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

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

St. Clement Danes Church – London

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

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

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

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

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

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

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

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

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

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

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

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

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

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

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

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Why not support the British Legion through their website

Sgt. William Stannard – 487 Sqn RAF – Miraculous Escape

There have been many instances of incredible acts of bravery and bizarre cases of survival that would normally seem impossible. Flt. Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade falling from 18,000ft without a parachute is just one of very many.

Another such remarkable event occurred on May 3rd 1943, when twelve Lockheed Venturas attacked a Dutch Power Station near Amsterdam. The ‘Ramrod‘ mission involved twelve Venturas from 487 Squadron from RAF Methwold, an airfield located between Downham Market and Thetford, on the edge of Thetford Forest.

This mission, ‘Ramrod 16‘, turned out to be a total disaster for the Venturas, an aircraft converted from a passenger aircraft  for war. With its fat body and poor handling, the Ventura earned itself the unsavoury name the “Flying Pig”.

On May 3rd, twelve aircraft, all Ventura MK.Is, departed RAF Methwold, heading for Amsterdam as part of a much larger force involving aircraft from both 12 Group (the main force) and 11 Group who were flying a diversionary sweep.

One Ventura from Methwold would turn back shortly after takeoff when the crew hatch broke off, leaving eleven to proceed: AE684 (EG-B); AE713 (T); AE716 (U); AE731 (O); AE780 (S); AE798 (D); AE916 (C); AE956 (H); AJ200 (G); AJ209 (V) and AJ487 (A). On board each of those aircraft were four crewmen including one Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent V.C.  whose bravery saw the attack through to the bitter end and the awarding of the Victoria Cross for his actions.

The carefully planned attack went horribly wrong though, after aircraft on ‘Rodeo 212′ from 11 Group entered the Vlissingen area thirty minutes ahead of schedule, alerting both the ground and air defences. By the time the Venturas of 487 Sqn arrived, the defenders were well and truly ready.

The crew of  ‘EG-B’ Sgt George Sparkes 2nd from the right – others F/O S. Coshall, F/O R.A. North & Sgt W. Stannard *1

On board another one of the other Venturas AE684, (EG-B) that day,  was Sgt. William Stannard (s/n: 1253660) and crew. As they approached the target area, Sgt. Stannard’s aircraft was attacked by the alerted Luftwaffe fighters, the Ventura being shot down at 17:45 over Bennebroek, a few miles from Haarlem, in Holland. As a result of the attack, the Ventura broke in half, the tail section – in which Sgt. Stannard was located – breaking away from the main fuselage. The main body of the aircraft – now out of control, burning and failing to Earth – would crash killing both the Pilot F.O. Stanley Coshall (s/n: 46911) and Sgt. George Henry Sparkes (s/n: 1392394). The forth crewman, F.O. Rupert A. North, luckily survived the ordeal, bailing out before the aircraft crashed, being captured and taken prisoner. Sgt. North would be reunited for a short while with Sgt. Stannard before being transferred to Stalag Luft Sagan and Belaria.

Sgt. Stannard, still trapped in the tail, remained there until it too hit the ground – its descent slowed by the flying qualities of the tail becoming an impromptu glider. The whole section coming to Earth where it  collided with a tree knocking Sgt. Stannard unconscious. When he came to, Sgt. Stannard was in a Dutch Manor House surrounded by astonished German officials who were waiting to interrogate him before taking him into custody!

Sgt. Stannard, alive and well, was imprisoned at Stalag Kopernikus for the duration of the war. He miraculously survived the fall trapped  inside the rear section of the Ventura which managed to glide to Earth before striking the tree.

Sources.

*1 Photo (Courtesy Pat McGuigan via Paul Garland –  RAF Feltwell – Personnel – memorial pages).

Sgt. North’s story can be read on the RAF Feltwell – Personnel – memorial pages website along with further crew photos.

RAF Methwold appears in Trail 8 and Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent’s story appears in Heroic tales.

RAF Leeming – The Great North Road (Pt 4).

In this, the last part of Trail 57 – The Great North Road (pt 2) we see how Leeming progressed from the late 1960s to the present day. From the modest little Jet Provost to the Tornado and on to the Hawk trainer. Leeming’s long history was far from over, but it is now very different to those dark days of World War 2 and the four-engined heavy bombers of the Canadian Air Force. At this point in time it was now home to No. 3 Flying Training School (F.T.S.)

The Flying Training School would remain at Leeming for twenty-three years, before being disbanded for a few years, in 1984. It  had a long history extending as far back as 1920, morphing into different guises but performing basically the same role each time.

Here at Leeming, 3 F.T.S. would use the Jet Provost T.3, a design that was based on the piston-engined P.56 Provost, using a new fuselage mated to the original wing structure, it would become a popular design, seeing many years of service both in the Royal Air Force and Air Forces abroad. Designed and built by Hunting Percival Aircraft Limited, who were based at Luton Airport, it would go through few design changes (most were technical e.g. ejection seats, upgraded engines etc) between its initial flight and final model the T.5. In 1967 it would become the Strikemaster, when the British Aircraft Corporation (B.A.C) took over, but the initial design would go on to serve well into the 1990s performing well in the training role it was designed to do.

The Provost was designed for a straight through or ‘Ab Initio‘ (‘from the beginning’) role, taking the trainee pilot from the piston engined stage through to obtaining his ‘wings’ before advanced flying training as a qualified pilot.

Bruntingthorpe May 2016 079 Hunting Jet Provost T.3A at Bruntingthorpe. This was previously flown by 1 FTS.

Initial arrivals were slow, but courses ran on time and very soon Leeming would be welcoming cadets and trainees from across the globe. Over the next 20 years or so, further upgrades would be made to the airfield site, repairs and modifications made to the perimeters and hardstands. Leeming was to operate on a 24 hours basis allowing for emergency landings of visitors  both civil and military. It would take part in NATO exercises, hosting as it does today, aircraft from around the country and the globe when the need arose.

The mid 60s saw the return of female personnel to Leeming. An absence of almost twenty years with little pomp or ceremony, but it was nevertheless a milestone in Leeming’s long and distinguished history.

Another major event in Leeming’s history was the arrival of the Central Flying School (C.F.S.) in 1976-77. This addition to Leeming’s pans had been slowly coming with aircraft being dispersed here since the previous year. The C.F.S. was another long standing and dynamic unit that had gone through many changes and many moves, here at Leeming though, its arrival was heralded with a display by the ‘Vintage Pair’ a Vampire T.11 (XH304) and Meteor T.7 (WF791) seen at many airfields around the country until the flight was disbanded in May 1986.

The C.F.S.’s history is far too detailed to be looked at here, but in essence the first arrivals were the Scottish Aviation Bulldogs, a small single engined aircraft with side-by-side seating. These were joined not long after by the Headquarters, Groundschool and Jet Provosts of the C.F.S. from RAF Cranwell in September 1977.

More upgrades to hangars and aprons in the late 70s and early 80s saw further changes with arrivals and departures of other units, and a rather important cadet arrived in the form of HRH Prince Andrew, amid much public interest. 1982 also saw the arrival of an American unit, the USAF’s 131st Tactical Fighter Wing (T.F.W.), with 12 Phantom F-4s, followed not long after by C130s and C141s.

In 1984, a four year reconstruction programme amounting to some £148m was implemented to prepare Leeming for the arrival of the latest version of the Multi Role Combat Aircraft the Tornado. In this case the F2 Air Defence Variant (A.D.V.). It was during this time (1984) that Leeming would join 11 Group Strike Command, the old Fighter and Bomber Commands having been amalgamated in 1968. To facilitate the upgrade, the remaining units, both the C.F.S. and 3 F.T.S. would cease operations here. The C.F.S. departing to Scampton and  3 F.T.S. being disbanded for another five years.

The move of the C.F.S. to Scampton, saw the Jet Provosts and Bulldogs depart Leeming in a grand final farewell. Flying in formation, nine bulldogs took off an hour before a second formation of Jet Provosts led in a Vampire by Air Commodore Kip Kemball. In addition to the Bulldogs were sixteen Jet Provosts, an equal mix of Mk.3s and MK.5s, two Meteors and the Vampire. After flying over several of Yorkshire’s airfields, they arrived simultaneously at Scampton and their new home.

In July 1988 the rebuilding programme had been completed and RAF Leeming reopened with the arrival of No XI(Fighter) Sqn – on July 1st 1988. Following not far behind was No 23(Fighter) Sqn on 1st November that same year. The third squadron to arrive, No XXV(Fighter) Sqn, landed on 1st October 1989; all being reformed here and all operating the F3 Variant Tornado. The F3 would perform its duties for 20 years at Leeming, ending with the final disbandment of XXV(F) Sqn in April 2008.

XI (F) Squadron, had been in operation since 1915 with an almost unbroken service record. XXV (F) Sqn had been operating as a Bloodhound SAM unit since the early 1960s. In 1989 they returned to manned aircraft, taking on the Tornado, operating in a range of military operations during Gulf War 1, the former Yugoslavia and the Baltic States.

In 1989 a tragic accident marred the almost unblemished record of modern Leeming, when on Friday 21st July a Tornado of 23 Sqn ZE833, crashed into the sea off Tynemouth whilst on a training flight. The Pilot, Fl. Lt. Stephen Moir,  was leading a pair of ‘target’ aircraft, when after an initial field intercept he pulled the aircraft up to 4,000ft, before initiating a 20o-25o nose down dive. At 3 – 400 ft the navigator gave a verbal warning just as the on board low warning indicator, set at 200 ft, activated. Within moments the aircraft hit the calm sea, a fireball engulfing the aircraft, at which point the crew ejected. The co-pilot passed through the fireball sustaining minor burns but the pilot suffered major head injuries rendering him unconscious. After 40 minutes the co-pilot was recovered by a Sea King helicopter from RAF Boulmer, but the pilot had been unable to initiate any recovery action and sadly drowned*10.

An inquiry could not establish any direct cause of the crash, other than suggesting the pilot had not taken into account the lack of lift with wings set back at 67o and the smooth sea not providing visual cues as to his height. By the time the navigator gave his warning it may well have been too late to recover.

A second, but less serious accident occurred for XI (F) Sqn five years later on June 7th 1994. On this occasion, whilst performing a high speed, low-level (1,300ft) pass over the sea 45 miles north-east of Scarborough, the labyrinth seal around the high pressure shaft failed causing a massive fire, major component failure and eventual failure of the right engine. The aircraft, now uncontrollable, became engulfed in flames. The two crew ejected safely and the aircraft crashed into the sea. As a result, a speed restriction was put on all Tornado aircraft until the RB199 engine seal had been investigated.

Further reviews of the armed forces led to the Tornado F3 squadrons being cut. This was to aid the phasing in of its replacement the Eurofighter Typhoon. The first of these to go was 23 Sqn, who had previously occupied Port Stanley airfield following the Falklands War. After being reduced to just four aircraft the unit was disbanded only to reform here at Leeming in 1988. As a result of this review, on February 26th 1994, 23 Sqn was disbanded not reemerging again until 1996 at Waddington with Sentry AEW 1s.

Another review of the military (2003 Defence White Paper, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”) saw further reductions of the Tornado squadrons, notably the demise of XI (F) Squadron in October 2005. This reduction left just one Tornado F3 unit XXV (F) at Leeming. They remained here until 4th April 2008 when they too were disbanded.

The next big step in Leeming’s history occurred in 1995, with the arrival of 100 Squadron. 100 Sqn had a history extending back to World War 1, they had an extensive World War 2 history, culminating in the humanitarian operations ‘Manna’ and ‘Exodus’.

The role of 100 Sqn at Leeming was a far cry from the activities of the previous years. Equipped with the BAe Hawk T MK.1 – a fully aerobatic, low-wing, transonic, two-seat training aircraft, it fulfils an  ‘aggressor’ role simulating enemy forces and providing essential training to the RAF front-line units. The Hawk T1 is equipped to ‘operational standards’, capable of being armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and up to eight 3Kg practice bombs.

A final and tragic loss occurred at Leeming on 22nd October 1999 with the loss of Hawk T.1A ‘XX193’ just outside the village of Shap in Cumbria. The flight incorporated a three ship formation flying in the aggressor role, where one aircraft attempts to intercept the remaining two, who then take defensive action. After performing two such ‘attacks’ the aggressor, flown by Sqn Ldr Mike Andrews, flew north along the M6 corridor. During a slow turn, XX193, struck two trees and a brick outbuilding causing extensive damage to the property and destroying the aircraft. Neither of the two crew managed to eject resulting in both their deaths.

The assessment of the crash ruled that the aircraft was well maintained and serviceable, and that the Hawk pilot may have been distracted by other close aircraft taking his concentration off the low height. They also sited pilot fatigue as possible factor *11

RAF Leeming Hawk T1s of 100 Sqn line up for take off at RAF Leeming.

A number of other squadrons continue to use Leeming, in April 1996, 34 Squadron RAF Regiment arrived in North Yorkshire after serving for forty years in Cyprus. Now part of No. 2 RAF Force Protection Wing, their role is to provide air force protection capabilities. In 2007 – 90 Signals Unit arrived from RAF Brize Norton, they now form the largest contingency at Leeming,  half of the airfields population, providing communication services to operations both within the UK and by supporting operations world wide.

Whilst not flying units these nonetheless provide important services and support to the Royal Air Force operations, forming a large part of Leeming’s presence in this small Yorkshire village.

