Secrets Of The (Not So) Deep.

By Mitch Peeke.

This latest chapter in the story of B17 44-6133, which crashed in shallow water at Allhallows, Kent, in June of 1944, came about during a visit I made to The Kent Battle Of Britain Museum at Hawkinge; which ordinarily, is not perhaps the sort of of venue one might expect to find anything related to The Mighty Eighth.

I have been to this excellent museum a few times. They very graciously stocked the promotional leaflets for my own Battle Of Britain E-Book; 1940: The Battles To Stop Hitler when it came out in 2015. Four years later, in the Summer of 2019, I had organized the creation of a memorial at Allhallows, commemorating the lost crew of B17 44-6133 and later that same Summer, there I was, talking to Dave Brocklehurst MBE, Curator of the museum at Hawkinge, about my project, the memorial day we’d just held there and how there was going to be a new museum at nearby Slough Fort, which would include a display relating to the crash. The Fort has a small piece of wreckage from the B17 that had washed up on the beach front at Allhallows. It was then that Dave told me that he also had a genuine piece of that B17 in storage and he offered it to me, for inclusion in the Fort’s display. It is a fair-sized but broken piece of armour plate, thought to be a section of armour from either of the Pilots’ chairs, though Dave was by no means certain of that. We arranged for him to retrieve it from his storage section and for me to return to the museum to collect it. Then came the Covid pandemic of course!

Successive lockdowns meant I couldn’t collect it. Dave was kept extremely busy, not only with the general upkeep but also the museum’s newest acquisition; a Spanish-built Heinkel 111 that had been used in the 1969 film The Battle Of Britain, which of course had seen Hawkinge used as a filming location. Each time we made our arrangements, another lockdown put paid to our plans, then finally, we were able to make a definite date, in May of 2021, nearly two years after first discussing the idea, for me to collect the B17 artefact.

Dave Brocklehurst MBE, (right) Curator of The Kent Battle Of Britain Museum at Hawkinge, Presents Mitch Peeke with the salvaged armour plate. (Photo: Mitch Peeke.)

The first thing that struck me when Dave handed the plate to me, was the sheer weight of it. The plate measures a mere 17 by 19 inches. It is a quarter of an inch thick, but it weighs an incredible 22.6 pounds: 10 kg. No wonder Dave told me not to come to collect it on my Harley! I used my wife’s SUV instead.

Once I got it safely home, I photographed it from several angles and set about the task of trying to positively identify it. To that end, I emailed the Museum of aviation at Robins Air Force Base in America, as they are currently in the process of restoring a B17 to its former glory. Their Curator, a former US Air Force officer by the name of Arthur Sullivan, replied to my enquiry with 24 hours, expressing a great interest in the the plate and the story behind it. Despite casting their expert eyes over the photos I sent them, we are still not 100% certain; but it would seem likely, given its curved edges and obvious mounting bolts underneath, that it is seat base armour from either of the Pilot’s seats; the two angled slots most likely to have been for the lap straps to pass through.

Underside of the plate, showing the mounting bolts and possible Lap Strap slots. (Photo: Mitch Peeke.)

The plate was salvaged from the wreck site, a muddy, watery crater some 500 yards off the beach at Allhallows, in the late 1970’s. By then, some nefarious low tide salvage attempts had already been made, most notably by slightly drunk members of the Allhallows Yacht Club. One such foray had resulted in the Police being called to the club when the returning “Trophy Hunters” had brought a quantity of .50 caliber machine gun bullets back with them and decided to try “firing” them from a vice on a workbench, using a hammer and the pointed end of a six inch nail. Luckily for those concerned, the bullets had deteriorated to such an extent after laying on the muddy bottom of the Thames Estuary for 32 years, that they merely fizzled and smoked. The Police confiscated them. The Trophy Hunters had also retrieved one of the bombers Browning machine guns, probably one of the waist guns, but that had been hidden from the Police. That gun was apparently later taken apart and smuggled into Canada. To discourage any further foolhardy amateur salvage operations, the Royal Engineers were called in to demolish the wreck with explosives. Nobody seemed to consider the possibility of that wreck being a War Grave. The body of Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini, the bomber’s Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, has never been found. He is the only member of 44-6133’s crew who is still unaccounted for.

Today, the crater is still visible at low tide, as are the fragmented remains of the B17. The tidal mud holds a lot of the wreckage in suspension, so every now and again, more of it becomes visible, sticking up out of the muddy floor of the crater, when the tide goes out. Tempting though it still is for some to venture out there, the oozing mud makes such an expedition a dangerously foolish pursuit. Letting that sleeping B17 rest in peace is a far more noble and worthy aim.

