary signals had been sent. Only then would he consent to receive medical aid and have his wounds attended to. He refused morphia in case it might prevent him from carrying on.

During the next five and half hours of the return flight he several times lapsed into unconsciousness owing to loss of blood. When he came to, his first thought on each occasion was for the safety of his aircraft and crew. The damaged aircraft eventually reached base but it was clear that an immediate landing would be a hazardous task for the wounded and less experienced second pilot. Although able to breathe only with the greatest difficulty, Flying Officer Cruickshank insisted on being carried forward and propped up in the second pilot’s seat. For a full hour, in spite of his agony and ever-increasing weakness, he gave orders as necessary, refusing to allow the aircraft to be brought down until the conditions of light and sea made this possible without undue risk.

With his assistance the aircraft was safely landed on the water. He then directed the taxying and beaching of the aircraft so that it could easily be salvaged. When the medical officer went on board, Flying Officer Cruickshank collapsed and he had to be given a blood transfusion before he could be removed to hospital.

By pressing home the second attack in his gravely wounded condition and continuing his exertions on the return journey with his strength failing all the time, he seriously prejudiced his chance of survival even if the aircraft safely reached its base. Throughout, he set an example of determination, fortitude and devotion to duty in keeping with the highest traditions of the Service.

 

Sources and further reading

The Shetland Museum Archives website.

The Scottish Saltire Air crew Assosiation website.

The Fourth Supplement to The London Gazette of 29th August 1944. Published on 1st September 1944, Number 36682, p. 4073

Remembrance Sunday – In Honour of 150,000 RAF Personnel.

On Armistice day we pay tribute to all Service men and women who served and died in the defence of freedom. This year we pay particular homage to those of the RAF through a visit to the remarkable St. Clement Danes Church in London.

St. Clement Danes Church – London

St. Clement Danes church stands almost oddly in the centre of London in the Strand, surrounded on all sides by traffic; like an island it offers sanctuary and peace yet its history is far from peaceful.

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

The view toward the Altar. The floor contains nearly 900 Squadron badges of the Royal Air Force.

It reputedly dates back to the Ninth Century AD following the expulsion of the Danes from the City of London, in the late 870s, by King Alfred. As a gesture, he allowed Danes who had English wives to remain nearby, allowing them to dedicate the local church to St. Clement of the Danes. Ever since this time, a church has remained, albeit in part, on this very site.

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

The ‘Rosette’ of Commonwealth Air Force Badges embedded into the floor.

In the 1300s and then again in the late 1600s it was rebuilt, the second time influenced by the great Sir Christopher Wren – notable for his designs of buildings both in and outside of London. Regarded as being Britain’s most influential architect of all time, he designed many famous buildings such as the Library at Trinity College and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. Wren also redesigned both Kensington and Hampton Court Palaces – his influences stretched far and wide.

Of course Wren’s ultimate master-piece was St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a structure that reflected both his skill, vision and personality.

During the Great Fire of London in 1666, eighty-seven churches were destroyed in London, but only fifty-two were subsequently rebuilt. Whilst not directly damaged by the fire, St. Clement Danes was included in that list due to its very poor condition and Wren was invited to undertake the huge task.

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

The Memorial to all the Polish airmen who served with the Royal Air Force during World War II.

It then stood just short of 300 years before incendiary bombs of the Luftwaffe destroyed it in May 1941. Leaving nothing but a few walls and the tower, Wren’s design had been reduced to ashes and rubble.

For over ten years it lay in ruins, until it was decided to raise funds and rebuild it. In 1958, following a national appeal by the Royal Air Force, St. Clement Danes was officially opened and dedicated as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force in memory of all those who fought and died whilst in RAF service, and to ‘serve as a perpetual shrine of remembrance’ to them all.

In completing the restoration, every branch of the RAF was included. At the entrance of the church, is the rosette of the Commonwealth made up of all the Air Forces badges of the Commonwealth countries, each of which flew with RAF crews during the conflicts. Beyond the rosette, the floor from the north aisle to the south aisle of the Nave contains nearly 900 squadron badges each one made in Welsh Slate and embedded into the floor.

Around the walls of the church, four on each side and two to the front, are ten Books of Remembrance from 1915 to the present day, in which are listed 150,000 names of those who died whilst in RAF service. A further book on the west wall, contains a further 16,000 names of USAAF personnel killed whilst based in the United Kingdom during the Second World War.

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

Ten Books of Remembrance contain 150,000 names of those who died in RAF Service 1915 – the present day. A further book contains 16,000 names of USAAF airmen who were killed.

On either side of the Altar, are boards and badges dedicated to every branch of the RAF. Two boards list the names of those who were awarded the Victoria Cross and others the George Cross. Other slate badges represent the various units to serve and support the main fighter and bomber groups, including: RAF Training units, Fighter Control units, Maintenance units, University Air Squadrons, Medical units, Communication squadrons, Groups, Colleges and Sectors.

In the North Aisle, a further memorial, also embedded into the floor, remembers those who escaped the Nazi tyranny in Poland and joined the RAF to carry on the fight during World War II. Each Polish Squadron is represented in a beautifully designed memorial around which is written:

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course’ I have kept the faith”

Smaller dedications can also be found around the church, such as the Mosquito Aircrew Association, dedicated to both air and ground crews of the mighty ‘Wooden-Wonder’. Some of these memorials are in the form of gifts of thanks many of which come from other nations as their own tribute to those who came from so far away to give their lives in the name of freedom and democracy.

 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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