In 2014, history repeated itself with the return of 405 (R.C.A.F.) Sqn who flew into Leeming to take part in operation ‘Joint Warrior’. Now flying CP-140 Auroras, it was the first time the squadron had been at Leeming since it departed in World War 2. The full story appeared in ‘The Northern Echo’ newspaper.

Currently the RAF operate both the Hawk and the 120TP Prefect at Leeming. With its history extending far back to the origins of the Second World War, its links with the Canadian bomber group and a wide range of aircraft types and personnel, its history for the moment looks secure. In an ever changing world though who knows what the future holds, but for now, Leeming plays a major role in the training of Britain’s front line fighter pilots striving to keep the World’s air spaces free from terror.

Being an active base access to Leeming is restricted. A Tornado currently resides as the Gate Guard reminding us of the links with the former work horse of the RAF’s front line squadrons. The A1 main road by passes Leeming and access to the site has to be by exiting this road and turning on to the old Leeming road into the village. The road along side the airfield does offer excellent views, and a public viewing area has been provided by the base, for those who wish to watch the flying safely and virtually unrestricted.

Leeming has along and varied history, used by many nationals and operating a wide range of aircraft types, it is has been, and continues to be, a major player in Britain’s  air defence.

RAF Leeming 120TP PREFECT

Sources and further reading.

*1 National Archives Operational Record Book AIR 27/98/1

*2 National Archives Operational Record Book AIR 27/379/4

*3 National Archives Operational Record Book AIR 27/1796/28

*4 To avoid confusion with renumbering, Air Force Order 324/40, dated 7th June 1940, stated: “In order to avoid confusion in matters pertaining to similarly numbered units of the RAF and the RCAF, all units of the RCAF, after embarkation for overseas, are to be identified by use of the word “Canada” as a suffix immediately after the Squadron number, e.g., No. 110 Canadian (AC) Squadron.” However, this order was cancelled on 4th June 1943 by Air Force Routine Order 1077/43.

*5 AIR 27/1848

*6 Emmanuel College Roll of Honour website.

*7 Coupland, P. “Straight and True –  A History of RAF Leeming” Leo Cooper 1997.

*8  The London Gazette on 23rd October 1951 (Issue: 39366, Page: 5509)

*9 Buttler, T., “The 1957 Defence White Paper – The Cancelled Projects”. Journal of Aeronautical History, Paper No. 2018/03

*10 Ministry of Defence Military Aircraft Accident Summaries 7/90 6th June 1990

*11 Ministry of Defence Military Accident Summaries January 2001.

AIR 27/141/24

The Bomber Command Museum of Canada Website.

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum website

RAF Leeming – Royal Air Force Website.

Ward. C., “4 Group Bomber Command: An Operational Record“. 2012 Pen and Sword.

A detailed history of RAF Leeming can be found in: Peter Coupland’s book “Straight & True  – A History of RAF Leeming“, published in 1997 by Pen and Sword.

The full Trail can be seen in Trail 57.

Loss of Mosquito FBVI ‘NS828’ RAF Swanton Morley.

Memorial to Fl. Lt. J Paterson and Fl. Lt J. Mellar

On April 25/26th 1944, 487 Sqn (RNZAF) moved from RAF Gravesend to RAF Swanton Morley in Norfolk, taking with them D.H. Mosquitoes. They had only been at Gravesend a few days when news of the new move came through.

487 Sqn had previously been involved in ground attacks on German airfields across the occupied countries, and in several high profile missions. In particular, during the previous February, they had been involved in Operation ‘Jericho‘, the attack on the Amiens Jail, in France. It was also a Methwold based Ventura piloted by Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent, who, on 3rd May 1943, had led the Squadron in a disastrous daylight attack on the power station at Amsterdam. As a result of his actions that day, Sqn. Ldr. Trent received the V.C., the highest honour bestowed on personnel of the armed forces.

On their arrival at Swanton Morley, 487 Sqn would immediately begin training for new air operations, their part in the forthcoming D-day invasion at Normandy, with the first flights taking off the following day.

On April 27th three ‘targets’ were chosen, the Grimston Range not far away from Swanton Morley, the Bradenham Range in the Chilterns, and lastly the Army Gunnery School site at Stiffkey, on the North Norfolk coast. Each of these were to be ‘attacked’ in cross country sorties by the Mosquitoes.

In one of those Mosquitoes ‘EG-A’ was Pilot Flight Lieutenant John Charles Paterson (NZ/2150), and his Navigator Flight Lieutenant John James Spencer Mellar (s/n: 49175) both of the R.N.Z.A.F.

The day’s sortie went well, until the return flight home was made. It was on this leg of the flight that the port engine of the Mosquito, a Hatfield built FBVI ‘NS828’ under contract 555/C.23(a), began to overheat.

Immediately Flt. Lt. Paterson feathered the engine – now flying on just one. The Mosquito was lined up on approach to Swanton Morley for a single-engined landing, but all did not go well. Unfortunately,  instead of putting the aircraft down on the runway, the aircraft overshot the airfield crashing into a field beyond, the resultant accident killing both pilot and navigator instantly.

The Operational Record Book (AIR 27/1935/31) for April 27th states:

Formation dive bombing on Grimstone [sic] range. Low level bombing on Bradenham Range. Formation cross country with air to sea firing practice off the coast at Wells. In the evening six aircraft carried out formation attacks on gun positions at an army Gunnery School at Stiffkey. Returning from this ‘A’, F/Lt. Paterson developed engine trouble and feathered the airscrew.  In attempting to land, he overshot and crashed. F.Lt. Paterson and his navigator F. Lt. Mellar, were both killed.”

Since then, a memorial has been erected in memory of the two men, located on the side of the B1110 Dereham Road just outside the village of North Elmham in Norfolk, it stands not far from the site of the crash site, west of Swanton Morley airfield. After the crash, Flt. Lt. Paterson’s body was buried at Shepperton Church Cemetery, whilst Flt. Lt. Mellar was buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery plot 24. D. 20.

Flight Lieutenant Mellar was 29 on the date of his passing, he was the son of William Edward and Eleanor Mellar; and husband of Dorothy Freda Mellar. Flight Lieutenant Paterson was 24 years of age, he was the son of John Alexander and Alice Louise Paterson, of Papakura, Auckland, New Zealand, and husband of Doris Josephine Paterson, of Shepperton.

Swanton Morley appears in Trail 38.

RAF Leeming Part 2 – The Canadians arrive.

In part 1, we saw how 4 Group had been operating mainly Whitleys from Leeming, and how the squadrons here had taken a beating in the European skies. Now, following the departure of the last elements of 10 Sqn. in August 1942, Leeming was all but empty, and ready to be handed over to the Canadians. With the introduction of the four engined heavies, hopefully things would begin to change and the losses of before would be lessened. Harris was now in charge of Bomber Command, new directives and a renewed focus would see the first of the 1,000 bomber raids, perhaps now, the air war would turn.

Formed in October 1942, 6 Group was born out of Article XV of the Riverdale Agreement, which allowed the formation of distinct squadrons manned by personnel from across the British Commonwealth – primarily Australia, Canada and New Zealand. This would, in theory, allow the aircrews of these countries to keep their national identity whilst serving in the Royal Air Force, and allowing the governments of these nations to have a say in the service of these crews. However, Britain did not want this – fearing interference from abroad in strategic matters – and so an agreement was drawn up whereby they would keep their nationality but serve under the full control of the Royal Air Force.

After negotiations on 17th April 1941, it was agreed that there could be 25 Canadian squadrons created (along with 18 Australian and 6 New Zealand Squadrons). But with shortages of trained personnel, and slow progress  through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), many of these squadrons took a long time to come, and many units were simply filled with a range of nationalities, thus defeating the original objectives of the agreement.

Ultimately though, 44 Canadian, 16 Australian and 6 New Zealand squadrons were formed operating across a range of fields. Of these, 15 Canadian squadrons operated within Bomber Command – one transferring to the Pathfinders of 8 Group.  As the war progressed, and air superiority fell to the allies, Bomber Command took fewer casualties, and so the number of  individual nationals serving within each squadron began to rise. By the time the war began to close, these squadrons had had their  national identities and character restored, and they were by now, either Canadian, Australian or New Zealand Squadrons in their own right.

Transferring so many units from other countries would initially cause confusion, with similar numbered units appearing in both the RAF, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand Air Forces. To overcome the problem, Canadian squadrons were allocated the first fifty numbers of the ‘400’ block (400 – 449), and so Canadian born squadrons were renumbered accordingly once they had transferred to the UK*4. With this, 6 Group was born, and over the next few years it would become synonymous with Yorkshire, utilising the many airfields found within its boundaries.

At Leeming, six of these fourteen units would operate, Nos: 405, 408, 419, 424, 427 and 429, all between August 1942 and May 1946 when the last two resident groups would disband.

The first of these squadrons to arrive would be 419 (Moose) Squadron.

419 Sqn. were only at Leeming a short time, a transition stop between 13th and 18th August 1942, just prior to the forming of 6 Group. Preparations for the move began a few days earlier with an advance party of twenty-five personnel making the journey to Leeming from Mildenhall by train. On the 11th, the squadron was stood down from operations and all hands helped load equipment onto another train consisting of 25 goods wagons. Loading took place at night at Shippea Hill, a small desolate, and rarely used station not far from Mildenhall airfield.

On the 12th, a second train was laid on in which 200 personnel were loaded onto 30 cars, led by Flt. Lt. D. S. McCann, they made their way north arriving at Leeming Bar station at 21.40 hrs. After unloading, a warm and no doubt welcome meal was provided, and then the personnel all retired for the night. Also on the 12th, a further 150 personnel transferred by air, flying in seventeen of the squadron’s aircraft. They made their way from Mildenhall, not to Leeming airfield but to RAF Skipton, where they stayed the night. The next day, they made the last leg of the journey, transferring across to Leeming landing on the one serviceable runway. Here they unloaded and prepared the airfield for operations. However, the stay was short lived, a visit by the Canadian Minister of National Defence for Air, the Honorable Charles Gavan “Chubby” Power, MC. PC., and Air Marshall L.S. Breadner the following day, preceded the squadron’s move out from Leeming to RAF Topcliffe, where operations would finally finally began once more.

Named 419 (Moose) Squadron they were named after their first Commanding Officer, Wing Commander John “Moose” Fulton, and displayed a Canadian Moose in the centre of their unit crest. Not joining 6 (R.C.A.F.) Group until the following year, they flew Wellingtons into Leeming going on to be resident at several of the Group’s airfields. It was 419 Sqn. pilot Andrew Charles “Andy” Mynarski, who would so bravely try to save the life of his trapped tail gunner; Mynarski himself dying from the severe burns he received in the action. The Gunner, Cpl. Pat Brophy, remarkably survived the aircraft’s crash, and it was his testimony that led to Mynarski receiving the Victoria Cross.  The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario have restored and fly, one of only two air worthy Lancasters as a memorial and tribute to Mynarski’s brave efforts.

Canadian Lancaster C-GVRA

Canadian Lancaster KB726 ‘VR-A’ dedicated to Andrew Mynarski on her arrival at RAF Coningsby August 2014. The dedication to Mynarski being displayed beneath the Lancaster’s cockpit.

A rather impromptu visit interrupted changes at Leeming, when P.O. Colin Frank Sorensen (RCAF) was practising aerobatics in the Leeming vicinity in Spitfire P8784. During a manoeuvre his engine cut out, luckily he was able to make a wheels up landing after gliding into Leeming. The aircraft was badly damaged in the landing but the Danish born Sorensen walked away unhurt.

The second of the six Canadian Squadrons to arrive at Leeming, 408 (Goose) Sqn., made their appearance on 14th September 1942, the squadron arriving whilst  in the process of changing over from the Hampden to the Halifax. After a busy, but ‘run of the mill’ period, October would prove to be rather significant, although the Operational Record Books wouldn’t quite recognise it as such. The entry for October 1st 1942*3  states:

1.10.42.

Today started a month which proved to be a rather dull one from the historian’s point of view, but a very busy one for the squadron. The printed word can hardly paint the picture of industry of receiving aircraft and modifying them for operations, of air and ground training and of personnel going to and coming from various courses of instruction on Halifax aircraft and equipment.

This entry would kick off a short period of major events that were in no way ‘run of the mill‘! Firstly, on the 2nd October, confirmation was received at Leeming that two of 408 Squadron’s aircrew had successfully evaded, making their way to Gibraltar after being shot down over Belgium in the former Commanding Officer’s aircraft. Their remarkable journey had taken them across the European continent to safety – quite an amazing achievement in itself. Unfortunately, there had been no word as yet as to the whereabouts of the Commanding Officer.

After that on the 11th, the first of the new four-engined heavy bombers arrived, two Halifax MK.Vs, which were subjected to great scrutiny and discussion by the crews. Their presence giving the squadron a renewed keenness to get back to operations. As they milled around the aircraft, morale was instantly lifted, and a new impetus had been injected. By the end of the month there would be thirteen MK.V’s all being modified ready for operations.

Additional changes on the 12th, saw 408 (RCAF) Squadron Conversion Flight along with 405 (RCAF) Conversion Flight merging to become 1659 Canadian Conversion unit (Heavy Conversion Unit) here at Leeming, the record books playing down the historical  importance of early October 1942.