In the meantime, we do now have two tangible pieces of 44-6133; one is the small piece of wreckage that washed ashore in 2017 and the other is the newly re-discovered armour plate. Both are now on display in the Slough Fort Museum. Thanks to Jeanne Cronis-Campbell, we also now have photographs of some of 44-6133’s young crew, taken by her late Father, Teddy; who was the plane’s Bombardier and the sole survivor of 6133’s crew, which I added to the memorial last year. And of course, we finally have that permanent memorial to those men, overlooking the place where they fell. We will, remember them.

My thanks to Mitch for the update.

The full story of 44-6133 can be found in ‘A Long way from Home‘,

Help Wanted – RAF King’s Cliffe!

In 2014, I published Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’ a trail around six American bases from the Second World War, one of these, RAF King’s Cliffe, was, at the time, under threat of development.

In 2015, objections from over 300 people were received which included supporters of Glenn Miller, aviation enthusiasts, wildlife groups and local people alike, who all highlighted concerns over the proposed development of the site and the impact it may have.

At an initial meeting in September that year, the council failed to come to any overall decision as they needed to consider further reports from different interested parties.  At a second meeting held on Wednesday 14th October,  after considering all the issues raised, East Northamptonshire Council approved the plans and so planning for 55 holiday homes were passed on an area known as Jack’s Green.

This area includes a memorial to the late Glenn Miller, who performed his last ever hangar concert here at King’s Cliffe before being lost over the sea. Assurances from the land owner at that time, were that the development would be in keeping with the area and that the memorial would remain “exactly as it was”.

I have not been able to return to Jack’s Green, nor King’s Cliffe airfield to see how this development has affected the area, and was wanting to know if anyone had photos of the development taken since the development started or more so, in the years following. As it would directly affect the memorial and adjoining public footpath, I was interested in the Jack’s Green area especially. I know that many geocachers use this path as do horse riders, walkers and enthusiasts alike, and am hoping someone may have a small collection of photos I could see.

Any photos you are willing to share would be very much appreciated.

My sincere thanks.

Andy

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here.

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.

Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.

The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.

The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.

A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)

The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and  perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.

Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.

Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI

The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)

The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day.  Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.

When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.

With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.

The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.

RAF Watton

One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.

The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.

This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to  the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS).  The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.

The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1

But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail,  countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally  the calibration and training units of the CSE.

Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.

199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.

The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.

On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.

As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.

The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.

Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.

As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.

RAF Watton

Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.

By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.

A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.

Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure.  One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.

Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.

Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?

The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.

As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe.  Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.

National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2

A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.

Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.

NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.

Watton can be found on Trail 9.

Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle – Heartbreak on Christmas Eve, 1944

On the morning of December 24th, 1944, Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (s/n 0-319375), woke to the greet the day, and like most pilots facing perilous missions, he probably wondered if it would be his last. However, knowing what I know about Castle from my research, he was a calm, confident and highly competent pilot, so most likely he had every reason to believe in the success of his next mission. Sadly though, that was not to be the case. Castle never made it back that night. On Christmas Eve of 1944, this brave pilot lost his 30th and final battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Elliott Vandevanter of the 385th Bomb Group with Colonel Frederick W Castle (centre) of the 487th Bomb Group and Brigadier General Curtis A LeMay. *1

Frederick W. Castle was born on October 14th, 1908 at Fort McKinley in Manila, the Philippines. He came from an active military family and was the son of Col. Benjamin Frederick Castle. Following the end of World War 1, he was to settle in the United States in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

From a young age, Castle was destined to follow in his fathers footsteps, groomed for a life of military service. He attended Boonton High School and Storm King Military Academy before moving on to the US Military Academy from where he graduated in June 1930.

His first service was with the New Jersey National Guard, where he stayed for two years  transferring to the Air Corps, March Field, California, then onto Kelly Field in Texas. Castle gaining his wings in October 1931.

Serving as a pilot with the 17th Pursuit Squadron for 3 years, he eventually left the forces returning to civilian life but holding a reserve status. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, Castle would be called upon by his good Friend Ira Eaker, returning to the fold in January 1942, and being promoted within two months to Major. By the following September, Castle had been promoted yet again, he was now a Lieutenant Colonel.

With the forming of the Eighth Air Force in England, headed by General Ira Eaker, Castle was one of seven high-ranking officers selected to fly with him on the dangerous route over the Bay of Biscay, eventually arriving at Hendon wearing their civilian clothes. Joining Eaker on February 20th 1943 in the DC-3 from Lisbon were: Lt Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr, Major Peter Beasley, Captain Beirne Lay Jnr, Lt. Harris Hull and Lt. William Cowart Jnr.

