I was recently contacted by Trevor Danks, a volunteer during the restoration of Vulcan XH558, until 2015, the world’s last flying Vulcan bomber. Trevor very kindly sent me his memories along with a selection of his photos, taken whilst working as a volunteer during the aircraft’s restoration.
My sincere thanks go to Trevor for sharing his memories and photos with me.
Memories of a Vulcan XH558 Restoration Volunteer.
I joined the 558 Club at the RIAT 2000 at RAF Cottesmore. At that time I was unable to play any active part due to work commitments. However by 2005 I was semi retired and when the request came out for volunteers to help out with the restoration of XH558, I replied immediately.
I had been an Airframe Mechanic during my National Service in the RAF between 1955 and 1957. I had been fortunate to be posted to 232 OCU Valiant Squadron at RAF Gaydon and became a member of a ground crew on a Valiant. So the prospect of being in close proximity to the Vulcan was an exciting prospect.
Following the first call for volunteers an e-mail was sent out asking if anyone knew someone who could do a drawing of the hangar at Bruntingthorpe, at minimum cost. I replied by e-mail to say that I would do it on my CAD system at no cost as part of my volunteer work. So on a cold April morning in 2005, I met Colin Marshall at Bruntingthorpe to discuss what was required. The first task was to take measurements of the hangar. I was also supplied with a drawing of the Vulcan which had to be shown in position in the hangar. Another volunteer, Derek Bates, helped with the measuring of the hangar. The original drawing was to be part of a document for the Heritage Lottery Fund. However as time passed the drawing was amended a few times and the later version is shown below, which shows the visitors walkway.
Hangar Layout (Bruntingthorpe).
The Hangar layout at Bruntingthorpe (Trevor Danks)
I became a member of the Wednesday Crew (See photo) together with a number of other volunteers. On that day there were a basic six of us who, from the start, did a variety of jobs. In the beginning we helped to set up the hangar to meet the requirements of Marshall Aerospace, the hangar becoming part of their engineering facilities located at Cambridge. Apart from the tidying up, dismantling or erecting shelving and racking, we participated in the setting up of the technical library, under the supervision of Frank Edmondson, this held all the Air Publications (AP’s).
Our main task lay with the 600 tons of spares held in the Deep Store, better known as “The Shed”. Over the days of the restoration we sorted, counted, placed in boxes and put the spares in the racking. This information was input to the computer. After which we then had to find and retrieve spares as and when required by the engineers. All this was carried out under the supervision of Simon Chipman. We were a happy bunch beavering away in The Shed, sometimes very hot and sometimes very cold depending on the time of the year. During tea and lunchtime breaks in the Airfield Diner we would reminisce about our days in the RAF or times past when the Vulcan was flying at displays.
In August 2006 it had reached a critical point where more finance was need to be able to complete the restoration. A fund raising operation had been carried out but the trust was still £500,000 short so the paid employees had been put on notice to end their employment. Everyone was convinced that it looked as this was to be the end of the project. After the aircraft had been rolled out to loud cheers a louder cheer went up as Sir Michael Knight, Chairman of VTTS Trust, announced a donation of £500,000 had been received from a mystery donor. The donor turned out to be Jack Hayward, owner at the time of Wolves football club.
When the Vulcan finally got to the stage of emerging from the hangar for such as engine runs we joined together with all the other volunteers who came on other days of the week. This usually required us to do a ‘FOD Plod’ which entailed us doing a walk of where the Vulcan was to pass, picking up any debris lying about. The first time the Vulcan was taken out for an engine test run, it was taken to a dispersal pad on the edge of the airfield. Having run the engines individually the time came to run them together up to 75% full power. I and a colleague were stationed on the perimeter track to prevent anyone coming along it. As the power increased we noticed a shed on the side of the perimeter track beginning to move. We quickly flagged the ground crew to shut down before the shed disappeared into the trees. The aircraft was then repositioned to continue the engine run.
The most enjoyable FOD Plod was on 18th October 2007 when we were all out on the runway at 7.30am as dawn broke. The expectancy on that day was electric; our little crew had been appointed as the emergency team in the team bus with the task of dashing to an emergency entrance on the edge of the airfield. This was to let in emergency vehicles in the event of a mishap. Fortunately the day blossomed into a beautiful day both weather-wise and the rebirth of a much loved aircraft. When the crew of XH558 let off the brakes and that famous engine “Howl” was heard, one minute it was rushing down the runway and the next 100 feet up as it went past us in the viewing area. We cheered like mad and hugged each other with not a dry eye in the house.
Sqd. Ldr Dave Thomas – VOC Display Pilot: AEO Barry Masefield – VOC AEO & Radio Op.: Sqd Ldr Al McDicken – Marshalls’ Test Pilot
This was not the end but the beginning, as much had to done to get it to the stage of giving a display at the Waddington Air Show in 2008. There were other engine runs and flights, with XH558 getting her certificate to display just two days before the first day of the Air Show. All the time the Vulcan remained at Bruntingthorpe I continued to visit there on a Wednesday. When it moved to RAF Lyneham and the office to Hinckley, I changed my visits to Hinckley and became part of the education team. From this I developed my Power Point presentation to give talks about the restoration time. However I retain the happy memories of our days at Bruntingthorpe and count myself very lucky to have been part of what can only be described as a great adventure. I was at Waddington for that first display and also managed to attend the day she flew with the two Lancaster bombers.
Since those days I have managed to visit Robin Hood Airport on a couple of occasions. The last time I managed to get the signatures of Taff Stone and Andrew Edmondson added to all the other signatures in my copy of Vulcan 607.
‘The Wednesday Crew’ – John, Trevor, Peter, Dave, Bob and Vic.
Volunteers with ‘Brunty Bear’ (XH558 Mascot) On head centre front row.
Roll Out Day – XH558 Outside for first time August 2006.
In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.
Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.
The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.
The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.
A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)
The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.
Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.
Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.
The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)
The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day. Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.
When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.
With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.
The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.
One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.
The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.
This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS). The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.
The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1
But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail, countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally the calibration and training units of the CSE.
Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.
199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.
The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.
On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.
As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.
The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.
Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.
As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.
Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.
By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.
A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.
Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure. One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.
Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.
Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?
The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.
Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.
As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe. Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.
Sources and Further Reading.
*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990” Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.
National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2
A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.
Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.
NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.
Norfolk once boasted many major airfields, virtually all of which are now closed to military flying. Marham is the only major survivor spearheading the RAF’s front line fighter force, in conjunction with Lincolnshire’s RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland.
However, during the Second World War the Norfolk landscape was very different; it was littered with front line airfields, composed mainly of light bomber and fighter squadrons, all of which could be found with relative ease.
One such airfield was that of Watton. Used by a range of light and heavy aircraft, its history was chequered, bearing witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of the air-war.
Today it is a housing estate, the single runway remains and is used for storage, the hangers and technical buildings have gone and the accommodation areas have all been sold off. That said, the perimeter track remains in part, the ‘feel’ of the airfield hangs over the area and a number of memorials pay silent tribute to those who served here.
Found on the edge of the town of Watton in Norfolk, we go back to this once busy RAF base and see what has changed, and relive the life of RAF Watton.
RAF Watton (Station 376)
RAF Watton, located some 11.5 miles north-east of Thetford, opened in 1939 as a medium bomber station with the RAF. Unusually it only had one runway, a grass example, which was later extended to 2,000 yards and crossed the airfield in an east-west direction.
The late 1930s saw a massive expansion of Britain’s military might, and in particular, its airfields. With little foresight into what lay ahead, these pre-war and early war airfields were not designed, nor built, as dispersed sites. Once the realisation of what the war would bring hit home however, later examples would be dispersed, giving a new dimension to airfield design. As a result, Watton (built by the John Laing company) was constructed with much of the accommodation block, technical area, hangars and so on, all being placed closely together on one single site.
Housing for the personnel was located in the north-western corner, with the technical area just east of this. The bomb dump, an ideal target, was further to the east of this area. Four ‘C’ type hangers were constructed each having a span of 150 feet, a length of 300 feet and a height of 35 feet. Whilst Watton was a medium bomber airfield, and thus aircraft were relatively small, it was envisaged at this time that larger, heavier bombers would soon come on line, and so foresight deemed larger than necessary hangar space be provided. A 1934/35 design, these hangars would be common place across expansion period airfields.
Another architectural design found at Watton was the redesigned Watch Office, an all concrete affair built to drawing 207/36, it was one that would very quickly become inadequate, requiring either heavily modifying or, as was in many other cases, replacing altogether.
Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.
Partially opened in 1937, the airfield wasn’t fully completed and handed over to the RAF until 1939. Being a pre-war design, building materials were in good supply, and so the accommodation blocks were constructed using brick, and they catered well for those who would find themselves posted here.
Another aspect considered at this time was that of camouflage; airfields were enormous open expanses and could be easily seen from great distances and heights. Numerous proposals for hiding them were put forward, a move that resulted in the formation of a special unit within the Directorate of Works led by Colonel Sir John Turner. Watton came under the eyes of Sir John and his department, and this led to an ingenious camouflage pattern of fields and hedges being painted across the entire airfield, thus disguising it from prying eyes above. Whilst not completely effective, it certainly went some way to protecting it from attack.
Watton airfield taken in 1942 by No. 8 Operational Training Unit. The four hangars can be seen in the centre of the photo with the patchwork of ‘fields’ disguising the main airfield. English Heritage (RAF Photography).