This impetus would see 408 Sqn. through to early November without loss, until on the afternoon of 9th November 1942, Halifax V, DG238 piloted by Flt. Sgt. R. Bell DFM, stalled and crashed 5 miles east of Croft airfield. The entire crew were tragically lost in the accident in which they were participating in a fighter affiliation exercise. The event marked not only the first loss for 408 Sqn. since arriving here at Leeming, but the first loss of any Halifax V in the whole of Bomber Command.

However, within a month of the first Mk.V’s arriving at Leeming, 408 Sqn. would begin receiving another mark of the Halifax, this time the MK.II with its Merlin XX inline engines. They would keep this model for a further year until replacing them, for a short while, with the Lancaster.

The November tragedy would round off 408’s year, taking them into 1943 and a new year that would see Bomber Command finally ready – fully trained and fully operational with four engined heavies. Harris would waste no time in using this to his advantage, striking at the many cities deep in the heart of Germany time and time again.

By January 1st, 1943, 4 Group had transferred no less than ten airfields over to the Canadians, their numbers rising as more and more aircrews were passing through the training programme. Along with Leeming, the Canadians now operated from: Croft, East Moor, Middleton-St-George, Topcliffe, Dalton, Skipton-On-Swale, Dishforth, Linton-On-Ouse and Tholthorpe. The Canadians were quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with.

For 408 Sqn. 1943 finally saw them confirmed as operational with seventeen MK.IIs and one MK.V on their books, it would also see their first operational casualty. On January 23rd, Halifax MK. II ‘EQ-C’ lost power in both starboard engines, this loss of power caused the aircraft to crash near to Ossington in Nottingham. Thankfully though, all the crew escaped unharmed, but it was a rather unfortunate start to 408’s mission record.

Engine fires and engine failures would see several other aircraft crash over the next few months. On return from Koln on the night of 14th – 15th February, Halifax ‘EQ-U’ crashed when the port outer engine burst into flames on the approach to the airfield. After gaining some height the pilot Flt. Lt. R. Boosey ordered the crew to evacuate the aircraft. All but one, an American, survived, his parachute failing to open in time.

Following the attack by a night-fighter on 1st – 2nd March, Halifax EQ-H,  also suffered engine failure on the port side. As a result of the attack, the pilot F.O. A. Stewart (RNZAF), dropped his bombs and turned the aircraft for home. Picked up by another night fighter, the lonesome aircraft was again attacked this time the result was more decisive, the Halifax being shot down. After the crash, three of the crew were taken prisoner, the remainder managing to avoid capture going on to evade their enemy.

Enemy action may have also caused a further Halifax’s loss on the night of 12th – 13th March. Whilst on finals returning from Essen,  Halifax ‘EQ-S’ lost both port engines as they also cut out. Unable to control the violent yaw, the aircraft came down not far from Leeming airfield, again thankfully all the crew escaped unharmed, the aircraft coming off much worse.

The ground crew doing maintenance work on a Halifax II of No 408 Squadron at Leeming, August 10th, 1943.

The ground crew completing maintenance work on a Halifax II of No 408 Squadron at Leeming, August 10th, 1943. days before they departed Leeming. (National Defence Image Library, PL 19510 – Via Juno Beach Centre)

During March 1943, a further Canadian unit arrived at Leeming airfield – 405 (Vancouver) Squadron. They were the first Canadian unit to have been formed overseas, and the first to carry out an operational mission. It then went on to be the only Canadian unit to be part of Bennett’s elite Pathfinder Group. 405 Sqn. also had the honour of being the first to operate the Canadian built Lancaster, the MK.X, although its entry not occurring until the dying days of the war. Remaining at Leeming from early March to mid April, 405 Sqn. departed for Gransden Lodge on the 19th. Their journey to Leeming had taken them through Driffield, Pocklington, Topcliffe and Beaulieu, a two year journey that had started on April 23rd 1941.

405 (Vancouver) Sqn had earlier taken part in the controversial 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne, and had taken part in maritime operations before joining 6 Group. Their stay here being a brief one, being transferred by special train (X771) to Gamlingay station, and onward travel to Gransden Lodge and 8 Group.

It was also during April, that another Canadian unit would pass through Leeming, 424 (Tiger) Squadron, staying here for just one month before moving on.  424 Sqn. took their name from the Hamilton Wildcats, a Canadian Rugby team that played in the city of Hamilton, Ontario, after the people there adopted the Squadron as their own. Formed in December 1942 at Topcliffe, they operated Wellington IIIs which they changed for MK. Xs prior to moving over to Leeming, and eventual departure to North Africa.

The fifth Canadian unit to reside at Leeming arrived on 5th May 1943, in the form of 427 (Lion) Sqn. Four days earlier, orders had been received by 427 Sqn. that their aircraft (Wellington MK.X) were to be flown to RAF Skipton-On-Swale to form a new Canadian Squadron 432 (Leaside) Sqn., after which, their personnel were to be transferred here to Leeming, where they would receive new Halifax MK.Vs.

On the next day, twenty-one aircraft and five crews led by Sqn. Ldr. W. McKay of Vancouver, flew to Skipton, taking with them equipment and personnel. The departure was honoured by a party in the Officers’ and Sergeants’ messes both of which had been opened to all ranks, resulting in a party of true ‘Lion Squadron’ style.

The 4th and 5th then saw the transfer of the crews and equipment to Leeming, the stark contrast between a main station and satellite station coming as a pleasant surprise for the personnel of 427 Sqn. The transition from one to the other meant that there would be no flying for the squadron over the next few days, aircraft not having been fully modified or prepared for operational duties.

With two full squadrons now operating at Leeming, Halifaxes were littered across the airfield, the hardstands almost bursting with the different examples.

It was at this time (8th) that the BBC visited Leeming, making a documentary film illustrating the flight of the commanding Officer and his crew and how they had gallantly won their collection of medals. It was impeccable timing as another medal was also awarded that day, the squadron’s first DFM to Flt. Sgt. Higgins for his part in recent operations.

Over the next few days, aircrew took great pride in adorning their new aircraft with painted motifs, a tradition that had become steadfast in American circles and now more frequent within Bomber Command.

On the 24th May, the M.G.M. film company officially adopted the Squadron, in a grand ceremony outside the hangars, in which speeches were made and medals were awarded. During the ceremony a draw was held in which seventeen names were put into a hat and one drawn out. The lucky winner got to chalk the name of Lana Turner on his aircraft, Turner being one of M.G.M’s biggest stars and an icon of Hollywood glamour. The lucky pilot was Sgt. Johnson who had the privilege of chalking her name on his aircraft in front of a cheering crowd.

Image result for Lana Turner

Lana Tuner – the pin up of Canadian crews. Wikipedia (public domain)

On the 28th the squadron finally became operational with the first mission the next day to Wuppertal. With thirteen aircraft booked to fly, one suffered technical difficulties and so only twelve made it into the air. All returned to Leeming with only one having to land away at Thurleigh due to severe damage. 427 Squadron’s war had now officially begun at Leeming.

As the summer progressed so too did operational sorties. An increase in sorties also meant an increase in risk. After all the parties and the celebrations, 427’s morale was high, but it would be short-lived, the dangers of the air war were about to be made very clear to the crews of Leeming.

On the night of 12th – 13th June, Halifax V DK183 (427 Sqn) was brought down by a night-fighter over Germany. In the attack three crewmen were killed, another was injured and three others were taken prisoner, but there was yet more to come.

A near tragic accident was only just avoided on the 16th when Flt. Sgt. E. Johnson landed after a training flight. On landing, the aircraft swung badly, and in avoiding a group of airmen, Johnson crashed the Halifax – thankfully without injury.

June continued its onslaught when on a mission to Krefeld, three of Leeming’s longer standing 408 squadron aircraft were shot down. Of the twenty-one crew aboard only seven made it out alive, all the survivors being taken prisoners of war. On the following day (22nd – 23rd) it would be 427 Sqn’s turn and another four aircraft would be lost. This time, only two of the twenty-eight survived, both being picked up by German forces and incarcerated in POW camps. In two nights, forty-nine airmen had been lost, nine of them ending up in German internment camps. But the bad spell was not yet over, another three 427 Sqn aircraft;  DK135, DK144 and DK 190 along with a 408 Sqn MKII, JB858, were lost two nights later – another fourteen airmen were gone and seven more taken prisoners of war. The end of June simply couldn’t come soon enough.

But July would carry on in the same vein, 408 Sqn. losing two aircraft on the night of 3rd – 4th July, JB796 ‘EQ-C’ was lost with all but one of the crew, whilst JB913 ‘EQ-F’ was lost shot down by a night-fighter just after midnight. Two of this crew evaded whilst the others were taken prisoner by the German authorities. Both aircraft were on operations to Koln.

With a further three lost at Gelsenkirchen on the night of 9th – 10th July, two more on July 13th – 14th and one further aircraft on 27th – 28th July; the summer would come to a close with 408 having lost forty-two Halifaxes since being made operational earlier that year. 427 Sqn were not far behind in the loss stakes, the Canadians were taking a heavy battering and the mess halls must have seemed remarkably light.

It was during this time that the pilot of 408 Sqn Halifax ‘JD174’, F.O. Donald Thomas Bain RCAF (s/n: J/9412) would earn the DFC for his actions in saving his crew. The aircraft had departed from Leeming 9 minutes after midnight on the night of the 14th to bomb Aachen as part of a 374 strong force of allied bombers. After having the hydraulic system badly damaged by night fighters, Bain lost his attackers only to be subjected to further attacks on the homeward leg of the flight. Again, F.O. Bain managed to loose his pursuers, and once over the English coast realised that the damage to the hydraulics was more extensive than perhaps they first thought. The undercarriage could not be lowered, and so a belly landing was the only way the aircraft was going to be put down. However, with his bomb bay still full of bombs, this was not an option and so F.O. Bain gave the bail out order, turned the aircraft toward open ground and departed himself. After landing badly and breaking both ankles, F.O. Bain was discovered by a local farming family who, suspicious of his accent, dragged the wounded airman back to the farm house where he managed to convince them he was in fact Canadian, and not an enemy spy in disguise. He was then treated for his injuries and allowed to return to operational duties later on.

Bain’s received a DFC for his actions in saving his crew, the citation appearing in the Third Supplement of the London Gazette on August 6th 1943 which stated:

Flying Officer Donald Thomas Bain (Can/J.9412), Royal Canadian Air Force, No. 408 (R.C.A.F.) Squadron. One night in July, 1943, this officer piloted an aircraft to attack Aachen. Whilst over the target area, the bomber was seriously damaged when engaged by an enemy fighter. Despite this, Flying Officer Bain made several  determined runs over the objective. On the return flight 2 more enemy fighters were encountered but Flying Officer Bain out-manoeuvred them. By superb airmanship and great tenacity he succeeded in flying the crippled bomber to this country. He displayed commendable courage and a fine fighting spirit in circumstances of great difficulty.”

At the end of August, 408 Squadron were then transferred out of Leeming moving to RAF Linton-On-Ouse, another of 6 Group’s airfields a short distance away. With 427 Sqn. now being the only squadron on site, there was once again room for one final Canadian unit to join them.

The last Canadian squadron to use Leeming arrived on August 13th 1943, 429 (Bison) Sqn who like 427 Sqn. had swapped their Wellingtons for Halifaxes. The transition for the majority of these squadrons taking the same steps, from Wellington to Halifaxes and onto Lancasters and eventual disbandment.

429 Sqn. were only based at two airfields in their entire operational history, East Moor where they were formed, and Leeming where they were disbanded.

In January 1944 the Halifax Vs of 427 Sqn. were replaced by the MK.III. All this changing between aircraft models was proving to be a headache for the ground crews. Whilst some components were common and easily maintained, others were not, new tooling being required particularly when changing from radial to in-line Merlin engines.

By now the air war was swinging in the favour of the allies and tactics employed by the Luftwaffe were becoming more calculated and desperate. Attacking a bomber from  its blind spot – underneath – had long been a method used by Luftwaffe night fighter pilots, and as a result mid upper gunners were rapidly becoming redundant. To counteract this, it was considered achievable by removing the Halifax’s turret in 429 Sqn aircraft and covering over the resultant hole. Now a window could be inserted into the belly of the aircraft and the redundant gunner, laying on a mattress, could be used to look out for attacking aircraft from beneath*7. The lighter load also meant that the aircraft could gain a little more speed and altitude, always a bonus when in a heavy bomber over occupied territory.

In the early part of 1944, Leeming suffered a series of puzzling fires, all minor, but none the less strange. The civilian workforce were suspected and as a result four were relieved of their duties in June with another 24 being reprimanded for their behaviour*7.

Halifax B Mark III, LW127 ‘HL-F’, of No. 429 Squadron RCAF, in flight over Mondeville, France, after losing its entire starboard tailplane due to bombs dropped by another Halifax above it. © IWM (CE 154)

On July 18th 1944, Operation ‘Goodwood’ was put in place. The operation required the bombing of five German held positions to the east of Caen, prior to the British Second Army’s attack.  429 Sqn. were part of this massive raid of 942 aircraft of which 260 were Halifaxes. Whilst flying on this mission Halifax LW127 was struck by falling bombs from aircraft above, its tailplane being severed completely off on the one side. Now difficult to fly, the pilot Flt. Lt. G Gardiner (RCAF) gave the bail out order, of the seven in the aircraft that day, three lost their lives, one evaded and three others were taken prisoner. A second Leeming aircraft (427 Sqn.) LV985, was also lost that day, this time with the loss of all those on board. This apart, the mission was considered a complete success with Bomber Command dropping 5,000 tons of bombs and US Forces an additional 1,800 tons.

