RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 1).

In Trail 29 we turn south and head to the southern end of Cambridgeshire. This area is rich in fighter stations, both RAF and USAAF. Home to Duxford and Bader’s ‘Big Wing’, Mustangs, Spitfires and Hurricanes once, and on many occasions still do, grace the blue skies of this historical part of the country.

We start off though not at a fighter station but one belonging to those other true professionals, the Pathfinders of No 8 Group RAF, and former RAF Graveley,

RAF Graveley

Village sign Graveley village sign depicts its aviation heritage.

Graveley airfield sits on the south side of Huntingdon, a few miles to the east of St. Neots in Cambridgeshire. It takes its unusual name from the nearby village. The airfield itself would see a number of changes to its infrastructure, including both upgrades and improvements and it would be home to several different squadrons during  its wartime life.

Initially built as a satellite for RAF Tempsford, Graveley opened in March 1942 when it accepted its first residents, 161 (Special Duty) Squadron.  Formed from a combination of elements from both 138 Sqn and the King’s Flight, it had been formed less than a month earlier at RAF Newmarket  and would bring with it the Lysander IIIA, the Hudson MkI and the Whitley V.

The role of the Special Duty Sqn  was to drop agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) into occupied France, a role it would perform throughout its operational wartime life.  Their stay at Graveley would however be short lived, remaining here for a mere month before departing to  Graveley’s parent airfield in Bedfordshire, before moving elsewhere once more.

By the war’s end, Graveley would have become a complete operational airfield in its own right, forming part of Air Vice Marshall Donald Bennett’s 8 Group, with the Pathfinders. After upgrading, its initial concrete runways of 1,600 yards, 1,320 yards and 1,307 yards would be transformed into the standard lengths of one 2,000 yards and two 1,400 yard runways; the measures associated with all Class ‘A’ specification airfields.

Accommodation for all personnel was spread around the north side of the airfield, across the main Offord to Graveley road. These were separated into nine separate accommodation areas, incorporating both a separate communal area and sick quarters. Graveley would, once complete, accommodate upward of 2,600 personnel, a figure that included almost 300 WAAFs.

As with all sites, the bomb store was well away from the accommodation area, to the south-west, partially enclosed by the ‘A’ frame of the three runways. The 50 foot perimeter track linked these runaways with 36 pan style hardstands, all suitable for heavy bombers (after the extension three of these were replaced by loops). The main technical area, with its range of stores, workshops and ancillary buildings lay to the north-west, where two of the three T-2 hangars were also located, the third being erected to the south-east next to the only B-1 hangar on the site.

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RAF Graveley (author unknown)

Following the immediate departure of 161 Sqn, Graveley lay operationally dormant. However, in May’s ‘1000’ bomber raid, aircraft from 26 OTU based at RAF Wing, flew from Graveley as part of the massive bombing operation. Sadly four of the Wellingtons (all Mk ICs) failed to return; WS704, DV740, DV707 and DV709. One of these, DV709 crashed some thirteen miles north-east of Cambridge whilst trying to make an emergency landing at Graveley. Unfortunately, when the aircraft came down, it overturned killing two of the crew on board: Sgt. J. Dixon the pilot, and Sgt. B. Camlin the tail gunner. Both these airmen were laid to rest in Beck Row Cemetery, at nearby Mildenhall.

St. John's Church Beck Row, Mildenhall Beck Row Cemetery, Mildenhall.

The difficulty faced by Bomber Command crews in accurately hitting targets at night had, by now, become a problem for the ‘top brass’ at High Wycombe, and by April 1942, it had been decided, much against the views of Arthur Harris, that a new special Pathfinder Force was to be set up as soon as possible. As if adding salt to the wound, Harris was then instructed to organise it, and with a mixed charge of emotions, he appointed the then Group Captain Don Bennett, a man who had proven himself to have excellent flying and navigation skills.

Bennett then took charge, and on August 15th 1942, he formally took control of the new 8 (Pathfinder) Group, consisting of a specialised group of airmen who were considered to be the cream of the crop.

With its headquarters initially at RAF Wyton, Bennett received the first five founder squadrons of which 35 Sqn was one, the very day they moved into Graveley airfield.

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon Castle Hill House, Huntingdon, headquarters of the Pathfinders 1943 – 45. (Photo Paul Cannon)

Initially arriving with Halifax IIs, 35 Sqn would upgrade to the MK III in the following October, and then to the Lancaster I and III a year later. There would be little respite for the crews arriving here however, for they would be flying their first mission from Graveley, just three days after their initial arrival.

On the night of 18th/19th August 1942, a total of 31 PFF aircraft left to mark the target at Flensburg, close to the German-Danish border. However, poor weather and strong winds, prevented accurate marking, and two Danish towns were accidentally bombed as a result. It was a rather disastrous start for 35 Sqn and the Pathfinders.