The first postings to arrive were the men and machines of 21 and 34 Squadrons RAF. Their arrivals on March 2nd 1939 saw a reuniting of both squadrons under the Command of Group Captain P. J. Vincent DFC and 6 (B) Group . On the 7th, the airfield was inspected by the Group’s AOC after which 34 Sqn performed a flypast; one such event that would be the start of many visits from numerous dignitaries including the Marshall of the Royal Air Force himself, Sir Edward Ellington GCB, CMG, CBE.
Little flying took place by either squadron at this time however, as the aerodrome was soon unserviceable due to the very poor British weather. Grass runways soon became bogs, and as was found across many grassed airfields at this time, unsafe for aircraft to either take off or land without mishap. From April things picked up slightly, and intensive training began in the form of station tactics and defence exercises. The weather would however, continue to be the worst enemy, repeatedly preventing or restricting flying from taking place.
In August, 34 Sqn received orders to depart Watton and proceed to Singapore, and so on the 12th, the air and ground parties began their long transit leaving Watton and England far behind. The quiet of their departure would not last ling however, as within a few days of them leaving, their empty beds would be filled once more, when the Blenheims and crews of 82 Sqn arrived.
At 11:05 on September 3rd 1939, notification came though to Watton of Britain’s declaration of war. Within days of the announcement aircraft were being moved out under the ‘Scatter’ scheme to another airfield, Sealand, for there was a fear of imminent air attacks following the war’s declaration. The Blenheims remained at Sealand until mid September, at which point they were recalled and prepared for attacks on vessels belonging to the German Navy. These vessels were not located however, and so the order to stand by was cancelled and the crews stood down. This would sadly become a regular and frustrating occurrence for the men of 21 Sqn.
Shortly after on the 9th, the first of the new MK.IV Blenheims were collected from Rootes Ltd at Speke, with further examples arriving over the next few days. Further movements saw aircraft detached to Netheravon and then onto Bassingbourne where Blenheim L8473 was damaged as it ‘nosed over’ whilst taxiing. A minor, but unfortunate accident, it would be the first of many more serious losses for the squadron.
A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.
On 26th September, another order came through for aircraft of 21 Sqn to stand by to attack the German fleet, whilst a further two Blenheims (L8734 and L8743) would fly to the Rhur to carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission. However, bad weather, industrial smoke and a faulty camera prevented both aircraft from carrying out their duties: each one returning to Watton empty handed but unscathed – crews reporting heavy flak over the target area. The whole of October and November were pretty much a wash-out. Bad weather with prolonged heavy rain prevented any substantial flying beyond the local area. Air gunnery and co-operation flights were carried out whenever possible, but the late months of 1939 had certainly been a ‘phoney war’ for 21 Sqn.
As 1940 dawned, things on the continent began to heat up and ground attacks increased for both Watton squadrons. Low-level sorties saw them attacking troop formations and enemy hardware as its galloped its was across the low-countries. Whilst bravely flying on and escorted by fighters, overall loses for the slower Blenheims of 2 Group were beginning to rise, a pattern that would only increase in the face of a far superior enemy in the coming months.
These losses were bourne out by 82 Sqn in dramatic style on the 17th May, when twelve aircraft took off at 04:50 to attack Gembloux. They were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and overwhelming fighter opposition – fifteen BF.109s, decimated the squadron. All but one aircraft was lost, the only survivor being P8858 crewed by Sgt. Morrison, Sgt. Carbutt and AC Cleary. Whilst not injured in the melee, the aircraft was badly damaged and as a result, was deemed unrepairable and written off. An entire squadron had all but been wiped out in one fell swoop.
This disaster would be reflected right across 2 Group, who had now suffered its greatest overall loss to date, but for 82 Sqn it would not yet be the end of this traumatic and devastating period. The burning cauldron that was now facing the light bomber was taking its toll on crews, who were all at a distinct disadvantage to their Luftwaffe counterparts. On the 21st, three more aircraft were lost from Watton, with one being forced down in France, another lost without trace and a third limping home so badly damaged it also had to be written off.
A short visit by 18 Sqn between 21st and 26th May barely interrupted proceedings at Watton. After returning from France, they had spent no less than nine days in May at five different airfields including the nearby Great Massingham.
By early June 1940 Operation Dynamo had been completed and France was lost. The British Bulldog, whilst not a spent force, had shown her teeth, been bitten hard and was now licking her heavy wounds. Preparations would now begin to protect her own shores from the impending invasion.
Fuelled by revenge, combined attacks by both 21 and 82 Sqn continued on into the summer months. But revenge alone does not protect a crew from superior fighters and heavy flak. On June 11th, three more 21 Sqn aircraft were lost whilst attacking positions around La Mare, it is thought all three fell to Luftwaffe fighters. Two days later on the 13th, another five aircraft were lost, two from 21 Sqn and three from 82 Sqn; losses were mounting for the light bombers and Watton was amongst those bearing the brunt of these. On the 24th, 21 Sqn saw a reprieve, whether to rest crews, take on a new role or simply regroup, they began a move north to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. 82 Sqn however, would remain at Watton, where they would carry on with the punishing raids over the continent.
After the arrival and departure of another short stay unit, 105 Sqn between 10th July and 31st October, Watton was now left in the lone hands of 82 Sqn, a situation that would remain until the spring of 1942.
The dramatic loss of eleven crews back in May would come back to haunt 82 Sqn in August that year. On the 12th, another twelve aircraft took off on a high altitude bombing mission to Aalborg in Denmark. The airfield they were to target was well defended, and as if history were to repeat itself, once again eleven of the twelve aircraft were lost. The only one to return, that of R3915 crewed by Sgt. Baron, Sgt. Mason and Sgt, Marriott, turned back early due to low fuel.
In the space of three months, an entire squadron has been all but wiped out not once, but twice, unsustainable losses that would surely bring the squadron to its knees.
Memorial to the crews lost at Aalborg, 13th August 1940. The propeller of Blenheim R3800, that crashed that day.
It was loses like this that helped convince the authorities to eventually withdraw Blenheims from front line service during 1942 – the Blenheim being long outdated and outclassed. At this time, Watton’s 82 Sqn, would begin their transfer to the Far East, a place they would remain at until the war’s end.
A lull in operations meant that Watton was then reduced to mainly training flights, through the Advanced Flying Unit. Small single and twin-engined aircraft providing the activity over the Norfolk countryside. Many of the crews being trained here would be shipped out to the satellite airfield at Bodney, before returning here for their evening meals.
A brief interlude in the May of 1942 saw the rebirth of the former 90 Squadron, a First World War unit that had gone through this very process on a number of occasions since its inception in 1917.
Flying the American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ or Fortress I as it was in RAF designations, 90 Sqn was set up to trial the use of the four-engined heavy for its suitability as an RAF bomber. During the first 15 days at Watton, the squadron gained personnel and received their first aircraft, after which they moved to nearby RAF West Raynham. Here they would begin these trials which also required the use of a number of smaller airfields in the local area. These included both RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney, neither of which were particularly suited to the heavy bombers.
Watton then saw no further operational units, and in the mid 1943, it was handed over to the Americans who began to develop the airfield into something more suitable for their needs. It was now that Watton would take on a more sinister role.
In Part 2 we see how the Americans developed Watton, and how it became two sites rather than just one, and also, how its role in Electronic countermeasure took it into the post war years.
In the second part of this Trail we continue at Oban (Karrera) off the west coast of Scotland.
In Part 1 we saw how Oban developed into a major Flying Boat base utilising the long stretches of water between Karrera and Oban and how Patrols were being sent out to search for the German Battleship Bismark.
The arrival of the Catalinas not only brought a new aircraft, but new accents to this part of Scotland too. A number of Americans had now joined the Air Force and it was one of these who flew the first Bismark Patrol in May 1941. Taking off at 09:20 in AH531 was F.Lt Van der Kiste D.S.O. and Lt. Maulsby, an American, who together carried out cross over patrols for twelve hours before returning to Oban empty handed. The first attempt to locate Bismark was unsuccessful.
For the next three days, aircraft of 210 Sqn from Oban and Reykjavik searched tirelessly for the Battleship, and on the 26th their efforts paid off. Catalina W8416, flown by F.Lt Hatfield and Lt. Rinehart (another US flyer), took off at 12:23 searching for the rest of the day. At 23:40 Bismark was sighted, without her escort. The Catalina remained on site, shadowing the Battleship for the remainder of the night. Some twenty-seven hours later the aircraft returned to Oban, the endurance of both the aircraft and crew being truly remarkable*2.
For the remainder of the year regular patrols intercepted both Condor reconnaissance aircraft and marauding U-boats, attacking mainly with depth charges, some of these proving highly successful.
When February 1942 arrived, the squadron began to transfer to Sullom Voe, Catalinas transferring large numbers of crewmen whilst Handly Page Harrows transferred ground personnel via the airfield on the mainland at Prestwick.
Within a month though, the Sunderland would return to Oban with the arrival of another new squadron, 228 Squadron. Their move coinciding with the replacement of the Mk.IIs they currently possessed with the updated Mk. IIIs, these remaining here until December of that same year.
Two months after 228’s arrival, another Sunderland squadron arrived at Oban. Being formed on 18th May 1942, 423 Sqn brought yet more Sunderland MK. IIs, and shortly after MK.IIIs. The summer of 1942 was becoming a very busy time in the waters between Kerrera and Oban.
For the first few days, organisational matters were the priority for 423 Sqn. New staff were brought in and rooms were allocated for operations. Two buildings on Kerrera were handed over to the Canadians for their use, one of which was immediately utilised by the Signals Section. Control of 423 Sqn was initially taken over by Sqn. Ldr J.D.E. Hughes DFC, who transferred from 4 OTU at Stranraer. He immediately took the role of Flight Commander. The headquarters were set up in the navigation room, and within days of each other, an adjutant, navigation officer, Medical Officer, Signals Officer and a handful of ground personnel had all arrived. Sqn. Ldr. Hughes then detached to Pembroke Dock so he could oversee the transfer of aircrew, ground personnel and aircraft to Oban.