The striking of bombers from above was not an uncommon one, for a similar event occurred on August 3rd, when another 427 Sqn Halifax LW163 ‘U’ was hit no less than three times by falling bombs from above. The pilot, F.O. L. Murphy, managed to keep the aircraft flying, delivering his own bomb load on target before returning to Leeming this time making a safe landing. Once on the ground the damage could be properly assessed, a hole had been made through the fuselage behind the turret, with a further hole through the starboard mainplane.

The supply of materials was always difficult during war time, and a shortage of bombs at Leeming caused another headache for ground crews. A shortage of 1000lb bombs meant that bombs had to be ‘borrowed’ from Dishforth until new supplies could arrive. The lead up to D-Day was particularly busy, with some 37,000 bomb tails having to be collected from Skipton in readiness for an all out maximum effort.

In May 1944 the Halifax IIIs of 427 Sqn. were replaced by Avro’s magnificent showpiece the Lancaster Mk.I and MK.III; a four engined heavy that had been born out of the disastrous, under powered twin-engined Manchester. For a year 427 Sqn. flew operations in the RAF’s ultimate bomber. By the end of the war, 427 Sqn. had dropped over 8,500 tons of bombs, in just over 3,200 sorties, the majority of these occurring in 1944. In total 101 crews had been lost  in operational sorties between 1943 and 1945 from Leeming, a stark ending to a bright and happy start.  427 Sqn was eventually joined in the flying of the Lancaster by 429 (Bison) Sqn. who eventually swapped their Halifaxes for the Lancaster in May 1945.

With the end of the war in Europe and eventually the war in Japan, celebrations began in earnest at Leeming. Its doors were thrown open to the locals and many parties were held in celebration. Trips were offered to the WAAFs and ‘thank yous’ paid to the ground crews through flights over bombed German cities.

In August 1945, the last two squadrons of 6 Group passed over to 1 Group, operating under a new command following the disbandment of the ‘Base’ concept. Leeming being No. 63 base disbanding on August 31st, 1945. The base concept, implemented during the war, improved both administrative and technical services across a group of stations, streamlining the two processes by giving overall control of several airfields to one ‘base’ station.

By now Britain’s airfields were littered with unspent ordnance and it had to be disposed of. The skies continued to be full of the sound of heavy bombers taking these bombs out over the sea where they were dropped into the waters below. With disbandment on the horizon and a return to civvy street, there would be one last roll of the dice and one last casualty to remind the Canadians that flying can be a dangerous game.

On November 5th 1945, whilst on a training flight, Lancaster RA571 ‘AL-D’ of 429 Sqn crashed into a hillside, four of those on board, one an aero-mechanic, would not be returning home to a civilian life.

In the remaining months crews from both 427 and 429 took part in the repatriation flights under Operation ‘Dodge‘. Flying out to Italy, many crews ‘extended’ their stay before returning home to Leeming.  By May 1946, most crews had by now departed and on the 31st, both 427 and 429 Squadrons officially disbanded, the Operational Record Books*5 stating:

The return to Canada of Nos. 427 and 429 Squadrons, the last of the Canadian Heavy Bomber Squadrons which so ably operated in Bomber Command throughout the war and subsequent emergency, cause a regrettable break in an unforgettable relationship of the air, founded during (unreadable) heroic days and nights when the command bore the brunt of the offensive against the enemy.”

It goes onto say:

During the war, the R.C.A.F. Squadrons in Bomber Command (unreadable) for themselves the most commendable operation which will forever remain prominent in the history of air warfare, and in the annuls of Bomber Command. Not the least of these are the proud operational records, too long to mention here, of Nos. 427 and 429 RCAF Squadrons.”

it ends:

I sincerely hope that our mutual ties of comradeship which have been closely knit in war will endure, and that they will be fostered throughout the peace by the more peaceful activities of our two great nations.”

Both the importance and the contribution of Canadian crews (or any other nation for that matter) can never be understated. Trained through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada,  they would go on to form a third of the total number of Bomber Command air crews operating during the Second World War. They would become some of the elite bomber crews, one of the fourteen squadrons forming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder force in 8 Group.

With that, Leeming was put into wind down, the rear party departed and Leeming was then at peace once more. But the skies over Yorkshire would not stay quiet for long.

In the final part of this trail, Leeming enters the jet age, its future still in the balance as many of Britain’s airfields are closed and sold off. But with new aircraft coming on line and a new threat looming from the east, Leeming survives and takes on a new role.

RAF Leeming – The Great North Road (Part 1).

In another of our Trails along the ‘Great North Road’ we arrive in Yorkshire, to stop off at a station with a history that stretches back to 1937, and one that continues its flying tradition today.

As a modern jet training facility, this airfield has a long and distinguished history; it is also one that has seen a number of aircraft types and squadrons using it. Born as a bomber airfield, transforming to a fighter establishment, it has now turned its attention to pilot training. From the early twin engined bombers of the late 30’s to the modern jets of today, it is an active aviation establishment.

Heading north, we pull off the A1 and stop at RAF Leeming.

RAF Leeming.

RAF Leeming has been an operational RAF airfield ever since its official opening in the summer of 1940. Following two years of construction in which a non-dispersed accommodation site, hangars and technical area were all built – the three concrete and tarmac runways were added. Each of these were built to the standard 50 yard width, and measured 1,950 yds, 1,650 yds, and 1,400 yds in length. Aircraft dispersals were included, these amounted to thirty-six of the ‘frying pan’ style, with the all important technical area nestled between the legs of the ‘A’ of the multiple runway design.

At its wartime peak, Leeming could cater for almost 2,500 personnel of mixed rank and gender, all accommodated within the boundary of the airfield perimeter, a normal practise for non-dispersed airfields of the pre-war expansion period.

RAF Leeming

One of Leeming’s Hangars today.

It was this expansion period that would also see the creation of 4 Group – the initial ‘owners’ of RAF Leeming. Hatched from 3 Group, it would hold control of twenty-two operational airfields in the Yorkshire area. Headed by one Arthur Harris, 4 Group would become synonymous with this region of England and Bomber Command, a command of which Harris would himself eventually take full control of.

During the war itself, Leeming would operate as a bomber base, operating beyond the focus of most Luftwaffe intruders. It would, throughout its life, be home to a large number of  front line squadrons, supported by: training units, Flying Training Schools and RAF support flights that would extend right the way through to the present day. With the impending closure of Scampton in Lincolnshire in 2022, Leeming has been identified as one possible location for the RAF’s Red Arrows to relocate to. Such a move, whilst not welcomed by many, would ensure the continued operational activities of the base in an otherwise uncertain military situation.

Leeming’s life began shortly after 12:05 on July 6th 1940, when an advanced party from 10 Sqn – ‘Shiny Ten’ as they were known – left RAF Dishforth to prepare Leeming’s accommodation site for the forthcoming arrival of the Whitley  squadron. Not long after they arrived, ‘spare’ aircraft from Dishforth began to arrive, the squadron remaining on full alert, and at readiness for operations that were continuing in earnest.

Two days later, on the morning of the 8th, the main party began its transfer over, all the time crews were being prepared and briefed for the days operational duties. Indeed there would be no settling in period and no honeymoon to find their feet. The first Leeming based aircraft took off and attacked targets at Kiel on the very same day they arrived. Following the briefing, aircraft were prepared and checks were made, then at around 21:00, five Leeming Whitleys took off at one minute intervals to join sixty-four aircraft departing Britain’s airfields to attack the ports of northern Germany. The primary target for the Leeming group was the Howaldts Railway Yard in Kiel. Prepared with a mix of 250lb and 500lb bombs, 20% of which had time delay fuses, they headed towards Kiel along a flight path designated as target corridor ‘A’.

In this early mission of the war only one Whitley was lost, that of 10 Squadron, N1496 ‘ZA-V’ flown by Flt. Lt Douglas A. Ffrench-Mullen, who was shot down  by Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster (8./NJG 1),  in a Luftwaffe night-fighter off Heliogoland. Flt. Lt. Ffrench-Mullen and his four other crewmen were then picked up by German ground forces and detained as Prisoners of War. Sadly their time together would end there, they would not be sharing the same camps.

On the 10th, the then flamboyant Wing Commander William E. Staton, CB, DSO and  Bar,  MC, DFC and Bar arrived at Leeming to take over formal control of the airfield. A highly decorated man with a service going back to the First World War, he was soon to become known as ‘King Kong‘, his large stature being a prominent feature around Leeming’s site.

Staton, who record covered both World Wars, includes the downing of 25 enemy aircraft on the Western Front on no less than three separate occasions in 1918. On another occasion, during the Second World War, he spent an hour over the target area, after which he brought home his badly damaged Whitley. His accuracy in flying helped lead to the formation of Bennett’s Path Finder Force, and whilst serving in the Far East, Staton suffered at the brutal hands of the Japanese who removed his back teeth. Post war, his character would lead the British Shooting Team in both the 1948 and the 1952 Olympics. He was certainly a good choice to take Leeming forward as a bomber base.

Staton's Whitley.

The damaged wing of Staton’s Whitley Bomber. Despite the damage Staton carried out the raid on Bremen, nursing the aircraft back to England. His medal collection sold for £52,000 in 2013 (BNPS.CO.UK)

Due to delays installing the telephone system combined with an illness suffered by Wing Commander Staton, the transition to Leeming was slow, with operations continuing from both Leeming and Dishforth well into July. By the end of the month though, 10 Sqn had finally moved across allowing missions to continue in an almost seamless fashion.

The autumn of 1940 would become a hectic time at Leeming. Transition stops saw the arrival and departure of several 4 Group bomber units. On August 15th, an incursion on RAF Driffield left five 102 Sqn Whitleys destroyed and a number of 77 Sqn aircraft damaged. The airfield’s operational capability then being dramatically until repairs could be carried out. As a result, 102 Sqn transferred across here to Leeming at the end of August, staying here for one week before being temporarily detached to 15 Group and Coastal Command. 77 Sqn would also depart Driffield transferring for a short period to Linton-On-Ouse another of 4 Group’s Yorkshire airfields.

Whilst Driffield was being visited by the Luftwaffe, another RAF unit, 7 Squadron, was being resurrected for the third time of the war. 7 Squadron’s creation here at Leeming would herald a new era in Bomber Command, and a rather historical moment in aviation.

With this reformation would come the first ‘operational’ and soon to be ill-fated Short Stirling MK.I.

As Stirling N3640 flew into Leeming, it was greeted warmly and openly by the ground crews who had gathered to welcome it in. They all waited expectantly outside the hangars that they had repeatedly cleaned in order to keep themselves busy. August 2nd would not only mark a new period in the war, but it would also be the beginning of what would become a difficult time for those crews in Bomber Command.

The grace, beauty and sheer size of the Stirling brought a cheer, and instantly raised morale within the ranks of the RAF. It was their first long range, four-engined heavy bomber, and so at last, the war could now seriously be taken directly to the enemy’s front door.

The logistics of the change though would give rise to many problems, the Whitley, the Stirling’s predecessor, was a Merlin in-line powered aircraft, whilst the Stirling had a Bristol Hercules – a radial engine. Spares and tools were lacking and in addition, no one in 7 Sqn. had any experience of four-engined aircraft. To combat the problem, new crews were draughted in, mostly from Coastal Command, who had already been operating Short’s successful flying boat, the Sunderland. Closely linked, the transference of skills from one to the other came relatively quickly, and it needed to.

Despite the now known history of the Stirling’s on-going problems: its mechanics, the undercarriage, tail wheel, engine difficulties and its performance in general, the Stirling was liked by many, a good handling aircraft its manoeuvrability was better than others in its class. In battle it was also able to take a lot of punishment before finally giving up, a factor that no doubt saved a good number of crews. The Stirling, after many struggles within Bomber Command,  would eventually find its niche either laying mines or as a transport / glider tug in the numerous airborne operations over Europe.

But at Leeming however, it wasn’t to be. The aircraft’s arrival was slow, the initial eight promised with the arrival of the new Sqn. Commander, Wg. Cdr. Paul.I Harris D.FC., being held up after Luftwaffe attacks on the Short’s factories in both Belfast and at Rochester. By the end of the month only two more aircraft had arrived, N3641 and N3642.

Stirling, N3641 ‘MG-D’, the second Stirling to be delivered to 7 Squadron at Leeming. It took part in their first raid over Rotterdam on the night of 10-11 February 1941© IWM (CH 3139)

On September 5th another communication came through confirming the allotting of yet another eight aircraft so that 7 Sqn. could form a second flight – the note must have raised a few eyebrows across the station, as there wasn’t enough yet for one.

Being a new aircraft, 7 Sqn. crews had to perform a range of tasks on it, many of which they relished, completing over and over so they could get to know the aircraft and her delicate intricacies. One of these was loading the enormous bomb bay, and depending upon the load, it could be in one of twelve different configurations. Here the crews got to find the first of its many faults, the cables to haul the bombs up into the bays were too short, so it couldn’t, at this point, accept a full complement of bombs. What use was a bomber with only half a load?