Castle desired a combat role, and this desire would lead to him taking over the command of the ailing 94th Bomb Group. His methods of command were initially considered weak, but in the face of low morale and apprehension, he personally took the 94th to some of the furthest targets yet, his first being Oschersleben in the heart of Germany; a mission that went on to inspire the film “12 o’clock High“.  Castle went on to fly in many combat missions including numerous high prestige targets, a role that took him on to Brigadier General and command of 4th Combat Wing.

On Christmas Eve 1944, following a week of poor weather, orders came though for a maximum effort mission, involving every available B-17 and B-24 in support of the troops in the Ardennes. Airfields, supply lines and troop movements were to be attacked, and following weeks of poor weather, a break was at last predicted.

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham), home of the 379th Bomb Group. Image stamped on reverse: 'Passed for publication 3 Sep 1943.' [stamp] nand '282085.' [censor no.] A printed caption was previously attached to the reverse however this has been removed. Associated news story: 'American Air Forces G.O.C. Meets The

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)*2

As a joint effort, this would be the largest single attack to date involving 500 RAF and Ninth Air force bombers, 800 fighters and just short of 2,050 Eighth Air Force bombers. Such was the demand for aircraft, that even ‘war weary’ examples, were hastily armed and prepared, many unfit for more than assembly or training duties. Truly an armada of incredible proportions.

Taking lead position, Frederick Castle, was in B-17G-VE, ’44-8444′ “Treble Four“, an aircraft that had itself seen battle experience. Assigned to the 836BS, 487BG, and at RAF Lavenham, it was previously damaged in a raid over Darmstadt. The aircraft was  later salvaged in January 1945.

A veteran of 29 missions, Castle was a more than a competent leader. They set off, the weather was as predicted but with a haze that restricted ground level visibility. It was this haze prevented the fighters from leaving causing an all important delay in the escorts. This delay was not considered a major problem at the time however, as the escorts being faster, would soon catchup and overtake the heavily laden bombers. The Luftwaffe, in an unprecedented move, brought forward fighters into the Liege area to meet the oncoming bombers before any escorts could reach them. In the first few minutes of the battle, four of the 487th BG’s aircraft were downed and a further five forced to land in Belgium.

Castle’s lead plane, suffering problems with one of its engines (possibly due to previous battle damage) was attacked by the first wave of fighters, action was taken to leave the flight and join a formation further back. It was then attacked again, the aircraft catching fire, and the navigator being wounded.

Castle took control, and even though still being attacked, refused to jettison the bombs for fear of killing civilians or allied troops below. Further attacks led to both engines on the starboard wing catching fire, which ultimately led to the fuel tank exploding sending the aircraft into an uncontrollable spin.

Through Castle’s actions, seven of the crewmen were able to leave the aircraft, sadly  though not all survived.

Frederick Castle died in the crash, his body is now buried in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Liege, Belgium, Plot D, Row 13, Grave 53.

His citation reads:

“He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. En route to the target, the failure of 1 engine forced him to relinquish his place at the head of the formation. In order not to endanger friendly troops on the ground below, he refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed maneuverability. His lagging, unescorted aircraft became the target of numerous enemy fighters which ripped the left wing with cannon shells. set the oxygen system afire, and wounded 2 members of the crew. Repeated attacks started fires in 2 engines, leaving the Flying Fortress in imminent danger of exploding. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the bail-out order was given. Without regard for his personal safety he gallantly remained alone at the controls to afford all other crew-members an opportunity to escape. Still another attack exploded gasoline tanks in the right wing, and the bomber plunged earthward. carrying Gen. Castle to his death. His intrepidity and willing sacrifice of his life to save members of the crew were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service*3.”

For his action, Frederick W. Castle was awarded the Medal of Honour posthumously. In 1946, the Castle Air Force Base, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, was dedicated in his name, and on June 20th, 1981, the Castle Air Museum was officially opened on the now closed base, for the purpose of preserving the Air Force and Castle heritage. Museum details can be found on their website. His  name is also on a plaque in the Memorial Park, in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

The awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”, who chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, and leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9833

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9879

*3 Congregational Medal of Honour SocietyWebsite, accessed 22/12/15

Mountain Lakes Library, Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The B-17 Flying Fortress Story”, Roger A Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1997.

Air Forces Historical Support, Division,  Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The Mighty Eighth”, Roger Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1986.

September 26th 1942, a near tragedy for three RAF Squadrons.