By July 1st there were twelve Officers and sixty-two ‘other ranks’, but as yet no aircraft had arrived. In addition to this, the development of the site was being hampered by lack of supplies, difficulties in getting suitable building materials preventing the construction of appropriate offices.
At last on the 16th the first aircraft arrived, a MK.II Sunderland ‘W6001’, flown in by Sqn. Ldr. Hughes himself. This momentous moment was followed two days later by the second aircraft, ‘W6000’, being flown by Flt.Lt Lindsay DFC. By the end of the month the Canadian squadron in Oban consisted of twenty-six officers and 160 ‘other ranks’, but still only two aircraft. However, it did mean that at last training flights could now commence*3.
In August 1942, the quiet island of Kerrera and its neighbouring town of Oban, were struck by tragedy. The loss of not only almost an entire crew, but a very special dignitary as well. The tragedy would bring home sharply the dangers that crews faced when flying from coastal bases.
On the 23rd, Sunderland W4026, ‘DQ-M’ of 228 Sqn, with F.Lt. Goyen, W.C. Moseley, P.O Smith and P.O Saunders onboard, took off on a transit flight to the large flying boat base at Invergordon on Scotland’s East Coast. Also on board that day was Sgt. W. Sweet, Flt.Sgt. W. Jones, Flt.Sgt. E. Hewerdine, Sgt. E. Blacklock, Sgt. A. Catt, Flt.Sgt. A. Jack and Flt.Sgt. C. Lewis. They arrived at Invergordon at 16:30 and began to prepare for their visitor.
Two days later, the aircraft with all eleven crew onboard, along with their special guest H.R.H. Prince George, The Duke of Kent, and three members of his party, took off for a transit flight to Iceland. At approximately 14:00, the aircraft crashed at Eagles Mount near Dunbeath in poor visibility killing all onboard except the rear gunner Sgt. Andrew Jack. The board of enquiry carried out an investigation and concluded that a navigational error had caused the crash, in which the aircraft, full of fuel, exploded. The flight was on an official flight to Reykjavik, and it is believed that the crew didn’t account for strong winds blowing in off the sea. This it is thought, caused the aircraft to drift. When altering course, the aircraft didn’t have sufficient altitude to clear the high ground in front. Thirteen of the fourteen occupants were instantly killed. At the time, it was recorded as the worst Short Sunderland accident, and Britain’s third worst air accident.*4
By November 1942, it was time for change once again at Oban, as one Canadian squadron swapped with another. The departure of 423 Sqn signalled the arrival of 422 Sqn, one Sunderland squadron replacing another.
Since their inception in April 1942, 422 Sqn had operated two aircraft, the Lerwick and the Catalina IB. On Arrival at Oban, they immediately began to receive the Sunderland III. With four aircraft on roll by December, the squadron had settled in well, and crew training was well underway. However, none of the airmen had any experience of the Sunderland, and so training was going to be long. The bitter cold of the Scottish winter began to bite, which in conjunction with early problems with the towing tractors, hampered training. Gusts and swell in the sea prevented many take offs and crews often had to resort to sleeping on board their aircraft.
Four months later tragedy would strike again at Kerrera. On the 19th December 1942, 422 Sqn suffered a tragic loss when Sunderland W6029 crashed in the Firth of Lorne, the body of water between Kerrera and the Island of Mull beyond. The aircraft, a MK.III, was returning from a flight to Sullom Voe, picking up a new crew and other passengers. On its return, the weather and sea conditions at Oban were deemed to be unsuitable for landing, but radio contact with the aircraft had been lost. Unaware that they were to divert to Invergordon, the crew attempted to land, and at 16:41 lives were lost. As the aircraft touched down, a swell in the sea caused the front of the aircraft to collapse, severely damaging it, causing the aircraft to overturn and sink.
Killed that day were: F.O. David Mclean Cameron (s/n: 113530); F.O. James Kemp Potter (s/n: J/10323); F.O. Harold Francis Burt-Gerrans (s/n: J/16744); Sgt. Alun Griffiths Rees (s/n: 405084); Sgt. John Luke (s/n: 639582) and LAC William Arthur Allan (s/n: R/118882). Also killed was Intelligence Officer Major John Cox (Black Watch). A further three were seriously injured and the remainder suffered minor injuries, including the pilot Flt. Lt. John D. Reed. In all, over twenty personnel were killed or injured that day, in an accident that shook the lives of those living in the area. Many survivors were taken to the Highland Cottage hospital at Oban, where they thankfully recovered from their injuries.*5
By the end of December there were seven Sunderlands on charge and 109 hours of flying training had been achieved. No operations had as yet been carried out, and despite the recent tragic accidents both aircrew and ground crew were getting to grips with their new aircraft.
The dawn of 1943 saw more patrols and escort duties. Another international squadron would arrive bringing the Catalina with them. 330 (Norwegian) Sqn were a Reykjavik based unit who moved to Oban whilst continuing to operate a detachment out of Reykjavik. Within a month, they would begin to replace their aircraft with Sunderland MK.IIIs, then a year later with MK.IIs before departing to Sullom Voe in July 1943.
The eventual departure of 330 Sqn allowed for their space to be taken a few days later, on July 15th, by 302 Ferry Training Unit (FTU). The unit, which had formed in the previous September at Loch Erne, was set up to train ferry crews specifically for the long range Catalinas and Sunderlands. Overseas operations were now in need of the flying boats and crews were needed to transport them there. The unit remained active at Oban until the war’s end, transferring to Killadeas in mid 1945, prior to disbanding a year later.
In December 1943, a new squadron was formed at Oban, 524 Squadron, although this time it would not be the Sunderland nor the Catalina, but a new model would appear on the water. The Mariner was another US designed aircraft constructed by Martin, Lockheed’s competitor.
A large, deep hulled, twin engined aircraft its distinctive gull wing and angled twin-tail, made it easily recognisable. The squadron was set up under the Command of 15 Group, with a view to gaining operational experience on the new type of aircraft. Initially six Mariners were ordered, and modified to the minimum required for operational purposes. The long term view was that 524 Sqn would transfer overseas once the operational trials were completed.
The initial squadron set up was with 43 Officers, 111 Senior NCOs, 118 Corporals and A.C.s and 15 WAAFs. This combination would allow for the initial establishment of 14 aircrew.
The first aircraft (JX.100, JX.105, JX.106 and JX.110) were received on October 25th, after modification by Saunders-Roe, ready for operational flying. During the time with 524 Sqn, there was great difficulty in obtaining both spares and manuals and the Mariners did not become popular. The situation became so bad that by December the squadron was wound down and disbanded. All aircraft were given a 40 hour inspection and then prepared for disposal. The majority of the squadron staff were retained at Oban in the two training units 302 FTU and 131 OTU, whilst others were dispersed to new squadrons.
By the end of January 1944 all four Mariners had gone with no more than 90 hours flying time having been completed.
In the lead up to D-day, Oban and the waters around Karrera were utilised for construction of the Mulbury harbour, a floating harbour than enabled men and machinery to be transferred from ship to shore quickly. At Oban Blockships were assembled, these would be used as the outer breakwater for the Mulberry harbours once at Normandy.
After that, little operational flying took place from Kerrera. As the war began to wind down the Atlantic arena demanded fewer Maritime patrols, the numbers of U-boats at sea now declining below 100. The training units continued to operate for a short time, and then by April 1945 the site was put into care and maintenance. By early 1946, the RAF’s connection had all but ceased and the base was closed.
The Hotels used by the aircrew are still in use today, The Dungallen House Hotel (the former headquarters) being outside of Oban, whilst the Regent Hotel (the sergeants mess) stands on the waterfront.
The slip way on Kerrera and a handful are buildings are known to still survive, these can just about be seen from Oban. Whilst there is a good sized granite memorial and original slipway at Ganavan Sands, there is no official memorial in Oban town, and a return is definitely on the cards to visit these.
The Island of Kerrera is accessible by ferry. It is a small island with a few houses and businesses. The bay used for maintenance now accommodates small boats, the slipway, still present, is visible from Oban. A few buildings still remain on the island and some of these are also visible (with a decent telephoto lens or binoculars) from Oban. The museum which houses a display of memorabilia relating to Oban’s wartime history was closed at this time due to Government restrictions, but I am reliably informed that it has a good range of photographs of Oban’s Sunderlands and Catalinas.
The museum boasts two models, the first a 1/8 scale radio controlled Sunderland, the model being that of the 228 Sqn aircraft that operated from Oban in 1942 and the one that was lost with H.R.H. Prince George, The Duke of Kent onboard. A further and smaller model of a Catalina is also on show, it also having been lost whilst on operations.
The waters around Oban were indeed very busy in the early 1940s. With long range patrols and escort duties being performed, many of Britain’s merchant vessels were protected by these aircraft. The history of Oban has never been forgotten though, with a museum and several hotels boasting displays, the remnants on Kererra have been given new life which tell the story of life at RAF Oban.
In this Trail we head to Scotland’s stunning west coast, passing the beautiful Lochs and mountains of the Trossachs to an area known as the ‘Gateway to the Isles’. With the Inner and Outer Hebrides only a short boat trip away, it is, according to the Office of National Statistics, the UK’s 50th most popular tourist destination.
Now no longer a military aviation site, it was during the Second World War, a prime location for those sub-hunters and convoy escorts the Flying Boat. With open seas not far away, U-boats could hide in its hidden bays, sheltered by the many small islands and deep waters.