Fuel consumption tests were next. On September 29th, F.O. T. P.  Bradley D.F.C., took off on a cross-country flight in N3640, the first Stirling to arrive at Leeming. During the flight the aircraft developed engine problems forcing it to crash at Hodge Branding in Lancashire (this location may be an error in the ORB). In the crash the aircraft struck a wall ‘writing it off’, luckily though the crew managed to avoid any serious injury.

Throughout October, 7 Squadron’s Operational Record Book*1 read badly, “Teething troubles seriously interfered with the programme of intensive flying“, hardly a glowing testament to a new aircraft. With that though, on 29th October, 7 Sqn. moved out from Leeming transferring across to Oakington in Cambridgeshire, where they continued to be dogged by serious issues. Comments such as “continual modifications interfering with squadron activities” and the training flights taking place in “the two or three aircraft more serviceable than the others” clearly showing the frustration of the squadron as they struggled to get to grips with the new aircraft.

Meanwhile Leeming’s resident Whitleys would be playing a large part in Bomber Command’s operations, flying many missions over Europe. On the night of October 15th 1940, three Whitleys of 10 Squadron were lost. The first, P4952, ran out of fuel trying to find and airfield in thick cloud. The pilot Sqn. Ldr. K. Ferguson gave the bail out order, and all crew members landed safely. The second Whitley T4143, on the same mission to the Stettin oil facility,  also ran out of fuel, and without radio contact the pilot also ordered the bail out. Unfortunately two of the crew were killed, one of whom, had only lost his brother a matter of weeks earlier in the same squadron. Sgt. Leslie Neville (age 26) and his brother Sgt. Brian Neville (age 19) had joined on the same day, and their service numbers were  only 4 digits apart. The third aircraft lost that night, Whitley P4993, struck a balloon cable whilst on its way to Le Harve. Sadly all five crewmen were lost that evening, their bodies being returned to their respective homes.

In the following month, November 1940, another short stay squadron appeared at Leeming in the form of 35 Squadron, the first unit to be equipped with that other new four-engined heavy, the Halifax MK.I. Designed initially to meet Specification P.13/36, it took its maiden flight on 25th October 1939 and would go on to form 40% of the RAF’s heavy bomber force.

After being disbanded at RAF Upwood early that year, 35 Squadron then reformed at Boscombe Down (7th November 1940) taking on their first Halifax, L9486, flown by F.O. M.T.G. Henry and his crew. On the 20th, the squadron moved across here to Leeming, to come under the control of 4 Group taking on the prototype Halifax L7244 from the Ministry of Aircraft Production (M.A.P)  for ‘dual’ purposes. The aircraft was ferried in by Wg. Cdr. R.W.P. Collings AFC, the squadron’s first Commanding Officer along with his crew. On December 5th, 35 Squadron would then transfer to Linton-On-Ouse where it would, within a matter of days, lose its first Halifax (L9487) in a tragic accident with the loss of all on board. The aircraft, which is thought to have crashed because a fuel cap had been left off, had only had 4 hours of flying time before crashing at Howefield House, near Baldersby St. James in Yorkshire*2. Whilst at Linton-On-Ouse, 35 Sqn. would receive many new pilots, one of whom, P.O. Geoffrey L. Cheshire DSO.,  would go on to achieve amongst others, the DFC and the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He would also go onto lead 617 Sqn. and not only be the youngest group captain in the RAF, but one of the most highly decorated pilots of the entire war.

After all these arrivals and subsequent departures, Leeming was then left with just its original 10 Squadron, which meant that the winter – summer period 1940/41 was relatively quiet in terms of operational movements in or out of Leeming. 10 Sqn. performing their role as best they could with their Whitleys.

December 22nd 1940, brought the last Leeming fatalities for the year. On take-off for a training flight,  10 Sqn. Whitley P4994 ‘ZA-U’ struck the roof of a farm house located beyond the end of the runway. In the resultant crash, one crewman was killed – Canadian P.O. Ross Flewelling. Two further crewmen were injured whilst the forth escaped unharmed.

Two Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark Vs of No. 10 Squadron based at Leeming, Yorkshire in flight © IWM (CH 4451)

The introduction of the new heavy bombers was not smooth. A third, the Manchester from Avro, merely compounded the issues already being faced by bomber and ground crews. Faced with unreliable mechanics and poor handling characteristics, regular flying was now being further reduced by continual poor weather, making maintenance, flying practise and life generally miserable on the ground as well as in the air. 10 Sqn. would be subjected to gales, severe icing and heavy rain, airfields across Britain were fast becoming churned up and boggy.

It would not be long into 1941 before casualties would be incurred. 10 Sqn, who were now beginning their own transition to Halifaxes, were still operating  Whitleys, and on the night of 16th – 17th January, they sent them to the port at Wilhelmshaven on Germany’s North Sea coast. With eight aircraft taking off around 18:30, they would briefed at Linton-On-Ouse where the night’s operations were being commanded from. At 21:15 hrs Whitley T4220 piloted by F.O. H Skryme would report in that the mission had been successful and that they were on their way home. It would be the last time the crew were heard from, and the aircraft along with its occupants were recorded as missing at 04:30 hrs. The crew of T4220 were never heard from again, their aircraft, nor they, were ever found.

The implementation of a new directive saw Bomber Command’s focus change to oil production facilities. Some seventeen sites were earmarked for attacks, over 80% of Germany’s production was going to soon be on the receiving end of Bomber Command. Implementation of a second, and parallel directive that focused on maritime operations, would then follow leading to attacks on docks, ports and shipping facilities particularly those located along the French coast.

By September 1941, things would change again at Leeming.  77 Squadron – another Whitley Squadron – would arrive, staying here until the early summer of 1942. With a history dating back to the First World War it was later resurrected by the renumbering of ‘B’ Flight of 102 Sqn in 1937. One of 77 Sqn’s Commanding Officers whilst at Leeming would be Wing Commander Don Bennett, the later Commander of 8 Group and the Pathfinders.

Like many units, 77 Squadron’s transition between its former base, RAF Topcliffe and its new base RAF Leeming, occurred whilst operational sorties remained in progress. On the very day the transfer began (September 2nd), aircraft were ordered to a raid on Frankfurt. On return from this operation, many of the squadron’s aircraft landed directly at Leeming rather than returning to their former base RAF Topcliffe.

On their next sortie, their first official Leeming mission, 77 Sqn. would lose three aircraft, Whitleys: Z6654 flown by P. Off. Havelock, (classed as missing); Z6668 flown by Sgt. D. Mercer (loss of all onboard) and Z6824 flown by Sqn.Ldr. A. Hanningan, with the loss of all but one. It had proven to be a bad start for the squadron at Leeming.

The next ten days were consistently poor weather with rain and mist preventing operational flying for the squadron. Indeed the remainder of October followed a similar pattern, rain or mist interspersed with operations. During these flights, which took the squadron to Wilhelmshaven, Le Harve, Kiel, Hamburg and Cherbourg, casualties were light allowing the squadron to settle into their new home.

Leemings’s long standing squadron 10 Sqn, began replacing their Whitleys with Halifaxes in December 1941. It was at his point that the squadron would be split; a detachment moving to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, in a move that would mark the beginning of change for this long standing resident of Leeming.

The beginning of 1942 saw air operations focus on the German Cruisers located at the French port at Brest. With successive operations attempting to sink, or at least cripple the ships, it became a thorn in the side of not only Bomber Command, but the Government as well, who as a result of these failed operations were to suffer a great humiliation. The culmination of these attacks saw many Bomber Command squadron losses along with six Swordfish crews of 825 Naval Air Squadron take part in ‘Operation Fuller’, a disaster that saw the loss of so many lives.

With the appointment of Harris as Command in Chief of Bomber Command, little immediately changed. Operations carried on as usual and at Leeming 77 Sqn visited St. Nazaire from which two aircraft were lost on their return trip. With a further 10 Sqn Halifax also being lost that night, it was a bit of a blow for the station.

The further loss of three more 77 Sqn aircraft at the end of February,  and four more in March – Z9293 ‘KN-D’; Z9312 ‘KN-S’; Z6975 ‘KN-V’ and Z9221 ‘KN-G’ – meant that the squadron was taking a bit of a battering and that the Whitley was perhaps beginning to show its outdated status. Indeed, April followed with several ‘softer’ targets being attacked without loss. Then on May 6th – 7th, the squadron began its departure from Leeming to Chivenor and a spell of Maritime Duties with Coastal Command. 77 Sqn would later return to Bomber Command but their spell at Leeming was now over, and this chapter of their life was closed.

The summer of 1942 would see big further changes at Leeming. In May, the departure of 77 Sqn. on the 6th along with the move of another section of 10 Sqn. to Aqir south of Tel Aviv, meant that numbers were once again low. The final departure of all remaining 10 Squadron personnel in the August 1942, meant that Leeming was now all but empty, and it would be passed over to the control of the Canadians and 6 Group Bomber Command. The new Command would then retain control of the airfield operating a small number of Canadian Squadrons right the way through to the war’s end.

With that, new times lay ahead. The four engined heavies were beginning to make their mark, the lighter of the bombers were starting to be withdrawn from front line service, and the focus on shipyards was now about to shift. The Canadians were about to arrive at Leeming.

Sgt. James Ward VC.- 75 (NZ) Sqn RAF Feltwell.

We have seen through the many ‘Heroic tales‘, acts of daring and valour that have astounded the average man in the street. Acts of heroism that were completed without forethought or consideration for personal safety, where the lives of fellow crewmen and their aircraft were put far beyond that of their own.

Some of these included flying an aircraft with astonishing injuries, staying with an aircraft until such times as all the crew have either left – or because they have been unable to leave – remaining at the controls to attempt a landing without help or hydraulics. There have even been cases of airmen exiting the aircraft to extinguish external fires whilst both at altitude and at speed. Indeed this is not a solitary occurrence; a number of airmen have been known to have performed such acts, some successfully others less so. But the fact that an airmen is willing to perform such an act of bravery, is in itself, incredible.

One such action occurred in July 1941 and was performed by 2nd Pilot Sgt. James Allen Ward (RNZAF) of 75 (NZ) Sqn, RAF Feltwell.

Sgt. James Allan Ward, 75 (NZ) Squadron RAF, standing in the cockpit of his Vickers Wellington Mark IC, L7818 ‘AA-V’, at Feltwell, Norfolk. (© IWM (CH 2963)

Sgt. Ward, the Son of Mr. Percy Harold Ward and Mrs. Ada May Ward, of Wanganui, Wellington, New Zealand was born on 14th June 1919, and was, following his training, posted to 75 (NZ) Sqn then at RAF Feltwell in Norfolk. The squadron were operating the new Vickers Wellington MK.Ic, or ‘Wimpey‘ as it was affectionately known, on a bombing mission to Munster in Germany.

Take off was at 23.10 on the night of July 7th 1941. On board (aircraft CNF.994/L7818) that night were: Canadian S/L. R. Widdowson (Pilot); Sgts. J. Ward (2nd Pilot); L.A. Lawton (Navigator); Mason (Wireless Op); Evans (Front Gunner) and A. Box (Rear Gunner), as part of a force of ten Wimpeys from Feltwell along with thirty-nine others from nearby bases.

The flight out was uneventful, with no interactions with either flak nor Luftwaffe night fighters. Over the target, bombs were released and several fires were seen to light, although German reports stated that little damage was done and no casualties were incurred.

The return leg took the formation over the Zuider Zee at which point the Wellington was strafed by canon fire from an Me 110 flying beneath it. As shells ripped though the fuselage, the rear gunner was injured in the foot but managed to return fire sending the attacker plummeting to Earth with heavy smoke pouring from the port engine.

Shortly after this, the Wellington’s wing, housing a fuel line damaged in the attack, itself caught fire and with the aircraft having a fabric covering, it was only a matter of time before it would also fall to Earth in a massive fireball.

With S/L Widdowson struggling to control the aircraft, which had had half its rudder shot away, its elevators severely damaged, hydraulics ruptured, flaps inoperable and bomb doors opened and damaged; a decision had to be made as to what to do next.

A bale out appeared to be the only safe and viable option. S/L. Widdowson gave the order and the crew began preparations to depart the stricken aircraft. Almost as a last minute attempt to save it, Widdowson instructed the crew to try and extinguish the fire, and they began ripping away the fabric covering the geodesic framework. Ward, grabbing a fire extinguisher, shot jets of agent through the hole toward the fire. At altitude and speed, the air stream was far too strong and the attempt had little effect on the burning engine.

At this point, and without attention to his own safety, Sgt. Ward decided to climb out and try to smother the fire with a canvas engine cover that had been used to raise S/L. Widdowson’s seat. Much to the dismay and protests of the other crewmen, Ward grabbed a parachute and attached a rope to himself and the Navigator, and began to climb out through the astrodome located between the wings in the fuselage’s ceiling. By punching holes in the aircraft’s fabric, he was able retain a foot and hand hold on to the aircraft, manoeuvring himself tight against the air frame toward the burning wing.

Once out onto the starboard wing, he approached the fire and pushed the canvas into the hole left by the flames. The fire burning furiously by now, was intense, and caused Sgt. Ward great pain forcing him to withdraw his hand several times before the slipstream finally caught the canvas tearing it from the hole and out into the dark night sky.

Being partially successful, there was little left for Sgt. Ward to do, so he began the arduous journey back toward the aircraft’s fuselage and its relative safety. By smothering the fire as he did, Ward’s attempts had made a difference, and shortly afterwards the fire extinguished itself enabling both the aircraft and crew to return to England safely making an emergency landing at RAF Newmarket Heath.