The Eagle Squadrons were three RAF Squadrons made up of American volunteers, their achievements and records are well-known and well documented, however, it was not all plain sailing for these determined and courageous flyers. For one Squadron in particular, 133 Squadron, September 26th 1942 would be a disaster, a disaster that would almost wipe out the entire flight of twelve airmen.

133 Squadron had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving at RAF Great Sampford, a satellite for RAF Debden. The ground crews were predominately British, assisting and training the US ground crews in aircraft maintenance and support. All the pilots however, were US volunteers, formed into three separate squadrons but under RAF control.

1st Lt Dominic 'Don' Gentile and Spitfire BL255 'Buckeye-Don', 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF.

1st Lt Dominic ‘Don’ Gentile and Spitfire BL255 ‘Buckeye-Don’. The photo was taken after 133 Squadron RAF was disbanded and absorbed into the USAAF as the, 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF. (@IWM)

133 Squadron would arrive at RAF Great Sampford on September 23rd 1942, the same day as 616 Sqn RAF departed, they would be the last operational unit to fully use the airfield before its eventual closure.

Initially flying the Spitfire VBs, they soon replaced them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise. It was so new and improved, that it remained on the secret list until after this particular operational flight.

On that fateful day, September 26th 1942, fourteen Spitfires of 133 Sqn took off from RAF Great Sampford in Essex, piloting those Spitfires were:

BS313 – F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC (61053) The only British pilot and leader
BS275 – P/O. Leonard T. Ryerson (O-885137)
BS446 – P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113)
BS137 – P/O. Dennis D. Smith (O-885128)
BR638 – P/O. G.B. Sperry (O-885112)
BS445 – P/O. Dominic “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile (O-885109)
BS138 – P/O. Gilbert G. Wright (?)
BS279 – F/Lt. Marion E. Jackson (O-885117)
BS447 – P/O. R.E. Smith (O-885110)
BR640 – P/O. C.A. Cook (O-885112)
BS148 – P/O. Richard “Bob” N. Beaty (?)
BS301 – P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr (O-885127)
BS140 – P/O. Gene P. Neville (O-885129)
Unknown  – P/O. Ervin “Dusty” Miller (O-885138) (not listed but known to have been on the flight).

They were to fly to RAF Bolt Head in Devon, where they would meet with 401 Squadron (RCAF) and 64 Squadron RAF, refuel and be briefed for the mission. A mission that was supposed to be straight forward and relatively uneventful.

The aim of the mission was to escort US bombers to Morlaix on the Brest peninsula. The usual commander of 133 Sqn, Red McColpin, was not placed in charge that day, instead he had been posted, and a British Pilot, F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC, was issued with the task.

McColpin was a strict disciplinarian and his leadership was admired by those who followed him. Without this leadership, 133’s preparation was slack and they ultimately paid the price for this.

After landing at 12:30 hours, they realised there were no facilities at Bolt Head for refuelling, and they would have to go with what they had. This would kick-start a catalogue of errors that would ultimately seal the fate of the flight. Following a briefing in which Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC and all but two of 133 Sqn pilots had failed to show up for, the flight (which included the sixteen 401 (RCAF) Squadron Spitfire IXs from RAF Kenley) took off at 13:50 hours. Of the fourteen 133 Sqn Spitfires sent to Bolt Head, only twelve would be needed, and two pilots were instructed to remain at Bolt Head, they were P/O. Ervin Miller, and P/O. Don “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile, they would be the luckiest two men of the squadron that day.

The briefing, a very vague and rushed one, instructed the flight to carry out a ‘Circus‘ mission escorting seventy-five B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, who were bombing Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix in Brittany. When the squadron took off the weather was clear, and winds were predicted to be 35 mph at 24,000 feet, but 5 miles off the English coast, they encountered 10/10th cumulus cloud cover at 7,000 feet, and so had to climb above it so that they could locate the bombers more easily.

The take of was a mess, disorganised and lacking both radio information and in many cases maps, the aircraft were lucky not to collide with each other.

Of the three RAF squadrons involved in the mission, 401 would take the high position, 133 the middle and 64 Squadron, the lower. They were to form up over Bolt Head at 2,000 feet and then head at 200o at 180 mph to overtake the bombers before they arrived at the target. If they could not locate the bombers, the flight was to circle the target for three minutes and then depart.

As the flight approached the rendezvous area, one 133 Squadron Spitfire had to drop out of formation and return home, as he had encountered engine problems; this problem was thought to be due to his low fuel. The remainder of the flight  scanned the skies for any sign of the bomber formation, and after searching for some 45 minutes, they spotted the bombers, some 50 miles south of Brest. The bombers had in fact already turned for home after having discarded their bombs near to the Pyrenees.