In Trail 60, we continue with the Flying Boat theme and head to the former RAF base at Oban.
RAF Oban (Kerrera).
The Flying boat base at Oban was actually located across the bay from the town on a small island called Kerrera, although personnel were billeted in the many hotels along Oban’s waterfront. With a further maintenance site a few miles north at Ganavan Sands, Oban, and the surrounding area, made a major contribution to coastal operations during the Second World War.
The calm waters of the Sound of Kerrera, the stretch of water between the island and the mainland, provided both good shelter and mooring facilities, as well as a long straight run for both take-off and landings.
However, it was not all plain sailing for those based at Oban. Whilst Kerrera sheltered the bay from the prevailing Atlantic winds, it did cause problems for some, as the wind direction could be unpredictable with swirls often being encountered during these crucial times. Another problem that the pilots frequently encountered were the many small boats that frequented the small bay. Strict guidelines were therefore issued to crews with extreme care and caution being the order of the day.
The RAF arrived in force in 1939, although it is believed that there was some use of the area in the years prior to this, notably from 201 Squadron who flew Supermarine Southamptons.
The first squadron to be posted here was that of 209 Squadron, operating another Supermarine model, the Stranraer. 209 Sqn had a long history, going back as far as World War One, and although it was disbanded in June 1919, it was reformed later in June 1930.
For the next nine years, the squadron would fly a whole range of aircraft types including the: Blackburn Iris III and V, Saunders Roe (Saro) A.7, Supermarine Southampton and Short’s Singapore II and III. All these before taking on the Stranraer in December 1938. Their diversity in aircraft was only matched by the range of bases from which they served. Reformed at Mount Batten in Plymouth, they transferred to half a dozen different bases ‘yo-yoing’ between them and Felixstowe in Suffolk, a place they would become familiar with.
The summer of 1939 was a particularly busy time for 209 Sqn, moving from Stranraer to Felixstowe, from Felixstowe to Invergordon then back once again to Felixstowe. From here, they would make one more move back to Invergordon before finally arriving at Oban on October 7th 1939. This last posting must have provided some light relief for the squadron personnel as they remained here until the end of July 1940. At this point, the squadron would move once again, this time to the major flying boat base at Pembroke Dock. Throughout this hectic and dynamic time, a small detachment of the squadron remained at the base in the Cornish Town of Falmouth.
With no flying in the days preceding the move to Oban, the 7th October saw the first aircraft, Stranraer K7292, depart Invergordon at 14:35. An hour later it arrived at the base at Kerrera, triggering a chain of events that would begin Oban’s aviation history.*1
Over the next few days the number of aircraft transiting to Oban increased and the quantity of Stanraers moored in the bay began to build up.
With local flights, air tests and gunnery practice taking precedence over other flying activities, the first patrols wouldn’t begin until the 18th October. From then on, routine searches would take aircraft around the local islands including Mull, the adjacent island, and out to the Skerrymore Light which was located on the Isle of Tiree.
From then on patrols were carried out mainly between the areas known as Little Minch and North Minch (a stretch of water between the islands), offering a continuous anti-submarine patrol in conjunction with aircraft from 269 Sqn. Any submarines sighted were to be reported rather than attacked, possibly as British Submarines were also operating in the area at that time.
On the 24th October, orders were given to escort the ship SS Hesterus, performing a watch until the Skerrymore Light was reached. At that point the aircraft was ordered to leave the area and return to Oban. The Minch became a submarine hot spot, with new orders coming through on the 25th to now bomb any enemy submarine now seen in this location. German U-boats were now known to lurk in these deep waters waiting for unsuspecting merchant vessels to appear, before they transited to the open sea. With a number of sightings toward the month’s end the war was beginning to heat up.
In December 1939, it was decided to replace the Stranraers with Lerwick Is, a Saunders Roe built aircraft capable of carrying a crew of seven: two pilots, one Air Observer, two Aircrew, one Flight Mechanic and one Flight Rigger. There were some doubts as to the suitability of the Lerwick to operate from Oban’s waters, the rough sea and high terrain surrounding Oban presenting a great risk. It was also advised that night flying and flying in poor weather was also too dangerous, the Stranraer being far more suited to such flights. However, following a study by Wing Commander C.G. Wigglesworth of 209 Sqn, which compared the Lerwick to the Stranraer, he concluded that with a reduction in the overall weight as he prescribed, the Lerwick could be successfully flown from Oban. As a result, four were initially ordered, which would operate in conjunction with the Stranraers until crews became fully acquainted with the new type.
On 25th December, a fuel test combined with an anti submarine patrol was carried out. The speed of the Lerwick (L7255) and duration of its flight returned a usage of 85 gallons per hour, a figure which the Station Commander considered good and in line with what Messers Bristols suggested; albeit at a less economical 100 gallons per hour for the Hercules engine.
In 1940, the patrols continued on, and in June one of these patrols spotted the 3000 ton Finnish vessel “Reculus Suom” . The aircraft contacted the British warship HMS Devonshire, directing her to the vessel’s location. The partnership between the RAF and Navy serving well off the Scottish coast.
Other ships identified on these patrols included Icelandic vessels along with HMS Hood, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Hesperus. With one submarine attacked, patrols and escorts became the primary role of 209 Sqn.
Then on 20th June 1940, aircraft C / 20G was ordered to the position of A.M.C. “Scotstoon”, which had been torpedoed and sunk. On arrival, the aircraft saw 8 lifeboats, along with a considerable amount of oil and wreckage. The pilot contacted a British destroyer which preceded at full speed to pick up the survivors. Whilst the destroyer remained on site, the aircraft patrolled looking for any signs of a U-boat that might be waiting to attack the rescuer. Once all the survivors were gathered, the aircraft returned home to Oban.
Many of these escort duties ran in conjunction with Sunderlands from 15 Group. Some of these would land at Oban, gather fuel and return to their own bases elsewhere. It would soon become a sight that would become the norm.
In July 1940, the Lerwicks of 209 Sqn departed Oban’s waters, heading to Pembroke Dock, allowing space for another squadron, 210 Squadron, flying the larger four engined Short’s aircraft, the Sunderland. In a virtual swap, the Sunderland squadron began arriving two days after 209’s departure.
The Sunderland (detailed in Trail 59) was a big aircraft built and designed like a boat, from the keel up. With its massive fuselage it could maintain flight for some 13 hours covering a range of 1,700 miles. With many comforts built in for crewmen, it was an ideal sub hunter and maritime patrol aircraft.
To give an even greater coverage the squadron had detachments based at Reykjavik (Iceland), Sullom Voe (a major deep water harbour on the Shetland Islands) and Stranrear. 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 four 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.
210 Squadron remained at Oban for the next two years replacing their Sunderlands with Catalina Is in April 1941. In February 1942 they finally departed, heading for the deep water base at Sullom Voe.
The main role of the Sunderland here at Oban was to carry out convoy escort and anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic, especially in the waters off western Ireland. Some U-boats were spotted and engaged by the aircraft, but contacts were infrequent, fog often preventing crews from locating the convoy let alone the U-boats.
On the 5th and 6th January 1941, two 210 Sqn Sunderlands (P9623 and L5798) from Oban located and attacked U-Boats, one of which was recorded as believed sunk. On the 29th, a Luftwaffe Condor, the German long-range reconnaissance aircraft, attacked one of the Sunderlands before departing the area. No damage was recorded by the Sunderland and it too returned to base.
By April, the American built Catalina began to make an appearance, but its introduction seemed to be dogged with compass problems; several aircraft returning from flights with these instruments being faulty. With this corrected, May brought a buzz of activity as the Bismark was thought to be in the area. Regular patrols were put out to find both her and her escorts, with the first flight being on the 23rd.
In Part 2 we see how 210 Sqn began searching the wide open expanses of the Atlantic for the German Battleship. Two major tragedies and what happened as the war finally drew to a close.
There have been many stories about bravery and acts of courage in all the Armed Forces involved in war. Jumping out of a burning aircraft at 18,000 ft without a parachute must come as one of those that will live on in history.
There have been a number of recorded incidents where this has occurred, and the crew member involved has lived to tell the tale. On the night of March 23rd/24th 1944, such a thing happened, and to the astonishment of both the Germans and the crew member, who survived to tell the tale.
Flt. Sgt. Nicholas Stephen (Nico Stephan) Alkemade was born the 10th December 1922 (believed to be North Walsham, Norfolk, England), and was just twenty-one years old on that eventful night. He was stationed at RAF Witchford in Cambridgeshire, England and operated as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber.
On the night of the 23rd March 1944, the squadron was called to report to briefing to find that their mission for that night would be Berlin, the heart of Germany. They would form part of an 811 strong force made up of Lancasters, Halifaxes and Mosquitoes. This was to be the final run over Berlin.
Later that night, Alkemade climbed into the rear turret of his 115 Squadron, Lancaster ‘DS664’ named ‘Werewolf‘ and prepared himself for the coming raid which was to be his 13th mission.
Once over Oberkochen, nr, Frankfurt, Germany, the aircraft was attacked by Luftwaffe Ju 88 night-fighters, it caught fire and began to spiral out of control.
Now fearing for his life, the aircraft burning furiously, he looked round for his parachute. Turrets being notoriously small, he was not wearing it and would have to find it from inside the fuselage and put it on before exiting the aircraft.
He found himself surrounded by fire, the heat melting his mask and his skin burning. The fuselage was by now a massive fire. It was at this point, that he noticed his parachute no longer on the rack but burning on the floor of the aircraft. In his recount later in life, he describes how he felt:
“For a brief moment I stared while it dissolved before my eyes. It was not so much a feeling of fear, or dismay, or horror, as a sensation, a sort of twisting in the stomach”.