The Wellington with ‘hand-tholes’ after Sgt Ward tried to extinguish the fire.  (A) The hole caused by shell and, afterwards, by fire; (B) The Astro-Hatch through which Sergeant Ward, VC climbed; (1, 2 and 3) Holes kicked in the fabric by Sergeant Ward.(IWM CH3223)

Landing at 04:30, the Wellington came to a stop only after striking a fence on the airfield boundary, its brakes being totally unusable.

For his action, Sgt. James (Jimmy) Ward was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour for bravery and extraordinary courage; he was the first New Zealander to win such an award during the Second World War. S/L. Widdowson for his actions, was awarded an immediate D.F.C. whilst Sgt. Box, the D.F.M.

At the time of the incident Sgt. Ward was only 22 years of age, he would be given his own crew and would go on to complete ten missions in total before, on the eleventh, being shot down and killed in another Wellington of 75 (NZ) Sqn over Hamburg on September 15th 1941.

Sgt Ward’s death brought a severe blow to the crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn, who perhaps thinking him invincible, went on to perform with great pride and determination in the face of great adversity. With over 8,000 sorties flown, the highest of any squadron in 3 Group, came a high cost, 193 aircraft being lost, the second highest of any Bomber Command Squadron of the Second World War.

Sgt Ward’s body was recovered from the crash that killed him, and along with his three comrades was laid to rest in the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg, CWCG Plot 5A. A1. 9.

The report of Sgt. Ward’s VC. (Auckland Library Heritage Collection : 13 August 1941 : Item ref # AWNS 19410813-23-1)

Sgt. Ward’s citation appeared in the London Gazette “No. 35238” on 5 August 1941 p. 4515 and reads:

“On the night of 7th July, 1941, Sergeant Ward was second pilot of a Wellington returning from an attack on Munster.

When flying over the Zuider Zee at 13,000 feet, the aircraft was attacked from beneath by a Messerschmitt which secured hits with cannon shell and incendiary bullets. The rear gunner was wounded in the foot but delivered a burst of fire which sent the enemy fighter down, apparently out of control.

Fire then broke out near the starboard engine and, fed by petrol from a split pipe, quickly gained an alarming hold and threatened to spread to the entire wing. The crew forced a hole in the fuselage and made strenuous efforts to reduce the fire with extinguishers, and even the coffee in their vacuum flasks, but without success. They were then warned to be ready to abandon the aircraft.

As a last resort, Sergeant Ward volunteered to make an attempt to smother the fire with an engine cover which happened to be in use as a cushion. At first he proposed to discard his parachute, to reduce wind resistance, but was finally persuaded to take it. A rope from the dingy was tied to him, though this was of little help and might have become a danger had he been blown off the aircraft. With the help of the navigator, he then climbed through the narrow astro-hatch and put on his parachute. The bomber was flying at a reduced speed but the wind pressure must have been sufficient to render the operation one of extreme difficulty.

Breaking the fabric to make hand and foot holds where necessary, and also taking advantage of existing holes in the fabric, Sergeant Ward succeeded in descending three feet to the wing and proceeding another three feet to a position behind the engine, despite the slipstream from the airscrew which nearly blew him off the wing. Lying in this precarious position, he smothered the fire in the wing fabric and tried to push the cover into the hole in the wing and on to the leaking pipe from which the fire came. As soon as he removed his hand, however, the terrific wind blew the cover out and when he tried again it was lost. Tired as he was, he was able with the navigator’s assistance, to make successfully the perilous journey back into the aircraft.

There was now no danger of fire spreading from the petrol pipe, as there was no fabric left nearby, and in due course it burnt itself out. When the aircraft was nearly home some petrol which had collected in the wing blazed up furiously but died down quite suddenly. A safe landing was then made despite the damage sustained by the aircraft.

The flight home had been made possible by the gallant action of Sergeant Ward in extinguishing the fire on the wing in circumstances of the greatest difficulty and at the risk of his life.”

Sources.

National Archives – AIR 27/645/34, AIR 27/645/33

Auckland War Memorial Museum Website.

Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent VC – RAF Methwold

RAF Methwold was a small airfield that was never intended to be a major player in the Second World War, yet it would see some remarkable achievements performed by the people who were stationed there.

Once such notable person was Squadron Leader Leonard Trent V.C., who, on 3rd May 1943, took a squadron of Lockheed Venturas on a ‘Ramrod’ Mission to attack an electricity power station on the northern side of Amsterdam.

As part of a larger attack, it would not be a mission central to Bomber Command’s overall bombing strategy, but more a mission of support and encouragement to the resistance fighters bravely fighting in occupied Holland.

Trent (N.Z.248i), born in Nelson, New Zealand on 14th April 1915, achieved his wings with the RNZAF in Christchurch in May 1938, a month before sailing to England and a role with the Royal Air Force.

At the outbreak of war he was sent with No. 15 Squadron flying Fairy Battles, to France to carry out photo-reconnaissance sorties over occupied territory. The squadron then moved back to England (RAF Wyton) and changed their Fairy Battles for Bristol Blenheim IVs.

After carrying out a number of low-level attacks, he was awarded a DFC for his part in the air war over Belgium, after which he became a flying instructor for RAF crews.

Wing Commander G J “Chopper” Grindell (centre), Commanding Officer of No. 487 Squadron RNZAF, with his two flight commanders in front of a Lockheed Ventura at Methwold, Norfolk. On his left is the ‘A’ Flight commander, Squadron Leader T Turnbull, and on his right is the commander of ‘B’ Flight, Squadron Leader L H Trent. (IWM)*1

In 1942 he returned to operational duties as a newly promoted Squadron Leader taking command of B Flight, 487 (NZ) Squadron at Feltwell. At the time 487 were part of No. 2 Group and were in the process of replacing their Blenheims with Venturas. The squadron moved from Feltwell to Methwold in early April 1943. Little did they know that only a month later, the Squadron’s Operations Record Book would read: “This is a very black day in the Squadron history…a better set of boys could not be met in 30 years. Everybody is still feeling dazed by the news.”

As an experienced pilot Trent would fly several low-level missions over the low countries, using an aircraft that was originally designed around a small passenger aircraft back in the United States. Whilst having powerful engines, Venturas suffered from poor manoeuvrability and a heavy air frame, these two failings combined with its rather ‘fat’ appearance, earned it the name “flying pig”.

Loses in Ventura operations would be high, and this was reflected nowhere else than on the very mission that Trent would fly on May 3rd 1943.

On that day fourteen Venturas of 487 Sqn were detailed to attack a target in Amsterdam, however only twelve aircraft actually took off, all at 16:43 from RAF Methwold. These aircraft were all part of a much wider operation, one that would involve an escort of nine RAF fighter squadrons. Timing was therefore crucial, as was low-level flying and maintaining the element of surprise. Within five minutes of their departure though, ‘EG-Q’ piloted by Sgt. A. Baker, would return after losing the crew escape hatch. This left eleven aircraft to carry on to the target.

A diversionary attack carried out by aircraft of 12 Group flying ahead of the main formation flew in too high, too soon, thus losing the surprise and alerting the defenders of the impending attack. Caught out by low fuel, many of the escorting fighters had to then leave thus reducing the overall effectiveness of the defensive escorting force. The Luftwaffe, now ready and waiting, had scrambled numerous fighters, a deadly cocktail of FW-190s and Bf-109s. The squadron record book reports an estimated “80+ ” enemy aircraft in the locality of the attacking Venturas.

From this point on things went very badly for 487 Sqn.

As they crossed the Dutch coast Ventura ‘AJ478’ (EG-A) was attacked and shot down by Luftwaffe fighters. Ditching in the sea the crew took to a life raft where Sgt. T Warner, injured in the attack, died of his injuries. Committing his body to the sea the remaining three would be captured and become prisoners of war. Warner’s body would wash up two days later on a Dutch beach and be buried in the small town of Bergen op Zoom – all four were from New Zealand.

A second aircraft, ‘AE916’ (EG-C) was also very badly shot up by the pouncing fighters. However, it managed to return to England landing at their former base RAF Feltwell. The pilot and navigator were both unhurt, but the wireless operator and air gunner were both badly wounded, and were immediately taken directly the RAF hospital at Ely, Cambridgeshire. The aircraft was so badly damaged in the attack that it was written off. For their actions the pilot (F/Lt. Duffill) and navigator (F.O. Starkie) were both awarded the DFC, whilst the wireless operator (Sgt. Turnbull) and gunner (Sgt. Neill) the DFM.  Dufill later went on to become the managing director of Humbrol paints, a company renowned for its paint and modelling supplies.

Pressing on to the target, the casualties got worse and the loss rate increased.

Firstly, Ventura ‘AE684’ (EG-B) was shot down at 17:45 near Bennebroek with the loss of two; at the same time ‘AE731’ (EG-O) was shot down  just north of Vijfhuizen, three crewmen were captured but the fourth, Sgt. Tatam, died. Five minutes later at 17:50, ‘AE780’ (EG-S) was lost, with only one crew member surviving – the aircraft crashing into the suburbs of Amsterdam. Within three more minutes, a fourth aircraft of this group would go down; ‘AE713’ (EG-T) was hit, also causing it to crash in the northern suburbs of Amsterdam, this time killing all on board. By 18:00 there were only two of the eleven aircraft left, ‘AJ209’ (EG-V) flown by Squadron Leader Leonard Trent, and ‘AE716’ (EG-U) flown by F.O. T. Baynton.

Baynton’s aircraft, ‘EG-U’, would then be shot down by fighters causing it to crash in the outskirts of Amsterdam, also killing all four on board. Squadron Leader Trent, seeing all around him fall from the sky, pressed on. Flying toward the target he dropped his bombs and then turned away. Trent bravely and coolly defended his aircraft, shooting down a Bf-109 with his forward facing guns. Shortly after, he too was hit, the aircraft badly damaged, spiralled earthward uncontrollably, breaking up as it did so, throwing both Trent and his navigator F.L. V. Philips, out of the falling wreckage.

Both Trent and Philips were later captured and taken prisoner, the other two crew members; F.O. R. Thomas and Sgt. G. Trenery, both lost their lives in the crash.

One further aircraft, ‘AJ200’ (EG-G) piloted by New Zealander Sgt. J Sharp was thought to crash 3 km west of Schiphol, with only Sharp surviving; whilst the remaining two unaccounted aircraft, ‘AE956’ (EG-H) and ‘AE 798’ (EG-D), were lost over the sea on the way to the target. All eight crewmen were presumed killed, two of them being washed up several days later on the Dutch coast. The remainder were never heard from again.

In the space of only a few minutes, eleven aircraft had been attacked and ten shot down with the loss of 28 young RAF lives.

operations-record-page

The Operations Record Book for May 3rd 1943, shows the depth of feeling felt by the crews at Methwold following the disastrous mission. (Crown Copyright*2)

Trent spent the remainder of the war in Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. Only on his eventual return to England did the full and disastrous story of what had happened come out. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses. The London Gazette published his citation on Friday 1st March 1946, in the Third Supplement which said:

“Before taking off, Squadron Leader Trent told the deputy leader that he was going over the target, whatever ‘happened…”

It later went on to say…

“On this, his 24th sortie, Squadron Leader Trent showed outstanding leadership. Such was the trust placed in this gallant officer that the other pilots followed him unwaveringly. His cool, unflinching courage and devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds, rank with the finest examples of these virtues.” *3

A determined attack, it was flawed from the moment the preceding force were spotted. The Venturas, woefully inadequate and unprotected, were literary cut down from the sky. Fighters escorting the Venturas confirmed seeing seven parachutes from the aircraft, but the scale of the loss was a blow so devastating, it left only six operational crews in the entire squadron.

For many days after, the Operational Record Books indicated “no news of the boys“, and as new crews and aircraft arrived, prayers for their return faded, but hopes for a return to operational status rose. Following a number of training flights, the next operational mission would finally take place on May 23rd, a mission that was a total success, and one that must have boosted the morale of the squadron immensely.

This mission was a disaster for the Royal Air Force and for Methwold in particular. The loss of life dealt a huge blow to the community both on, and around the base. In memory of these gallant young men, many of whom were never found, their names are inscribed on the Runnymede memorial, whilst those whose bodies were recovered, remain scattered in various graves across the Dutch countryside.

May their memories live for evermore.

RAF Methwold appears in Trail 8.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo source The Imperial War Museum Collections

*2 AIR\27\1935\13

*3  The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37486. p. 1179. 26 February 1946. Retrieved 29th January 2017

AIR\27\1935\13 – Operational Records Book (summary), The National Archives

AIR\27\1935\14 – Operational Records Book (work carried out), The National Archives

Chorley, W.R., Bomber Command Losses, 1943, Midland Counties, 1996

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 2.

Part 1 of Newmarket Heath saw the rebirth of this First World War airfield. The outbreak of war and the confusion that grew from the Phoney War.

Part 2 continues the growth and development of Newmarket and its eventual demise.

The Autumn of 1941 saw the reforming of a World War 1 squadron, 138 Sqn whose re-creation on the 25th, was the result of renumbering 1419 Flight. who would operate Lysanders, Whitleys and finally Halifax IIs before they departed mid December. 138 Sqn would then go on to play a major part in the forming of yet another squadron, also here at Newmarket, in a few months time.