By now the 301st BG had been recalled, as their fighter escort failed to materialise, whilst the 97th BG had continued on. However, due to the heavy cloud cover over the target area, they had been ineffective as no bombing of the target had taken place. The American bombers, who were only three months into their European air war, had inadvertently miscalculated a tail wind putting them off track well away from the Bay of Biscay.

1st Lt George H Middleton Jr 336FS, 4FG, 8AF USAAF. Former Eagle Sqn Spitfire pilot.

P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr of 133 Squadron RAF was shot down and taken Prisoner of War (@IWM).

The three squadrons formed up on the bombers at just after 16:45 hours, with 64 Squadron on the port side, 401 Squadron on the starboard and 133 Squadron behind. The whole formation then flew north for 30 minutes, at which point it became evident that the wind speed was in fact over 100 mph, and not the 35 mph as stated by the Meteorological Office, or at the briefing! It has since been revealed that this information was known to those in authority, but it had not been passed down the chain of command and the pilots were never informed.

The formation then spotted land, the bombers thought they were over Falmouth and turned right. 64 and 401 Squadron broke away maintaining height, but 133 Squadron dropped down below the cloud base and prepared to land.

133 Squadron then began to search for the airfield, and after searching in vain, they found a large town, this they hoped would give them the vital fix they desperately needed. Flying low over the houses they realised they were not over England at all but in fact still over France. The flight, uninformed of the 100 mph north-easterly wind at their altitude, had also been blown wildly off course, and after 1.5 hours flying time, the situation had suddenly become very severe indeed.

The Squadron flight Leader, Flight Lieutenant E.G. Brettell, wanting to ascertain his exact position, called up a ground direction finding station who provided a  bearing and heading – 100 miles off the English coast with a homing vector of 020o. It was at this point they suddenly realised they were over the port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended ports under German occupation.

Immediately, the sky filled with flak and small arms anti-aircraft fire. The pilot in the number 2 position, Pilot Officer Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140, took a direct and fatal hit, he was killed instantly. Three other aircraft were to be shot down in the melee that followed: Pilot Officer William H Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; Pilot Officer Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and Pilot Officer Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294 – all four were killed, and all four were awarded the Purple Heart.

2nd Lt. Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

The remainder of 133 Squadron struggling to defend themselves, they scattered and were forced to land out of fuel, either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

Of the seven 133 squadron pilots who crash landed on French soil, five were known to have been captured immediately and taken prisoner: P/O. G.B. Sperry; F/Lt.  Edward Brettell; F/Lt. M.E. Jackson; P/O. C.A. Cook and P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr., with a sixth, P/O. G.G. Wright, evading the Germans for several days before being captured later on.

Of these initial five, F/Lt. Jackson was injured in his crash and hospitalised for eight weeks. He was then taken to Stalag Luft III from where he was able to escape for about ten days by jumping from the roof of his cell house into a lorry load of evergreen branches that were being taken away from the camp.

Another Pilot, F/Lt.  Edward Brettell  DFC. was executed for his part in the Great Escape from the same prison camp, Stalag Luft III, whilst P/O. Robert E. Smith, the last remaining pilot, managed to abandon his aircraft evading capture, eventually returning to England on 18th January 1943.

The pilot who turned back early due to his own engine problems,  P/O. Robert Beatty,  crash landed his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel over the Channel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal and was able to give an account of the mission through what he heard over the radio.

Several of the 401 Squadron pilots,  who had continued on, also reported being low on fuel and gave their intention to bail out before land was finally sighted. One of these, P/O. Junius L. Hokan (s/n: J/6833), did have to bail out over the sea, he was last seen in a gradual dive, his aircraft heading seaward. His body was never recovered. Others in the flight that day only just made land fall, one crashed and was taken to hospital where he recovered from his injuries, the others just managed to reach either RAF Bolt Head or RAF Harrowbeer. The Operational Record Books for 401 Squadron state that “many casualties were avoided by the clear thinking and cool behaviour of all members of our Squadron“.

A full report of the days tragic events was issued to Fighter Command Headquarters by Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC, Squadron Leader Gaze and Squadron leader K. Hodson DFC.

S/L Gordon Brettell 133 Eagle Squadron

S/L Gordon Brettell, 133 Eagle Squadron, executed for his part in the Great Escape breakout at Stalag Luft III  (@IWM UPL 25574)

The effect on those left behind in 133 Squadron was devastating. The result of poor preparation, inadequate briefings and sub-standard communication between the Met. Office and Fighter Command had cost many lives, and very nearly many, many more. A number of postings to the Far East soon followed, and many lessons weren’t that day that led to improvements preventing such a tragedy ever happening again.