The fire reached his turret, his clothes scorched, now began to burn. With two options, die in an inferno or jump, he rotated the turret, elbowed open the hatch and fell back, he was 18,000 feet (5,500 m) up. As he fell, he could see the stricken Lancaster explode, then the stars beneath his feet. As he gained momentum, breathing became difficult, again his account reads:
‘Funny, I thought, but if this is dying, it’s not so bad . Then the rushing air, the stars, the ground, the sky, all merged and were forgotten as unconsciousness crept over me…’
Three hours later, Alkemade opened his eyes and looked at his watch, it read 3:25. He had jumped just after midnight. cautiously, he moved each part of his body to find everything was alright, if not a little stiff.
It was at this moment he realised what he had done and that he was lying beneath pine tress in snow. It was these trees and snow that had saved his life. Cold and unable to move, he needed help. Taking out his whistle, he blew hard, and continued with alternate blows and smokes of his remaining cigarettes, until found, unfortunately for him, by a German patrol.
The Gestapo interrogated Alkemade, at first in disbelief of his story, but after examining the wreckage of his aircraft, they found the remains of his parachute and were so amazed by his escape, they (reputedly) gave him a certificate in acknowledgement of his testimony.
He was taken to Stalag Luft 3, North Compound, in Poland, and was given Prisoner number: 4175. On the night he jumped, 76 men escaped from the very same prison, an event that became known as ‘The Great Escape’.
Alkemade’s stay was initially very unpleasant, spending days in solitary confinement for being a spy. He was eventually billeted amongst other airmen in the very same hut that one of the tunnels was dug from. He, like other prisoners, was given a diary which was his only and most prized possession. In it he wrote about the boredom and monotony of prison life. He became friends with the artist Ley Kenyon, who added illustrations to his diary.
Sporadic letters from home kept his spirits up, and eventually the Allies reached the camp and he was set free.
Alkemade found out later that the Lancaster had crashed, killing the pilot Jack Newman and three other members of the crew. Both the wireless operator and Navigator survived being thrown clear on impact. The deceased are all believed to be buried in the CWGC’s Hanover War Cemetery. Alkemade was repatriated in May 1945. Post war he returned to Leicestershire, where he married Pearl with whom he had been sending letters and was employed initially in a chemical works (where he survived 3 chemical accidents) and then as a furniture salesman until his death on June 29th 1987, in Cornwall.
Nicholas Alkemade’s story, along with his whistle, is recorded in the RAF Witchford display along with artefacts and other personal memorabilia from the crews and staff of the airfield. His diary and letters remain with his son in their Leicestershire home. Pictures from his diary were published in the ‘Leicester Mercury’ Newspaper, November 2013.
For more information about RAF Witchford see Trial 11.
Trail 44 takes a look at the aviation highlights of the North Kent Coast in the small town of Herne Bay and its neighbour Reculver. It was here, on November 7th 1945, that the World Air Speed record was set in a ‘duel’ between two Gloster Meteors, as they raced across the Kent Sky.
On that day, two Meteor aircraft were prepared in which two pilots, both flying for different groups, would attempt to set a new World Air Speed record over a set course along Herne Bay’s seafront. The first aircraft was piloted by Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, CBE, AFC (the Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School, Cranfield); and the second by Mr. Eric Stanley Greenwood O.B.E., Gloster’s own chief test pilot. In a few hours time both men would have the chance to have their names entered in the history books of aviation by breaking through the 600mph air speed barrier.
The event was run in line with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules, covering in total, an 8 mile course flown at, or below, 250 feet. For the attempt, there would be four runs in total by each pilot, two east-to-west and two west-to-east.
With good but not ideal weather, Wilson’s aircraft took off from the former RAF Manston, circling over Thanet before lining his aircraft up for the run in. Following red balloon markers along the shoreline, Wilson flew along the 8 mile course at 250 feet between Reculver Point and Herne Bay Pier toward the Isle of Sheppey. Above Sheppey, (and below 1,300 ft) Wilson would turn his aircraft and line up for the next run, again at 250ft.
Initial results showed Greenwood achieving the higher speeds, and these were eagerly flashed around the world. However, after confirmation from more sophisticated timing equipment, it was later confirmed that the higher speed was in fact achieved by Wilson, whose recorded speeds were: 604mph, 608mph, 602mph and 611mph, giving an average speed of just over 606mph. Eric Greenwood’s flights were also confirmed, but slightly slower at: 599mph, 608mph, 598mph and 607mph, giving an overall average speed of 603mph. The actual confirmed and awarded speed over the four runs was 606.38mph by Wilson*1.
The event was big news around the world, a reporter for ‘The Argus*2‘ – a Melbourne newspaper – described how both pilots used only two-thirds of their permitted power, and how they both wanted permission to push the air speed even higher, but both were denied at the time.
In the following day’s report*3, Greenwood described what it was like flying at over 600 mph for the very first time.
As I shot across the course of three kilometres (one mile seven furlongs), my principal worry was to keep my eye on the light on the pier, for it was the best guiding beacon there was. On my first run I hit a bump, got a wing down, and my nose slewed off a bit, but I got back on the course. Below the sea appeared to be rushing past like an out-of-focus picture.
I could not see the Isle of Sheppey, toward which I was heading, because visibility was not all that I wanted.
At 600mph it is a matter of seconds before you are there. It came up just where I expected it. In the cockpit I was wearing a tropical helmet, grey flannel bags, a white silk shirt, and ordinary shoes. The ride was quite comfortable, and not as bumpy as some practice runs. I did not have time to pay much attention to the gauges and meters, but I could see that my air speed indicator was bobbing round the 600mph mark.
On the first run I only glanced at the altimeter on the turns, so that I should not go too high. My right hand was kept pretty busy on the stick (control column), and my left hand was. throbbing on the two throttle levers.
Greenwood went on to describe how it took four attempts to start the upgraded engines, delaying his attempt by an hour…
I had to get in and out of the cockpit four times before the engines finally started. A technical hitch delayed me for about an hour, and all the time I was getting colder and colder. At last I got away round about 11.30am.
He described in some detail the first and second runs…
On the first run I had a fleeting glance at the blurred coast, and saw quite a crowd of onlookers on the cliffs. I remembered that my wife was watching me, and I found that there was time to wonder what she was thinking. I knew that she would be more worried than I was, and it struck me that the sooner I could get the thing over the sooner her fears would be put at rest.
On my first turn toward the Isle of Sheppey I was well lined up for passing over the Eastchurch airfield, where visibility was poor for this high-speed type of flying. The horizon had completely disappeared, and I turned by looking down at the ground and hoping that, on coming out of the bank, I would be pointing at two balloons on the pier 12 miles ahead. They were not visible at first.
All this time my air speed indicator had not dropped below 560 mph, in spite of my back-throttling slightly. Then the guiding light flashed from the pier, and in a moment I saw the balloons, so I knew that I was all right for that.
On the return run of my first circuit the cockpit began to get hot. It was for all the world like a tropical-summer day. Perspiration began to collect on my forehead. I did not want it to cloud my eyes, so for the fraction of a second I took my hands off the controls and wiped the sweat off with the back of my gloved hand. I had decided not to wear goggles, as the cockpit was completely sealed. I had taken the precaution, however, of leaving my oxygen turned on, because I thought that it was just that little extra care that might prevent my getting the feeling of “Don’t fence me in.”
Normally I don’t suffer from a feeling of being cooked up in an aircraft, but the Meteor’s cockpit was so completely sealed up that I was not certain how I should feel. As all had gone well, and I had got half-way through the course I checked up my fuel content gauges to be sure that I had plenty of paraffin to complete the job.
I passed over Manston airfield on the second run rather farther east than I had hoped, so my turn took me farther out to sea than I had budgeted for. But I managed to line up again quite satisfactorily, and I opened up just as I was approaching Margate pier at a height of 800 feet. My speed was then 560 mph.
Whilst the first run was smooth, the second he said, “Shook the base of his spine”.
This second run was not so smooth, for I hit a few bumps, which shook the base of my spine. Hitting air bumps at 600 mph is like falling down stone steps—a series of nasty jars. But the biffs were not bad enough to make me back-throttle, and I passed over the line without incident, except that I felt extremely hot and clammy.
After he had completed his four attempts, Greenwood described how he had difficulty in lowering his airspeed to enable him to land safely…
At the end of my effort I came to one of the most difficult jobs of the lot. It was to lose speed after having travelled at 600 mph. I started back-throttling immediately after I had finished my final run, but I had to circuit Manston airfield three times before I got my speed down to 200mph.
The two Meteor aircraft were especially modified for the event. Both originally built as MK.III aircraft – ‘EE454’ (Britannia ) and ‘EE455’ (Yellow Peril) – they had the original engines replaced with Derwent Mk.V turbojets (a scaled-down version of the RB.41 Nene) increasing the thrust to a maximum of 4,000 lbs at sea level – for the runs though, this would be limited to 3,600 lbs each. Other modifications included: reducing and strengthening the canopy; lightening the air frames by removal of all weaponry; smoothing of all flying surfaces; sealing of trim tabs, along with shortening and reshaping of the wings – all of which would go toward making the aircraft as streamlined as possible.
EE455 ‘Yellow Peril’ was painted in an all yellow scheme (with silver outer wings) to make itself more visible for recording cameras.*4
An official application for the record was submitted to the International Aeronautical Federation for world recognition. As it was announced, Air-Marshal Sir William Coryton (former commander of 5 Group) said that: “Britain had hoped to go farther, but minor defects had developed in ‘Britannia’. There was no sign of damage to the other machine“, he went on to say.