December 1941 heralded another First World War squadron reformation, this time the ground echelons of 215 Sqn, who would make their way to India before the air echelons – formed at Waterbeach – could join them.

The winter of 1941 – 1942 would be a time of great discord for Bomber Command even to the point where its whole future was at stake. With high losses and poor bombing accuracy, there were those in power who were seeking to reduce the Command to a fraction of its size, and with such unsustainable losses, their arguments were holding a lot of water. But Sir Charles Portal, who vehemently supported the Bomber Command dogma of carpet bombing, managed to secure the backing of Churchill, and having Churchill on your side meant you had power.

Across Bomber Command, 1942 would bring many changes. To implement this mass bombing policy, now targeting the populous rather than individual industrial targets, Portal employed Sir Arthur Harris in February 1942. Whilst not Harris’s conception, it would be his name that would become synonymous with the policy that has become so controversial ever since.

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR ARTHUR HARRIS, KCB.,OBE.,AFC.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, KCB.,OBE.,AFC. © IWM (CH 13021)

Along with Harris came a restructuring of Bomber Command, including its support structure. With the heavier four-engined types all coming on line and into full squadron service, it would see the reduction on the reliance of the smaller, now outdated, twin-engined types: Whitley, Hampden and the Manchester; and whilst the numbers of Bomber Command aircraft would not significantly increase, its payload would.

These changes would include the training units designed to train crews for the new bomber aircraft, With larger aircraft, came larger and more specific roles.  Within the reshuffle came renumbering, amalgamation and reformation, making their evolution a complicated mix of numbers and bases. Newmarket was a part of this mix.

One such unit to go through these changes was No. 1483 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight which joined with other flights to be finally renamed No. 3 Group Air Bomber Training Flight in mid 1942. The Flight would continue on in this form until mid March 1944, whereupon it was disbanded, and its aircraft disposed of. 

The confusing reforming of training units would reflect the reshaping that Bomber Command would also go through, much of which was settled and firmly embedded by the year’s end. Much of this would be under Harris’s direction, but some by the natural evolutionary process of development and improvement.

The development of aircraft was rapid during the war years. With both the Allied and Axis powers investigating faster and more powerful aircraft, it wouldn’t be long before the jet engine would make an appearance. For the RAF, the Meteor (F.9/40 ‘GlosterWhittle’ twin-jet interceptors) would be the breakthrough. A twin engined jet aircraft, of which twelve prototypes were initially ordered by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (designated DG202 – DG213), and was unofficially known as the ‘Rampage’, would have different engines to undergo flight testing.

On July 2nd, 1942, one of these prototypes DG202, was transferred from the Gloster factory at Bentham in Gloucestershire, here to Newmarket by road. Loaded onto a low loader, its wings were removed and then reassembled for ground run and taxiing trials.

On the 10th, the aircraft was powered up and taxied by Flt. Lt. P.E.G. ‘Gerry’ Sayer, who attempted two short flights. On the second attempt, Sayers managed to get the aircraft off the ground for a few seconds before bringing it back down again. The engines fitted at the time, were not designed to be flight condition engines and so no greater duration attempts were made.

After suffering problems with the undercarriage, trials were resumed with Hawker Typhoon wheels, until mid August when the engines were removed, and the aircraft stored in one of the hangars on the airfield.

After further tests, the aircraft was transported, again by road, to RAF Barford St. John, in Banbury, Oxon where it would eventually fly for six minutes under the control of Gloster’s chief test pilot, Michael Daunt. DG202 then underwent numerous modifications and further flight tests, eventually being mothballed and refurbished, until it found its way to the RAF Museum at Hendon, London. The Meteor would of course go on the break the Air Speed Record at Herne Bay, Kent on November 7th 1945.

Meanwhile back at Newmarket, the end of October 1942 saw air and ground crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn at nearby RAF Mildenhall, begin transferring across to Oakington, an airfield that had caused so many problems with mud earlier in the war. The purpose of the move was to convert the men, initially of ‘B’ Flight and then ‘A’ Flight, over to the Stirlings they were about to receive. Once trained, they would return to Mildenhall and then transfer to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, where they would be based for the foreseeable future.

At the end of October the transformation from Wellington to Stirling began. Thirteen Welllingtons were dispatched to other squadrons, at which point the New Zealanders began their move to Newmarket. The move, overseen by Sqn. Ldr. R. Crawford, commenced on November 1st 1942, and involved two parties, one travelling by road whilst the other travelled by air. Once at Newmarket the crews would begin settling in, and as soon as their replacement aircraft arrived, they would carry out air training flights acclimatising themselves to the intricacies of the new four-engined heavy.

With new aircraft to get used to, it would not be long before the first accident would occur, one that thankfully did not involve casualties. A wheels-up landing by Sgt. P. Buck at Holme whilst on an air-to-air firing flight to RAF Marham, marked the start of a new era.

The first operational flight from Newmarket took place on November 20th, a long distance flight to Turin. A small force comprising of only four aircraft carrying 4 lb incendiary bombs, made up 75 Sqn’s component of 232 aircraft – the largest Italian  raid of the period. Whilst the raid was successful and no losses were encountered by any squadron, two of the four No. 75 Squadron Stirlings returned early with problems; the incendiaries they were carrying being dropped over southern France or in The Wash.

Operations to Stuttgart two nights later showed similar results, this time only two aircraft were detailed of which one returned early with an unserviceable rear turret.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. On the 28th, another raid with four aircraft saw one forced to jettison its load of 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs due to one engine cutting out, the other three aircraft bombing Turin successfully. On the return, Stirling BK608 ‘T’ ran out of fuel over Stradishall, the crew bailing out as low as 600 ft, but against the odds, they all survived unhurt. The aircraft crashed, but was eventually recovered and converted to an instructional air frame. Sadly the same could not be said for the crew of BF399, who whilst on a training flight back at Oakington, flew into the ground killing all but the mid-upper gunner instantly. Sgt. C. T. Roberts, the only crash survivor,  unfortunately succumbed to his injuries a few days later, adding another tally to the list of dead.  It later transpired that the pilot, Sgt. H. Broady, had tried to avoid a head-on collision with another Stirling possibly putting the aircraft into a stall from which he could not recover.

On the 29th, further problems dogged the Stirlings, a faulty bomb release mechanism meant an early return for BK609 ‘R’, who landed in poor weather at Bradwell Bay; the pilot overshooting the runway damaging the aircraft and injuring the Air Bomber Sgt. Broadle.

Over the October / November period, 75 Sqn received a quantity of new Stirlings, the factories at Rochester, Swindon and Birmingham each supplying examples as the last of the Wellingtons were dispatched elsewhere.

By December, the crews were all together back here at Newmarket and taking part in squadron operations over occupied Europe. The last days of 1942 would not be happy yule tides for all though, as fate would claim one last victim of 75 Sqn, that of BF400 ‘G’ which was shot down over Holland. The crew were all captured and placed in POW camps, F/O. Eric Williams being one of those whose famous escape via the Wooden Horse was immortalised on film.

As 1943 dawned and Bomber Command settled into its new form, Newmarket would see a short stay of 2 Sqn Mustang Is. Based primarily a stones throw away at RAF Bottisham, they were only a detachment and would soon depart the site. Similarly, between the 6th and 14th March of 1943, 453 Sqn flying Spitfire VBs utilised the bomber site. Another short stay unit, the Merlin engined fighter group had only been formed at Drem in Scotland, some nine months earlier.

In the preceding years, the Stirling and Wellington had remained, for a large part, the main backbone of 3 Group, with the Stirling gradually replacing the twin-engined ‘Wimpy’, until it too would be withdrawn from front line service in favour of the Lancaster.

75 Sqn suffered only a handful of losses, many aircrew being captured and taken prisoners of war. In the March, the MK.I began to be replaced by the MK.III, and with it came new hope for improved performance. Many of the teething troubles that had dogged the earlier version of the Stirling had now been resolved, but it still remained a poorly performing aircraft, even in its current form.

Initial tests of the MK.III at Boscombe Down were positive. Altitudes of 17,000 ft were achievable, and whilst still far below that of the Lancaster or Halifax, it was better than the MK.I. However, these tests failed to take account of new equipment such as new dorsal turrets and flame dampers, additional weight and drag meant that in operational form, the new model was barely better than its predecessor, and far better engines were needed if any significant improvement was going to be made. With further engine developments the first of the MK.III Stirlings came out. Fitted with Hercules MK.VI engines they could achieve a marginal 2,300 ft better altitude and a slightly faster climb rate; it was hardly anything to call home about, but with improved German flak defences it was welcomed with open arms.

In March, 75 Sqn received two of the new models, with others following not long after. One of these was lost on April 8th on a mission to Duisburg. The crew were all lost when the aircraft came down on its way home only three miles west of Diss in Norfolk.

On the RAF’s anniversary, 75 Sqn formed a new section, ‘C’Flight, an increase in crew meant an an increase in operations too. Whilst 1943 saw low casualties generally, there were three nights on which four aircraft were lost each time. On the night of 28-29th April R9290, W7513, BF4667 and BK807 were all lost whilst on ‘Gardening’ missions in the Baltics, there were no survivors. Another four aircraft were then lost over Wuppertal, with only seven of the airmen surviving – it was another huge loss. A further four aircraft were lost on the night 22-23rd June whilst on a mission to Mulheim. During this attack the four aircraft were shot down by a combination of night fighters and flak, with only five crewmen from BK810 surviving as prisoners of war.

June 1943 saw the last remaining Newmarket operations. On the 19th, fourteen aircraft were dispatched to Krefeld on the western banks of the Rhine a few miles north-west of Dusseldorf. Over the target, Stirling MK.I EH880 piloted by Flt. Lt. J. Joll, was hit by flak, breaking a fuel-cock and control cables. As a result, fuel and oil poured into the aircraft’s body, causing a fire in the fuselage, mainplane and mid-upper turret. Without thinking for his safety, the Flight Engineer Sgt. G. Falloon, cut a hole into the wing with an escape axe, and crawled through. Once inside, he located and isolated the leak enabling the aircraft to land safely back at Newmarket.

Undaunted the crew returned to Krefeld two nights later, this time safely returning without damage. As the month closed, the last Newmarket loss came on the night of 25-26th June 1943, a loss that coincided with the Sqn’s departure from Newmarket, and a move to pastures new at RAF Mepal. The Loss of Stirling BK768 ‘L’ piloted by F/O. Perrott, came as a last minute blow to the squadron, with the loss of all on board.

As the war progressed, new technologies and better methods for bombing were being investigated by both sides. Within the RAF, the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) (formally 1418 Flight) was making huge steps in this direction. A specialist unit that was set up to run trials of new technologies for the RAF’s heavy bombers included: H2S, ‘Monica’, ‘Boozer’ and ‘Fishpond‘, each one designed to improve bombing accuracy or aircraft protection.

On 13th September 1943, the BDU  moved from RAF Feltwell to Newmarket, where they continued these tests, including trials into higher altitude mine laying. The research carried out by the BDU was paramount in the introduction of ventral guns fitted in many of the RAF’s wartime heavy bombers. Under the leadership of Sqn. Ldr. (later Wing Commander) Richard ‘Dickie’ Speare DSO, DFC and bar, and Sir Lewis Hodges, they also investigated the  idea of a radar guided rear turret (AGLT) that locked onto enemy aircraft. A design feature that never really took off, and the idea was later scrapped.

A number of other units, Maintenance units, Glider Maintenance sections, Training Schools and Flights, also graced the skies over Newmarket. But by now the end was drawing closer, and operations from Newmarket began winding down until they finally ceased shortly after the end of the war. A military presence remained for a further two years, but there was little activity. Post war, the Rowley Mile racecourse was reinstated, the buildings returned to their former use and the majority of the airfield’s buildings were pulled down. Within three years the military had pulled out and Newmarket’s wartime history came to a close.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

Newmarket racecourse today. The Grandstand to the right with the Rowley Mile along the front (white fencing). The main runway was directly in front of you at this point, cutting across the airfield. (Taken from the lowered section of the Dyke)

Today the racecourse is predominant, little evidence can be seen of the former airfield, the Dyke still has the lowered section, and one original hangar remains to the north of the site next to the A14 road. The July landing strip still operates, and aircraft are permitted to land and take off up to an hour before or after racing commences/finishes, used mainly by visiting jockeys and horse owners, it is perhaps the last remaining sign of an aviation history at this once busy airfield.

The dangers of the Dyke continue to show themselves today, on June 1st 2000, a Piper Seneca carrying the Jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ray Cochrane crashed on this site both suffering serious injuries. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, was killed in the crash which took place between the July strip and Rowley mile, impacting on the Devils Dyke – yet another victim claimed by this ancient structure.

The Grandstand, the former accommodation block for aircrews, still stands but much refurbished and updated, a grand viewing platform where race-goers can watch in comfort as the horses gallop across the finish line.

Newmarket airfield started off as a rather insignificant satellite airfield growing considerably in size over its life. Although the runways were grass, (there were three officially designated) the longest stretched to around 9,000 ft (2,500 yds) – some 500 more than a standard Class A bomber airfield of the war years. The remaining two runways (1,800 yds and 1,600 yds), were also large for its size. A bomb store, much needed early on in the war, was located to the north and a small, non circular perimeter track linked the many hangers that were found on the original wartime site. Several T2s, two B1s, and various blister hangars were all located around the airfield.