133 Squadron would continue to operate after this, transferring over to the USAAF being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, three days later as planned, leaving both RAF Great Sampford and the sad memories of that very tragic day far behind.

New York Times September 16 1942.

Sources and further reading.

Great Sampford appears in Trail 50.

National Archives: Operational Record Book 133 Sqn – AIR 27/945/2

National Archives: Operational Record Book 401 Sqn – AIR 27/1772/17

National Archives: Operational record Book 64 Sqn – AIR 27/590/41

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

RFC/RAF Allhallows – Kent.

Many of you will be aware of Mitch Peeke, a friend of mine and author, who has contributed several articles to Aviation Trails. He also organised the building of a memorial to the crew of B-17 #44-6133 which crashed after colliding with another B-17 over the Thames Estuary.  Mitch has now written about the former RAF/RFC site at Allhallows, located not far from the memorial, which is a long abandoned airfield, now totally agriculture, located on the northern coast of Kent on the Hoo Peninsula.

It has been included in Trail 44, as an addition to the Barnes Wallis memorial statue, the Herne Bay / Reculver Air Speed Record and the Amy Johnson statue. 

My thanks to Mitch.

RFC/RAF Allhallows. (1916-1935).

The operational life of this little known Kent airfield began in the October of 1916, a little over two years into World War 1. Situated just outside the Western boundary of Allhallows Village, the airfield was bounded to the North by the Ratcliffe Highway and to the East by Stoke Road. Normally used for agriculture, the land was earmarked for military use in response to a direct threat from Germany.

​Toward the end of 1915 and into 1916, German Zeppelin airships had begun raiding London and targets in the South-east by night. At a height of 11,000 feet, with a favourable wind from the East, these cigar-shaped monsters could switch off their engines and drift silently up the Thames corridor, to drop their bombs on the unsuspecting people of the city below, with what appeared to be impunity. 

Not surprisingly, these raids caused a considerable public outcry. To counter the threat, street lights were dimmed and heavier guns and powerful searchlights were brought in and Zeppelin spotters were mobilised. Soon, some RFC and Royal Naval Air Service squadrons were recalled from France and other, specifically Home Defence squadrons, were quickly formed as the defence strategy switched from the sole reliance on searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, to now include the use of aeroplanes. Incendiary bullets for use in aircraft were quickly developed, in the hope of any hits igniting the Zeppelins’ highly flammable lifting gas and thus bringing down these terrifying Hydrogen-filled German airships.

No. 50 Squadron RFC, was founded at Dover on 15 May 1916. Quickly formed in response to the Zeppelin threat, they were hastily equipped with a mixture of aircraft, including Royal Aircraft Factory BE2’s and BE12’s in their newly created home defence role. The squadron was literally spread about trying to cover the Northern side of the county, having flights based at various airfields around Kent. The squadron flew its first combat mission in August 1916, when one of its aircraft found and attacked a Zeppelin. Though the intruder was not brought down, it was deterred by the attack; the Zeppelin commander evidently preferred to flee back across the Channel, rather than press on to his target.

At the beginning of October 1916, elements of 50 Squadron moved into Throwley, a grass airfield at Cadman’s Farm, just outside of Faversham. This was to become the parent airfield for a Flight that was now to move into another, newly acquired grass airfield closer to London; namely, Allhallows. On 7 July 1917 a 50 Squadron Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 successfully shot down one of the  big German Gotha bombers off the North Foreland, Kent. 

Former RAF Allhallows Main Entrance

The main entrance of the former airfield (photo Mitch Peeke)

In February 1918, 50 Squadron finally discarded its strange assortment of mostly unsuitable aircraft, to be totally re-equipped with the far more suitable Sopwith Camel. 50 Squadron continued to defend Kent, with Camels still based at Throwley and Allhallows.  It was during this time that the squadron started using their running dogs motif on their aircraft, a tradition which continued until 1984. The design arose from the squadron’s Home Defence code name; Dingo.  

Also formed at Throwley in February of 1918, was a whole new squadron; No. 143, equipped with Camels. After a working-up period at Throwley, the complete new squadron took up residence at Allhallows that summer, the remnants of 50 Squadron now moving out. 

RFC Allhallows had undergone some changes since 1916. When first opened, it was literally just a mown grass field used for take-off and landing. Tents provided accommodation for mechanics and such staff, till buildings began to appear in 1917. The first buildings were workshops and stores huts, mostly on the Eastern side of the field, on the other side of Stoke Road from the gates. The airfield itself was never really developed, though. No Tarmac runway, no vast Hangars or other such military airfield infrastructure was ever built. 