Another blow was to fall 35 Sqn a month later, when on the night of 19th September 1942, the experienced 24 year old Wing Commander James.H. Marks DSO, DFC was lost when his Halifax II (W7657) ‘TL-L’  crashed at Blesme in France. Also being lost that night with W.C. Marks, was 19 year old F.L. Alan J. Child DFC and 25 year old F.O. Richard L. Leith-Hay-Clark; the remaining three crewmen being taken prisoner by the Germans. The squadron designation for this aircraft would then be reallocated, as was the case in in all squadrons, and as if bad luck were playing its hand yet again, that aircraft, Halifax HR928, would also crash with the loss of all its crew, including the highly experienced Sqn Ldr. Alec Panton Cranswick.

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Halifax Mark II Series 1A, HR928 ‘TL-L’, 35 Sqn RAF being flown by Sqn Ldr A P Cranswick, an outstanding Pathfinder pilot who was killed on the night of 4/5 July 1944 on his 107th mission. The Cranswick coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.(IWM)

In October, Gravely made history when it was earmarked to become the first operational airfield to test the new and revolutionary fog clearing system, FIDO. Classified as Station II, it would be the second of only fifteen British airfields to have the system installed and whilst it had its opponents, it was generally accepted and greeted by all who used it.

Installed by contractors William Press, the system’s pipes were laid along the length of the runway, a not easy feat as operations continued in earnest. One of the initial problems found with the FIDO system, was the crossing of the intersecting runways, pipes had to be hidden to avoid aircraft catching them and an obvious disaster ensuing. Two types of pipe were laid at Graveley, initially the Four Oaks type burner, but this was later replaced by the Haigas (Mk.I) burner. A more complex system, the Haigas took considerable time to install but by January 1943 it was ready, and an aerial inspection was then carried out by Mr. A Hartley – the Technical Director of the Petroleum Warfare Dept (PWD) and Chief engineer of the Anglo-Iranian oil Co. It was Hartley who later played a major role in PLUTO, the cross channel pipeline installed for D-day. Hartley, himself a non flyer, was flown over the burning pipes in a Gypsy Major by no less than Don Bennett himself.

It was later, on February 18th, that Bennett made the first four-engined heavy bomber FIDO landing at Graveley, using a Lancaster of 156 Sqn from Oakington. Setting off from Oakington, Bennett headed towards Graveley airfield, and with the burners lit, he remarked how he was able to see them from some 60 miles distant, the fire providing a far better light than searchlights alone, the means by which aircraft had been guided home on foggy nights previously. A great success, Bennett requested that certain minor modifications be made as he thought pilots could be distracted by the cross pipes at the threshold of the runway. Hartley keen to please Bennett, duly arranged for the necessary alterations and the modification were carried out without further delay.  However, further problems were to come to light on the the first operational lighting of the system, when bushes, hedges and telegraph poles adjacent to the pipelines were ignited due to an extension of the system passing through a nearby orchard!

The installation of FIDO meant that huge oil containers had to be installed too. At Graveley, sixteen cylindrical tanks were mounted in two banks, each tank holding up to 12,000 gallons of fuel. These tanks were kept topped up by road tankers, there being no railway line nearby as was the case at other stations.

Over the next few months, FIDO was tested further, but for various reasons its benefits weren’t truly exploited. On one occasion it was prevented from being lit by a crashed Halifax on the runway, the resultant lack of FIDO after the accident, was then blamed for the loss of two more aircraft, neither being able to safely put down in the poor conditions.  On another night, poorly maintained pipes caused burning fuel to spill onto the ground rather than heating the vaporising pipes above. Bennett somewhat angry at this, once more requested modifications to be made, needless to say they were not long in coming!

With further trials, one pilot was remarked as describing flying through FIDO as “entering the jaws of hell”*1 but once crews were used to it, the benefits were by far outweighing the drawbacks.

The safety of FIDo could not assist all crews though, and a number of other experienced crews were to be lost from Graveley over the next few months. But all news was not bad. The night of 18th/19th November 1942 saw a remarkable turn of fortune.

In Part 2 we see how Graveley sees out the war, the changes that occur, the new aircraft and new squadrons that arrive.

The whole trail can be read in Trail 29 – Southern Cambridgeshire.

6 thoughts on “RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 1).

  1. “However, further problems were to come to light on the the first operational lighting of the system, when bushes, hedges and telegraph poles adjacent to the pipelines were ignited due to an extension of the system passing through a nearby orchard!”
    Oops! That must have created a little more excitement than anyone was counting on.

    Liked by 1 person

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