Wilson, born at Westminster, London, England, 28th May 1908, initially received a short service commission, after which he rose through the ranks of the Royal Air Force eventually being placed on the Reserves Officers list. With the outbreak of war, Flt. Lt. Wilson was recalled and assigned as Commanding Officer to the Aerodynamic Flight, R.A.E. Farnborough. A year after promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1940, he was appointed chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (R.A.E.) who were then testing captured enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Wing Commander, 20th August 1945, retiring on 20th June 1948 as a Group Captain.
Eric Greenwood, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot, was credited with the first pilot to exceed 600 miles per hour in level flight, and was awarded the O.B.E. on 13th June 1946.
His career started straight from school, learning to fly at No. 5 F.T.S. at Sealand in 1928. He was then posted to 3 Sqn. at Upavon flying Hawker Woodcocks and Bristol Bulldogs before taking an instructors course, a role he continued in until the end of his commission. After leaving the R.A.F., Greenwood joined up with Lord Malcolm Douglas Hamilton (later Group Captain), performing barnstorming flying and private charter flights in Scotland.
Greenwood then flew to the far East to help set up the Malayan Air Force under the guise of the Penang Flying Club. His time here was adventurous, flying some 2,000 hours in adapted Tiger Moths. His eventual return to England saw him flying for the Armstrong Whitworth, Hawker and Gloster companies, before being sent as chief test pilot to the Air Service Training (A.S.T.) at Hamble in 1941. Here he would test modified U.S. built aircraft such as the Airocobra, until the summer of 1944 when he moved back to Gloster’s – again as test pilot.
It was whilst here at Gloster’s that Greenwood would break two world air speed records, both within two weeks of each other. Pushing a Meteor passed both the 500mph and 600mph barriers meant that the R.A.F. had a fighter that could not only match many of its counterparts but one that had taken aviation to new record speeds.
During the trials for the Meteor, Greenwood and Wilson were joined by Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who between them tested the slimmed-down and ‘lacquered until it shone’ machine, comparing drag coefficients with standard machines. Every inch of power had to be squeezed from the engine as reheats were still in their infancy and much too dangerous to use in such trials.
To mark this historic event, two plaques were made, but never, it would seem, displayed. Reputed to have been saved from a council skip, they were initially thought to have been placed in a local cafe, after the cliffs – where they were meant to be displayed – collapsed. The plaques were however left in the council’s possession, until saved by an eagle-eyed employee. Today, they are located in the RAF Manston History Museum where they remain on public display.
One of the two plaques now on display at the RAF Manston History Museum.
To mark the place in Herne Bay where this historic event took place, an information board has been added, going some small way to paying tribute to the men and machines who set the world alight with a new World Air Speed record only a few hundred feet from where it stands.
Part of the Herne Bay Tribute to the World Air Speed Record set by Group Captain H.J. Wilson (note the incorrect speed given).
From Herne Bay, we continue on to another trail of aviation history, eastward toward the coastal towns of Margate and Ramsgate, to the now closed Manston airport. Formerly RAF Manston, it is another airfield that is rich in aviation history, and one that closed with huge controversy causing a great deal of ill feeling amongst many people in both the local area and the aviation fraternity.
Sources and Further Reading.
*1 Guinness World Records website accessed 22/8/17.
*2 The Argus News report, Thursday November 8th 1945 (website) (Recorded readings quoted in this issue were incorrect, the correct records were given in the following day’s issue).
*3 The Argus News report, Thursday November 9th 1945 (website)
In this, the last part of RAF Metheringham, we see how one of its brave crews earned the Victoria Cross for their outstanding bravery, and how, as the war camr to a close, Metheringham was closed down and disposed of.
On the night 24th/25th April, 1944, took 106 Sqn back to Germany once more, to Munich and another ‘clear night’ with accurate bombing reported. But, then it was Schweinfurt a city that would become synonymous with high casualties especially amongst colleagues in the US Air Force.
Metheringham would send sixteen aircraft that night with take off commencing at 21.25 from the Lincolnshire airfield with another mix of 4,000lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, marking would again be low level by Mosquitoes but this time it was inaccurate. Strong winds hampered the bombers, with many of the bombs falling away from the main target. Crews reported large fires across the city accompanied by ‘large explosions’. Sadly these were not to be the target and as a result the mission was not deemed a success.
Of the 206 Lancasters sent out that night (26th/27th) twenty-one were lost to heavy and sustained night fighter attacks, a figure of 10% of the force, a terrible blow for Harris and his Command. From Metheringham, five aircraft failed to return, with a further one returning on three engines. Methringham’s loss that night was some 31%, a third of its force gone in one mission. It was a difficult mission for 106 Sqn, with thirty-six airmen lost, (JB601 was carrying a second pilot). Ten of these were taken alive as POWs, four managed to evade capture, whilst the rest were killed. The deaths of the remaining twenty-two must have had another huge impact in the Metheringham dining room that morning.
During this mission the remarkable actions by the crew of Lancaster ME669, and in particular Flight Engineer Sergeant Norman C. Jackson (later Warrant Officer), would become well known. After being hit several times by a night fighter, a fire started in the inner wing section next to the upper fuel tank. Sgt. Jackson, who had been wounded in the leg and shoulder, donned his parachute and grabbed a fire extinguisher before climbing out on to the wing through an escape hatch in the fuselage roof. Upon leaving, his parachute was deployed into the cockpit area, where his colleagues gathered it up and gradually fed the lines through the hole allowing Jackson to gain access to the fire in the wing. Undertaking such an act on a burning aircraft and at altitude, was no easy task and getting back, had he been successful, virtually impossible. The wind knocked the extinguisher out of his grip which prevented Jackson from succeeding in achieving his aim. The fire, now spreading, began to burn both his parachute, hands and face and fearing for his safety, his colleagues let go, releasing him from the stricken bomber. Sgt. Jackson fell to Earth, his parachute partially burned, opened and allowed him to reach the ground alive, but suffering several injuries in the process.
The 21 year old Canadian Captain, F/O. Frederick M. Miffin D.F.C., then ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; himself and 20 year old F/Sgt, Norman H. Johnson (Air Gunner) both failing to survive.
Sgt. Jackson’s brave attempt to save his colleagues and their aircraft earned him the Victoria Cross for his actions, his citation being published in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 23rd October 1945.*2
The Schweinfurt raid had been a major blow to the Metheringham crews, but it had also shown their courage and determination to win, regardless of the dangers to their own safety.
Another heavy blow on the night of 7th/8th May took another four aircraft along with all but one of the crew, Sgt. J Smith evading capture, in a month that would see a further six aircraft go down with heavy losses.
June 1944 would see another remarkable event take place. Although the entire crew of DV367 were lost on the night of 7th / 8th, they were all awarded the DFM for their action, an usual act in any squadron, and one that nonetheless reflected the bravery of RAF crews at that time.
Metheringham’s memorial garden rests besides a C-47 Dakota ‘KG651’ as a representative model that visited the airfield at the end of the war. Visitors are able to enter the aircraft and sit in the cockpit.
Following the Allied invasion of Normandy, the US forces would begin to use Metheringham as an evacuation point for wounded American troops from nearby Nocton Hall Military Hospital. Once a suitable recovery had been made, the troops were brought to Metheringham and flown on to Prestwick for onward travel and reparation to the United States.
Rarely a month would go by without the squadron facing some loss. Exactly a month later in July, Metheringham would see yet another dip in their crew numbers as five more aircraft went down on the mission to St.-Leu-D’Esserent – the flying bomb storage dump. A force of 208 Lancasters and thirteen Mosquitoes accurately bombed the mouth and access roads to the tunnels in which the bombs were being stored. Metheringham’s loss was particularly high, almost a third of the sixteen sent out being lost. Whilst many airmen were either captured or evaded capture, another eighteen were lost.
In September 1944, No. 1690 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight arrived ay Metheringham airfield. A unit formed seven months earlier at Syerston after 1485 (Bomber) Gunnery Flight was re-designated, it operated a number of single and twin engined aircraft including the Spitfire, Oxford and Wellington bomber under the code ‘9M’. They were used to train bomber crews in the art of defence against fighters, performing violent moves to throw off their attacker. One famous pilot of this unit who served at Metheringham was the Commanding Officer Sqn. Ldr. John Leslie Munro, CNZM, DSO, QSO, DFC, JP of 617 Sqn fame. The Flight would leave Metheringham in the summer of 1945, being disbanded in October that same year back at Syerston.
It had been a long and difficult war for the crews at RAF Metheringham. As the end of the war drew ever closer, they all knew their last mission would soon be here. On April 25th 1945, that day arrived.
Sixteen Lancasters took off to either bomb Tonsberg in the southern region of Norway, or mine the Oslo fjord. A last ditch effort to force the capitulation of the German leadership and end the conflict that had devastated the world for the last six years.
By the time the cease fire was announced, 106 squadron had flown 5,834 sorties with a loss of 187 aircraft (59 from Metheringham), 3.21% on average per mission. 17,781 tons of bombs and mines were dropped and 267 decorations awarded.
After the war, 106 Sqn was earmarked for ‘Tiger Force’ operations and training was tailored to meet these new requirements: fighter affiliation sorties, high level bombing and air-sea firing exercises. Also during May, operation ‘Exodus‘ was put into place and a number of 106 Sqn aircraft flew to the Continent to bring back POWs, many landing at Dunsfold on their return. On the 9th May, whilst evacuating POWs from Rheine airfield, one aircraft from 106 Sqn struck a bomb crater causing damage to the aircraft, the crew and their valuable cargo of POWs thankfully escaped unhurt. The aircraft was then repaired with parts being ferried over from Metheringham the next day. Between May 4th and May 11th, Metheringham crews repatriated 1,484 prisoners of war bringing them home from captivity.