The majority of the technical area was found to the north of the site, the opposite end of the Grandstand which was close to the watch office. In this technical area were located twenty-four hardstands of the spectacle style, all of which have now gone. The main A14 road now cuts across this former technical area, only one of the B1s still exists today, the second having been burnt down and replaced in recent years.

RAF Newmarket Heath saw a huge range of flying activities during its life. Primarily a bomber station, it witnessed many accidents and suffered many losses. From its inception in the First World War to its development as a substantial airfield in the second, it grew to be a remarkable site, and one which continues to be prominent today. Sadly though, this important period of history seems to have all but vanished, the slate wiped clean and replaced with something much more appealing to the general public today.

After we leave Newmarket, we head a short distance west towards Cambridge where we find another airfield that has long since gone. Through huge efforts by a small group of volunteers though, we see a museum sprouting out of the ashes, as we head to the former airfield RAF Botisham.

The full text appears in Trail 55.

Sources and further reading (Newmarket Heath)

*1The British History Online website has detailed studies of the Devil’s Dyke.

National Archives – AIR 27/788/3, AIR 27/788/8,  AIR 27/98/3, AIR 27/646/19,
AIR 27/646/21, AIR 27/646/36

Star Jockeys survive plane Crash inferno‘ story appeared in the Guardian Online Website.  June 2nd 2000.

Bowyer, M.J.F., “The Stirling Bomber“, Faber and Faber, 1980

For information about Newmarket the Newmarket Shops History website has a wealth of information about the town.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 1.

In the second of the four airfields visited in Trail 55, we move on from Snailwell, a small grassed airfield to a similar station a stones throw away to the west.

This second airfield is now one of the major venues of British Horse Racing, second only to Ascot, and is found in an area where much of the land is owned by the British Horse Racing School, stud farms, and stabling. It is also home to the famous Jockey Club, an organisation founded in 1750 that has a turnover of over £200 million.

Now where virtually all traces have long gone, we visit the former base RAF Newmarket Heath.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile).

Like RAF Snailwell, Newmarket Heath saw a wide variety of units using it, initially as a satellite airfield. It housed in excess of 20 squadrons or training units during its life. Being a satellite it would also be used by a wide range of aircraft types, but primarily the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, each one bringing its own story of hardship and heroism.

Opened in October 1916, its history lasted until the military finally pulled out on 15th April 1948, but whilst military flying has ceased, some light flying still does occur, mainly for those attending race days at the Newmarket race course.

Today Newmarket airstrip is one that confuses many pilots trying to land and use its facilities. The original landing strip was know as ‘Rowley Mile’, which now forms part of the Newmarket racecourse ending at the Rowley Mile Stands. During the summer months, another strip is used, known simply as the ‘July landing strip’, and this sits to the west of the Rowley Mile along side the ‘Devils Dyke’*1 (locally called the  Devil’s Ditch’). This is is a 7 mile long embankment, created in Anglo-Saxon times, and is thought to be around 1,450 years old.  Because of its collection of wild fauna and flora, is has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), which, at its highest point, reaches some 50 feet. It was this dyke that caused at least one major accident when a Stirling of 75 Squadron, based at the airfield, struck the dyke at ten minutes past ten on December 16th 1942.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The Devils Dyke looking north. The ‘July Strip’ is to the left and the ‘Rowley Mile’ and Newmarket Airfield to the right. This is the bank struck by the Stirling.

During take off, Stirling R9245 piloted by Sgt. B. Franklin, and carrying mines for the Gironde Estuary, clipped the Dyke with its starboard undercarriage tearing out the oil tank which caused one of the engines to fail.  The incident brought the aircraft down  about a mile from the airfield, killing all seven crewmen on board after the mines it was carrying, exploded. As a result, the mission was cancelled and the following five aircraft were stood down for the night. Because of this, and other accidents involving the Dyke, part of it was lowered during 1943, the results of which are still apparent today, and it is where a memorial stands in memory of the crew lost of that night in December 1942.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The plaque at the base of the Dyke where Stirling R9245 struck on the night of December 16th 1942.

Today there is a further, and more permanent landing area located behind the racecourse stands, and it is this area that forms the bulk of what was the Royal Air Force base RAF Newmarket Heath.

The Rowley Mile airfield originally opened during the First World War and operated for almost than three years. The primary users of this site, were the two Night Training Squadrons: 190 and 192 who were created out of elements of both 51 Sqn and 33 Sqn respectively. These two units operated from Newmarket in the latter stages of World War I, both being disbanded in 1919 after the war’s end. 190 Sqn had by then, moved to RAF Upwood whilst 192 had remained at Newmarket whereupon its operations ceased.

Between the wars it would seem there was no real flying activity, the race course being the prominent feature. But when war broke out again, it was put back into use, and utilised by the RAF as a large airfield capable of dealing with some rather large aircraft.

Being bordered to the north by the modern A14 road, and with the town of Newmarket to the east, Newmarket Heath reopened for military business in 1939 under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command, whose headquarters were at Harraton House in nearby Exning. Newmarket accepted its first visitors, a detachment of Blenheim IVs from 107 Sqn, during May of that same year.

On September 1st, two days before the declaration of war between Britain and Germany, the airfield was, by then, a satellite for RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Present at Mildenhall was 99 Sqn, with Wellington MK.Is, an aircraft they had been operating for a year.

The beginning of September marked a turning point not only in world history, but also in British aviation. On September 1st, a general mobilisation order was received at airfields across Britain, and at RAF Mildenhall, like many, 99 Sqn were told to prepare to put “Scatter” schemes into operation. Once confirmation was received, eleven aircraft were flown from Mildenhall to Newmarket along with a sufficient number of crews to prepare Newmarket for crew accommodation. This accommodation was to be the Grandstand originally used for spectators at the various race meetings.

The Grandstand was never designed for aircrew accommodation, the NCO’s never fully accepting the poor living conditions in which they had to stay. It was dirty and the mess hall was merely a room provided for them within the grandstand complex; the ablutions were a makeshift building outside, and it was impossible to keep yourself, or your clothes clean. Newmarket was not a popular place to be posted to.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The Grandstand today taken from the Devil’s Dyke. The white fencing indicates the Rowley mile and the former World War 1 landing strip.

The intention was to transfer the entire squadron to Newmarket leaving only a maintenance and repair section at Mildenhall, a move which began almost immediately. Then on September 3rd, at 11:00 hrs, the squadron were called to assemble on Newmarket’s parade ground to hear the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announce Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.  Little did they know that history was being made, and that for the next five years the world would be plunged into very dark times indeed.

On the very same day that the declaration was made, orders were put in place to carryout leaflet drops, but subsequent instructions cancelled these, and no flying took place. As Britain entered the ‘phoney war’, confusion, mixed orders and a rather disorganised period would follow. Orders and counter orders became the norm, squadrons were moved and reorganised, and no one seemed to know quite what they were to do.

New orders came through on the 5th to prepare to ‘disperse all aircraft that could be flown’, along with skeleton crews, to RAF Upper Heyford. The confusion of the Phoney War continued, and when the local air raid warning sounding at 7:15 on the 6th, crews found themselves spread about the field as only one air raid shelter at Newmarket was usable. Immediately after, a new order came through to implement the ‘withdrawal’ scheme and so eleven Wellingtons, who had only recently arrived, took off for RAF Upper Heyford. A twelfth aircraft, that had also transferred over to  Newmarket, was unable to fly due to it being unserviceable.

Further mixed orders came through with yet more operations being cancelled. But then on the 8th, a new order for leaflet drops was issued, and four aircraft were designated to fly to Newmarket and then onto Mildenhall where they would receive up to date information on the ‘target’ area. Four crews arrived and prepared to take off from Mildenhall. One of these Wellingtons, L.7770, was then found to have a leak in the oxygen system, and its flight was cancelled. With insufficient time to collect a spare aircraft from Newmarket, the operation was again scrubbed, and the three aircraft returned to base; another frustrating let down and another source of confusion for the crews.

On the 9th, another message came through to evacuate Newmarket, and all aircraft were prepared once more to move to RAF Elmdon (now Birmingham Airport). An additional sortie also planned for that night was also again cancelled, this time though due to bad weather, as preparations for the squadron’s move continued. Four Newmarket aircraft then departed for Elmdon in the afternoon, Wing Commander Walker making the necessary arrangements, flying to both RAF Upper Heyford, where further aircraft were dispersed, and then onto RAF Elmdon to ensure the move went smoothly. Coinciding with all this, the squadron received its first upgrade, the MK.IA, in the form of Wellington N2870, which was delivered by a ferry pilot to RAF Mildenhall.

The evacuation was completed by the late evening, all personnel had departed leaving just an NCO and a working party to clear the Grandstand and remove any remaining stores. A 32 seat omnibus along with a heavy lorry transported thirteen men and their supplies to Elmdon. The remainder of the party then transferred back to Mildenhall.

On the 25th, another order was received in the early evening to return to Newmarket, Sqn. Ldr. J. Griffiths must have said a few choice words as he made the arrangements to move the men and their stores back from where they had only just come.

Suggestions where again made to locate the entire squadron to Newmarket, but this was now seen as impracticable, and so only the dispersed Elmdon group made the  move. By the end of the next day the transfer was complete.

With firing trials taking place at Carew Cheriton near Tenby, further instructions came through, again suggesting the squadron move to Newmarket. Again though this was noted as impractical, and the move stopped for a second time. The confusion was then broken at 12:15 when a message came thought to say that a Wellington had crashed on take off prior to undertaking gunnery practice, the crew sustaining minor injuries, but the aircraft being severely damaged in the accident. The crew were able to return to Newmarket after receiving treatment for their injures, where they resumed their duties.

On the 20th, the aircraft located at Newmarket were placed on a 60 minute standby, ready to attack the German fleet which was sailing from its base in northern Germany. But, by 16:30, the chance had passed and the flight was stood down. The irony of training with Leica cameras must have broken the monotony of gunnery practice, when on the 8th October, six aircraft did finally take off from their Newmarket base to attack the fleet. Unfortunately, the aircrews could not locate the ships, and all aircraft returned to Mildenhall for debriefing before flying on back to Newmarket.

Official photograph

Wellingtons of 9 Sqn in close formation 1939. The idea of bombers defending themselves was proven to be a misconception, and daylight raids were soon stopped as a result. © IWM (CH 17)

It was this same order that would, on December 14th 1939, decimate the Newmarket detachment. A search for the fleet over the North Sea led to forty-two aircraft from various squadrons, flying Bomber Command’s most extensive search yet. The twelve 99 squadron aircraft finally managed to locate the fleet through the cloud at Schillig Roads, close to Willhelmshaven. Once here, the cloud, highly accurate flak and the Luftwaffe, decimated the formation. Five of the Wellingtons went down in the target area, and a further aircraft, after disposing of its bombs over the sea, limped back to Newmarket badly beaten up. Even though they were away from hostile territory, the crew were not yet safe, and when within sight of the airfield, the aircraft finally gave up the battle and crashed into the ground. The pilot, Flt.Lt. Eugene Hetherington (s/n: 39026) a New Zealander, perished along with two others of his crew. Of the six aircraft lost, only three from Flt. L. Herington’s crew survived, and the bodies of only two men from the other five aircraft were ever found. 99 Sqn had lost 33 aircrew in one night, a terrible blow to the Newmarket crews.

In the post operation analysis, Bomber Command officials decided that it was not the fighters that brought the aircraft down, and that good close formation flying had been a ‘success’ of the mission. They decreed that concealment was better than any amount of firepower and that pilots should seek shelter in cloud wherever possible.

With only one other aircraft going down in the then, neutral Belgium, there were no other major loses in 1940 and only a few, largely due to training accidents, in early 1941. The Winter of 1939-40, was certainly a baptism of fire for the crews of 99 Sqn.

The dawn of 1941 would signify changes to Newmarket. By March, 99 Sqn had finally pulled out, their poor start to the war proving that the idea of bombers successfully protecting themselves on daylight missions was a fallacy. A point made in dramatic style in one single operation.

On the 16th of March, orders were issued at nearby RAF Oakington to move the Stirlings of  ‘A’ Flight, 7 Sqn, out to the new satellite station here at Newmarket; the runways at Oakington now becoming nothing more than a mass of mud, causing a danger to any aircraft that dare to venture out. By the 26th, the situation has become so bad that both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flight officers had departed, with the main body of ‘A’ Flight following the next day. For a month the squadron’s Flights operated out of Newmarket whilst Oakington’s mud dried out. However, by the 5th April, it was clear that the  accommodation situation at Newmarket, both ‘inhospitable’ and ‘cold’, was far too cramped, and ‘B’ Flight were ordered back to Oakington where they would be ferried the short distance to Newmarket where their aircraft were to remain.

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BOMBER COMMAND

Stirling N3663/MG-H of No 7 Squadron,  at Newmarket Heath, during a visit by King Peter of Yugoslavia, 29 July 1941. © IWM (CH 3175)

By the 27th April, Oakington had sufficiently dried out and the surface was ‘improving rapidly’, enough at least for ‘A’ Flight to return home. After one  month of being at Newmarket, the crews could finally breathe a sigh of relief to be leaving the rather inaptly named ‘Grandstand’ behind.

Part 2 will see how Newmarket developed further, its wartime legacy and its eventual demise as an operational airfield.

The full text appears in Trail 55.