On 1st April, 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were merged to become the RAF. 143 Squadron and their redoubtable Camels continued their residence at what was now RAF Allhallows even after the Armistice. In 1919, they re-equipped with the Sopwith Snipe, but with the war well and truly over, the writing was on the wall. They left Allhallows at the end of that summer and on October 31st, 1919; 143 Squadron was disbanded.

Their predecessors at Allhallows, 50 Squadron, were disbanded on 13th June 1919. An interesting aside is that the last CO of the squadron before their disbandment, was a certain Major Arthur Harris; later to become AOC-in-C of RAF Bomber Command during World War 2.

ABCT memorial Allhallows

The Allhallows was presented by the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust. The former airfield lies beyond the trees. (Photo by Mitch Peeke).

Now minus its fighters, RAF Allhallows was put into care and maintenance. It was still an RAF station, but it no longer had a purpose. The great depression did nothing to enhance the airfield’s future, either. But it was still there. 

In 1935, a new airport at Southend, across the Thames Estuary in Essex, opened. A company based there called Southend-On-Sea Air Services Ltd began operating an hourly air service between this new airport and Rochester, here in Kent. They sought and were granted, permission to use the former RAF Allhallows as an intermediate stop on this shuttle service. Operating the new twin engined Short Scion monoplane passenger aircraft, each flight cost five shillings per passenger. Boasting a new railway terminus, a zoo and now a passenger air service, Allhallows was back on the map! 

Alas, the new air service was rather short-lived. The service was in fact run by Short Bros. and was used purely as a one-season only, testing ground for their new passenger plane, the Scion. At the end of that summer, the service was withdrawn. As the newly re-organised RAF no longer had a use for the station either, it was formally closed. Well, sort of. 

The land reverted to its original, agricultural use. But then, four years later, came World War 2. The former RAF station was now a declared emergency landing ground. In 1940, the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires fought daily battles with the German Luftwaffe in the skies over Allhallows, as the might of Germany was turned on England once again, in an attempt at a German invasion. That planned hostile invasion never came to fruition thankfully, but in 1942/43 came another, this time, friendly invasion. America had entered the war and it wasn’t long before the skies over Allhallows reverberated to the sound of American heavy bombers from “The Mighty Eighth.” It wasn’t long before the sight of those same bombers returning in a battle-damaged state became all too familiar in the skies above Allhallows, either.

On 1st December 1943, an American B 17 heavy bomber, serial number 42-39808, code letters GD-F, from the 534th Bomb Squadron of the 381st Bombardment Group; was returning from a raid over Germany. She was heading for her base at Ridgewell in Essex, but the bomber had suffered a lot of battle damage over the target. Three of her crew were wounded, including the Pilot; Harold Hytinen, the Co-Pilot; Bill Cronin and the Navigator; Rich Maustead.

B-17 42-39808 of the 534BS/381BG [GD-F] based at RAF Ridgewell, crashed landed at Allhallows following a mission to Leverkusen on 1st December 1943 . The aircraft was salvaged at Watton, all crew returned to duty. (@IWM UPL 16678)

Tired from the long flight, fighting the pain from his wounds and struggling to keep the stricken bomber in the air, Hytinen chose to crash-land his aircraft at the former RAF station, Allhallows. Coming in roughly from the South-east, he brought her in low over the Rose and Crown pub, turned slightly to Port and set her down in a wheels-up landing along the longest part of the old airfield. All ten crew members survived and later returned to duty. The USAAF later salvaged their wrecked aircraft.

That incident was the last aviation related happening at the former airfield. In 2019, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial to the former RAF station, in the car park of the Village Hall. No visible trace of the airfield remains today, as the land has long since reverted to agriculture, but the uniform badge of the nearby Primary School, features a Sopwith Camel as part of the design of the school emblem. 

RAF Allhallows is yet another part of the UK’s disappearing heritage, but although it has long gone, it will be long remembered; at least in the village whose name it once bore.

By Mitch Peeke.

Editors Note: Allhallows, or to be more precise ‘Egypt Bay’ also on the Hoo Peninsula and a few miles west of Allhallows, was the location of the death of Geoffrey de Havilland Jnr., when on 27th September 1946 he flew a D.H. 108, in a rehearsal for his attempt the next day, on the World Air Speed record. He took the aircraft up for a test, aiming to push it to Mach: 0.87 to test it ‘controllability’. In a dive, the aircraft broke up, some say after breaking the sound barrier, whereupon the pilot was killed. The body of Geoffrey de Havilland Jnr. was days later, washed up some 25 miles away at Whitstable, not far from another air speed record site at Herne Bay – his neck was broken.