During June aircraft were exchanged with those from 8 Group at RAF Oakington, RAF Warboys and RAF Graveley, allowing Operation ‘Firebrand‘ to be completed by the 19th. Other operations included ‘Rebecca‘, ‘Dodge‘, ‘Nickel‘ and ‘SPASM‘.
On June 15th, another Lancaster squadron, No. 467 (RAAF), joined 106 here at Metheringham. In the days preceding their arrival, they spent many hours dropping ordnance into the sea, a comment in the ORB stated “it seemed like the old days with all serviceable aircraft loaded with incendiaries and it looked like a real operational take off.” It goes on to say a ‘waste but necessary‘ reflecting perhaps the feelings of the men as the squadron wound down for the final few weeks.
The advanced party arrived to make sure the transition went smoothly, with the main party arriving shortly afterwards. Beer was supplied by Metheringham and the crews soon got to know each other well. On July 11th, an athletics competition was run between the two squadrons, involving contests such as ‘tug-o- war’, ‘hop, step and jump’, ‘throwing the cricket ball’ and distance races.
With the announcements of Japan’s capitulation on August 15th, all 106 Sqn ‘Tiger Force’ training flights were cancelled although it continued to be used as the basis of further training operations. B.A.B.S. (Beam Approach Beacon System) training also continued at the airfield.
Air Raid Shelters were once common place on Britain’s airfields.
Shortly after 467’s disbandment on September 30th 1945, October saw yet another Lancaster unit arrived at Metheringham, No. 189 Squadron who brought yet more Lancaster MK.Is and III. to be disposed of and they too were disbanded within a month.
The poor weather that had caused so many problems during the winters of the 1940s leading to Metheringham having FIDO installed, continued on into 1946 curtailing many flights and operations. On 13th February 1946 the final curtain came down and a memo came though to Metheringham to ‘stand down’ from all operational and non-operational flying as of 00:01, 15th February 1946. Sixteen aircraft were to be ferried to RAF Graveley to have Mark III H2S units fitted, although this was cancelled and the aircraft were sent to Waddington (10), Binbrook (1), Lindholme (4) and one further Lancaster going to Waddington. By 22nd February 1946 all aircraft had left Metheringham and the squadron no longer existed, 106 Squadron was once more consigned to the history books and Metheringham airfield would follow not long after. Men, machinery and administrative items were then disposed of in accordance with the relevant Bomber command instructions. By April, everyone had left, the site was stripped and placed in care and maintenance, a condition it remained in until December 1950, whereupon it was abandoned before being sold off ten years later.
Like many stations, local people used the accommodation sites for their own accommodation, the runways were eventually pulled up for hardcore, buildings and other metal structures were removed for scrap or sold off to farmers. By the early 1970s Metheringham had all but been wiped off the map. The Watch Office left to decay has since been bought by a local developer, with a mammoth task ahead of him he hopes to turn it into accommodation and a small museum/residential block.
Metheringham’s record of achievement was a proud one, with generally low loss statistics they were to face some of the toughest challenges of the war, losing many crews in the process. Their determination to survive and to win over the Nazi tyranny led to many brave and heroic acts, acts which helped secure the release of hundreds of captured airmen.
There are many reminders of RAF Metheringham.
Metheringham’s gallant and brave young men, are all remembered in a small, but excellent museum that now utilises part of one of the accommodation areas. A memorial to the aircrew stands on the eastern perimeter track as a reminder of the 995 Airmen who were lost whilst serving with 106 Sqn.
Much of Metheringham’s runway and perimeter track still exists today, in most part as a public road. The width of the concrete bases far exceeding the width of the road. A memorial stands to the eastern side overlooking the main airfield site (Site 1) with lines of tress denoting the remainder of runways long gone. The main B1189 road dissects the accommodation areas with Site 1, as was common with late wartime airfields. The museum lies off the junction of this road and the main Woodhall Spa road B1191 along the entrance to Westmoor Farm. If taking the B1189 toward the Metheringham village, you will pass a number of former wartime buildings used as small industrial units and farm storage. These are on private land although the museum do organise visits to some of these at certain times of the year. After passing these, turn right, this road was one of the secondary runways and crosses the remains of the main runway part way down. It then bends to the right taking you along the perimeter track, and then right again to the memorial – a circular route that traverses what was the peri track. Several of the hardstands still survive, mainly on farm property and difficult to see from the ground, but the number of buildings still standing is quite remarkable for such a short lived airfield.
Trail 1 then continues on, visiting another former Bomber Command airfield RAF Woodhall Spa.
After Part 1, we continue following the crews of 106 Squadron at RAF Metheringham. The weather and in particular fog became a huge problem for aircrew, and bomber Command in particular. Something had to be done.
During the 1940s, fog was a particular problem around Britain’s airfields, often reducing visibility down to virtually nil, meaning bombers could neither take off nor land. Arthur Harris realising the effect this was having on his bomber operations, requested investigations be carried out into a possible method for clearing the fog thus allowing bombers to operate in this appalling conditions and widening the possibilities of operations in bad weather.
Churchill, influenced by Harris’s argument, instructed his Scientific Adviser Lord Cherwell to begin action at once, and so the Petroleum Warfare Department began to assemble a team of experts – who had already carried out some investigations into the weather and methods for dealing with fog – into a team to investigate the problem. A wide ranging group of scientists and industrialists carried out research concluding that heat was by far the best method for clearing fog over the low lying landscape.
The requirement put forward was to clear a standard Class A runway of at least 1,000 yards long and 50 yards wide, and an area up to 100 feet above the ground – a staggering 1.65m cubic yards of air. Further limitations were then put on the order restricting the placement of any obstacles likely to endanger an aircraft within 50 feet of the runway’s edge. A mammoth task but one which saw the development of the oil burning FIDO system.
The FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) system was developed under the leadership a British Civil Engineer Arthur Clifford Hartley, CBE who worked with the Petroleum Warfare Department, and whose initial ideas involved using one of two streams of fuel; petroleum trialled at RAF Graveley, and Coke trialled at RAF Lakenheath. After initial (and rather crude) tests at both Moody Down (petroleum) and Staines (coke), petroleum was found to be the better of the two fuels, and henceforth, the Gravely model was used as a template for fourteen further sites of which Metheringham was one.
Installed at Metheringham during early 1944, it saw pipes laid alongside the runway which when lit, created an initial mass of smoke. Once the system had ‘warmed up’ the smoke dissipated and the fog began to ‘burn off’ as the immense heat from the burners created an up draft of warm air.
By the war’s end FIDO had been used across England to assist in the landing of almost 2,500 aircraft most of which would otherwise have not been able to land without great danger to the crews or ground staff; it had been one of the war’s greatest success stories and was sold as such to the wider public. So successful in its outcomes, FIDO was intended to be installed at London’s major airport Heathrow, after the war, but the cost of running each system was astronomical, burning some 6,000 – 7,000 gallons of fuel in four minutes – the time it took to clear the designated volume of air. It is estimated that during its wartime use, something like 30 million gallons of fuel were burnt and whilst the cost to the taxpayer was tremendous, it is thought to have saved the lives of over 10,000 airmen in the process.*1
Back in the air, the night of March 15th/16th saw split missions with one section going to Stuttgart and and a further six aircraft heading to the aero-engine factory at Woippy in France. These six made up a total formation of twenty-two Lancasters, a flight that included 617 Sqn aircraft. With promises of good weather over the Metz region, it came as a huge disappointment to find 10/10 cloud cover over the entire target. Even with the target being identified on the H2S screen and five marker flares being dropped, the leader announced the mission scrubbed and all aircraft were instructed to return to base taking their full complement of bombs with them. So strong were the crew feelings that 617 Sqn’s leader, Leonard Cheshire, seriously considered complaining! However, despite this, all aircraft returned including those of 106 Sqn to Metheringham with only minor flak damage to ND331.
With the next few missions passing without major incident, the night of March 30th, would deal a hefty blow to the crews of 106 Sqn.
With take off starting at 22:15, seventeen Lancasters would depart Metheringham heading for Nurumberg carrying a range of 4,000lb, 1,000lb, 500lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, skymarkers guided the bomb-aimers as cloud was reported as heavy as 10/10 again. Searchlights and flak were evident as were fighters which attacked and damaged Lancaster ND332 piloted by F/O. Penman. The Lancaster, which claimed two enemy aircraft damaged, returned to England putting down on Manston’s emergency runway. Both the rear and mid upper turrets were out of action, one of the engines caught fire, and on landing, the undercarriage collapsed due to the enemy action. luckily though, no crewmen were injured in the sustained attack that caused the Lancaster’s severe damage.
A further Lancaster had to return early, Lancaster JB567 after suffering the failure of the port inner engine landing back at Metheringham after two and half hours into the flight. Similarly it was an engine failure that also caused the early return of JB641 this time landing three hours after departure. Three of the seventeen Lancasters were already out of action.
Meanwhile on the continent, Lancaster ND585, was reported missing, later being found to have been shot down by a German night fighter, crashing in Belgium with the loss of all its crew. On board was, at 18 years old, another of Bomber Command’s youngest ever crewmen, Sgt. Julian Mackilligin RAFVR (S/N: 1804016), who even at his young age, was already half way through his operational quota. He was buried at the Hotton War Cemetery, Luxenbourg.
Next came another two losses, Lancasters JB566 piloted by F/S. T. Hall DFM and ND535 piloted by F/O. J Starkey. Both went down with the loss of all but four crewmen. The mission had indeed been costly, forty-two airmen were out of action, seventeen of them killed.*3
By the end of the first quarter of 1944, 106 Sqn had carried out more sorties than any other 5 Group squadron (358) losing 8 aircraft in the process. This gave the men of Metheringham an average of 19 sorties per aircraft in the first 90 days.
April began with a mix of bombing and ‘Gardening‘ missions, operations that included laying mines along the Koningberger Seekanel, with mines being dropped from as low as 150 ft. Even though some aircraft reported heavy ground fire from the banks of the Canal, the mission was deemed to be a great success and all aircraft returned safely.
The month continued to go well for the Metheringham crews, but the night of April 22nd / 23rd would take another toll on the morale of the crews. That night saw twenty Lancasters fly to Brunswick as part of a much larger force of 238 Lancasters and seventeen Mosquitoes. The mission, whilst generally uneventful, marked the first operation in low level target marking by No. 5 Group over a large city, an aid that proved fruitless on this occasion partly due to low cloud/haze obscuring the bomb aimer’s clear sight. With varying reports of cloud from 5/10 to no cloud and haze, all bombers reported bombing on markers, but damage and ground causalities were recorded as low.
The former Gymnasium now forms part of the museum and holds a range functions including weddings and talks.
RAF loses that night were also relatively low, with only four aircraft being lost from the whole flight. Sadly though, one of these, Lancaster MK.III ‘JB567’ ZN-E piloted by F/Lt. J. Lee was a Metheringham aircraft. F/Lt Lee had only one more mission to go before completing his first tour of duty. Only two of his crew survived, being picked up by German forces and sent to POW camps. This loss only went to strengthen the idea that it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a full tour of duty unscathed.
The next night 24th/25th April, 1944, took 106 Sqn back to Germany once more, to Munich and another ‘clear night’ with accurate bombing reported. But, then it was Schweinfurt a city that would become synonymous with high casualties especially amongst colleagues in the US Air Force.
In part 3, we see how incredible brave acts earned a Metheringham airman the highest honour – the Victoria Cross.
Many of the airfields in this area were the RAF’s Bomber Command airfields, several housing the four-engined heavies the Lancaster bomber. Being a flat region of England it was an ideal landscape for Bomber Command, it was also near enough to the continent and yet far away from intruders to suffer the risk of major attack.
We continue on on this trail by visiting one such airfield, an airfield that lasted until the war’s end featuring only one major flying unit, 106 Squadron. Today, we add a new addition to Trail 1 as we visit the former base RAF Metheringham.
Located on the edge of the Lincolnshire Fens 3 miles east of the Lincoln Cliff escarpment, and near to the village from which it takes its name, Metheringham was opened in 1943 as a class ‘A’ bomber airfield under the control of No. 54 Base, 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command. It would fall under the control of the main base at RAF Coningsby, operating in conjunction with RAF Woodhall Spa, in a three station network implemented to streamline the Bomber Command structure.
Like many airfields of the time, it had the usual three concrete runways; a main runway running slightly off north-south at 2,000 yds, and two additional runways of 1,400 yds each running north-east to south-west and north-west to south-east. The technical area was located to the west of the airfield, with the huge bomb store to the north. Metheringham had two T2 hangars and one B1, along with numerous spectacle hardstands around the perimeter track.
Large sections of Metheringham’s runways still exist mainly as public highways. The line of trees denotes a further runway.
The accommodation areas, mainly Nissen hutting, were spread to the south and west of the airfield, separated from the main airfield by the public highway, a feature common with many late wartime airfields. The entire site covered 650 acres, previously utilised as forest or rich farmland,
Built from requisitioned land over the winter of 1942/43, construction was not complete until after the advanced party arrived in early November 1942. Described by some as ‘cold’, ‘bleak’ and ‘inhospitable’, it was not unlike the many other unfinished wartime airfields scattered across Britain at the time. Muddy and with little in the way of creature comforts, it was soon to be home for bomber crews of the Royal Air Force, who would reside here for the remainder of the war.
With the advanced party hurriedly connecting mains water and power, the first and primary unit to serve from the airfield, 106 Squadron, began arriving hoping for something more than cold huts and muddy pathways.
A First World War Squadron who had been disbanded in 1919 and reformed in 1938 as war loomed, 106 Squadron had initially operated single engined and twin-engined light trainers before transferring to No. 5 Group and bombers. It first real foray into the bomber war was with the under-powered Manchester before switching to the far superior big sister, the Lancaster, in May 1942. This change over occurred at their previous station RAF Syerston, and within a week of their November 11th arrival here at Metheringham, they were flying their first Metheringham mission, and it would be right into the German Heartland.
Following on from the usual familiarisation flights, thirteen Lancasters of 106 Sqn would take to the air on the night of November 18th/19th for a bombing raid on the German capital. Mid November signified the start of a period known as the ‘Battle of Berlin’, a period in the Second World War where Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, would finally get the chance to put into practice the idea that massed bombing of the capital would bring about the demise of the morale of the population by sustained attacks from Bomber Command. After witnessing first hand the Blitz of Britain’s cities, Harris was determined that such a campaign could succeed. However, ignoring the fact that the German’s own example had failed in reducing the British morale, he pressed on, sending wave after wave of bombers deep into Germany and Berlin itself.
So it began on that November night. With each 106 Sqn Lancaster carrying a 4,000lb bomb along with a mix of smaller bombs, they set off for Berlin. With moderate flak over the target, and no night-fighters encountered, resultant damage was light especially compared to some missions that would be flown by the Command.
The raid itself was not considered a great success, and whilst no major injuries were sustained on the mission, Sgt. R. Smith, the Mid upper gunner of Lancaster JB642, suffered severe frost bite after passing out due to a faulty Oxygen system in the aircraft. After landing at the fighter airfield at RAF Tangmere, Sgt Smith was treated for his injuries.
With one other aircraft landing away from base, the remainder of 106 Sqn all made it back to Metheringham with relatively minor damage. A remarkable escape considering the nature of the target.
There were plans to rebuild the Watch Office, a mammoth task considering its very poor condition.
A return to Berlin saw 106 Sqn back in the air on the 22nd/23rd and then again on the following night 23rd/24th November. The continuing spell of good luck saw all crews return safely again with only light to moderate damage to their aircraft. However, the night of 26th/27th would see 106’s luck finally run out and the first Metheringham loss.
Lancasters JB592 piloted By F/O. J. Hoboken DFC (his third flight to the capital that week) and ED873 piloted by F/O. R. Neil, were both lost that night. JB592, was brought down not far from Gross-Karben, in Hesse Germany with the loss of all the crew on board. ED873 suffered early engine problems with the starboard outer engine surging not long after take off. Once passed the coast, the 4,000 lb bomb was safely jettisoned and sent to the waters below where it was seen to explode by the crew. The aircraft then turned to land, overshot the runway and crashed into a field opposite the airfield. The crew were uninjured apart from the rear gunner (Sgt. Parker) who received minor injuries in the crash. This injury would however, prove to be a godsend, playing a vital role in his survival later on. This third night of bombing saw a force of 443 Lancasters take a heavy toll, with 28 being lost in action over the continent and another 14 over England. A loss rate of over 6%.
It was F/O. Neil’s crew who, after their lucky escape, would fall as the next victims of Berlin’s defence. With the original rear gunner still out of action due to the broken arm received in the last crash, he was replaced by Sgt. G. Stubbs, who made his last and fatal flight in ED874 on the night of December 2nd/3rd. The aircraft was brought down with the loss of all those on board, including the replacement Sgt. Stubbs. Berlin was fast becoming a rather large and sharp thorn in the side of Metheringham crews who by now, longed for a change in the target.
With one more Lancaster lost that year (Lancaster MK.III ‘JB638’, ZN-G) again with all on board, the cold 1943 winter drew to a close with many empty bunks in the Metheringham huts. It would be a long and bitter winter though, a winter that would last for several months over the 1943/44 period and all as the Battle for Berlin continued to rage on.
The New Year 1944 should have brought new hope for the Metheringham crews, but sadly things were to be worse – much worse. In fact, it would go on to prove to be the worst year in 106 Sqn’s history with their highest losses experienced to date.
The year began with fine but cold weather recorded as fifteen crews reported for duty on New Years Day. With bated breath they waited for the curtain to be pulled back to see where the bomb run marker would now take them. A thin line that denoted high chances of survival or low. But once again, and to the dismay of crews, the flight line marked its way across the continent to Berlin, it would be yet another night over the capital. With a take off time of 23:59, crews were briefed, checks carried out and engines started. Over the target 10/10 cloud were reported, so bombing was carried out on Pathfinder markers, with many of the Metheringham aircraft verifying their position with H2S.
Although fifteen aircraft took off, only thirteen made it to Berlin, Lancasters JB642 ‘ZN-J’ and JB645 ‘ZN-F’, both MK.IIIs, were shot down with the loss of thirteen airmen. The youngest of these, Sergeant John Alfred Withington (s/n: 1628244) was only 18 years of age and one of the youngest causalities of Bomber Command. The only survivor, F/S. A. Elsworthy, was captured and taken to a POW camp, Stalag Luft III in the German province of Lower Silesia not far from the town of Sagan.
Many of Metheringham’s buildings remained scattered about the accommodation areas.
With yet more flights to Berlin, briefings were becoming rather repetitive, and January ended the way it began with the loss of another seven air crew led by RAAF pilot P/O. K Kirland. Over the whole month, 106 Squadron had flown 123 sorties over nine nights, a total of 769 flying hours, dropping 497 tons of bombs, the second highest total in the whole of No. 5 Group.
In the next post we see how Metheringham along with thirteen other airfields coped with the problem of fog, and how they continued to take the battle deep into the heart of Germany.