Sources and further Reading:

Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust website

​ Southend Timeline website

American Air Museum website

 Imperial War Museum website

Village Voices Magazine

Allhallows Life Magazine

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

In early 2020, I posted an article about the crash and subsequent death of William G. Rueckert of the 93rd BG, 409 BS at RAF Hardwick in Norfolk. Since posting this article, I have been contacted by his son, ‘Little Bill’, who has very kindly sent me a collection of photographs, letters, documents and a considerable amount of information around both his father’s life and his tragic accident. I wholeheartedly thank Bill for this – in some cases – very personal information, which has helped to build a bigger and more detailed image of the life of William Rueckert. This has been added to the page and is included here with Bill’s permission.

The journey of how ‘Little Bill’ found out the details of his father’s death was a long and somewhat difficult one, as many of the official records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire. It was made more difficult by the fact that at home, 1st. Lt. William Rueckert was never talked about by Bill’s mother and step father (2nd Lt. Leroy H. Sargent), and as Bill was only two and a half  years old at the time of his father’s death, he knew little of him. It’s only since Bill’s mother sadly passed away in 1994 that Bill has been able to make proper enquires, kick started by the discovery of a copy of the “Ladies Home Journal” in the attic of her house. All Bill knew before this, was that his father was a pilot and that he died in a crash in England.

Ladies Home Journal ( Jan. 1945)

Ladies Home Journal (Jan. 1945) The magazine that started Bill’s journey to find out about his father.

Since then, Bill has written an article for the “STAR”, a journal for “AWON” (American War Orphans Network) and he has been given an article published in the ‘Weekender’, a supplement published by the Eastern Daily Press*1 newspaper in Norwich, UK, written in December 2014; the title of which was “No Greater Love”, an article about Bill’s mother and father.

His journey also allowed him to make friends with David Neale, an officer of the “Friends of the 2nd “, an organisation he joined not long after. Since then, he has travelled to England on many occasions, including attending the 2nd Air Division  American Library Dedication in Norwich, in November 2001; visiting Madingley Cemetery and the former Hardwick airfield (owned and run by David Woodrow) where Bill’s father lost his life. He has also donated a replica of William’s Purple Heart to the local church at Topcroft, who honour both him and all those who served at Hardwick, every year.

This is 1st. Lt. William Rueckert’s story.

William Gamble Rueckert (S/N: 0-420521) was born June 9th 1920, in the Lutheran Hospital, Moline, Illinois. His father, Reuben Franklin Rueckert (26) was a chief electrician whilst his mother, Fay Wilforim Gamble (24) was a Housewife.

At school, William was a model student, developing a studious and conscientious approach to his studies. He worked hard at all he did, continuously achieving high grades; a work ethic he would carry and continue throughout his short life.

William, Dee and Little Bill

Dorothea ‘Dee’, Little Bill and William

At 18 years of age William joined the Cavalry Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Illinois, becoming a member of  the ‘Scabbard & Blade‘, an Honorary Military Society that promotes and develops the “Five Gold Stars”: Honour, Leadership, Professionalism, Officership, and Unity.  Here William studied law and used his passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust, to continue to achieve those high grades he was known for. His reputation for hard work and dedication was his bedfellow.

Whilst in the Cavalry, William got the nickname ‘Square John‘, he took to fencing and riding, whilst enjoying ‘Breaded Veal chop’ and listening to Ernie Pyle, an American journalist who would become one of the most famous war correspondents of World War II. One of the rules as a Cavalry Cadet  was that you had to carry a ‘handkerchief’, this was used to fulfil the joyful operation of cleaning your horse’s rear, a very unpleasant but ‘necessary’ duty.

On graduating, William would be presented with a sabre from his class, fulfilling both roles of president of the Cavalry Officers’ Club and as a Cadet Major. The sabre would remain in the family home for many years after.

William 'Square John' Horse jumping,

William ‘Square John‘ Horse jumping,

It was at University, on April 29th 1939, that William met on a blind date, his wife to be, Dorothea Griffiths, the woman he later referred to as ‘Dee’. Even before meeting up, the two were destined to face problems, a faulty car doing its utmost to prevent William from getting to his destination on time. But as a lover of dancing, William charmed Dee with his dance floor moves, and they turned out to be the perfect match, Dee forgiving William’s lateness and agreeing to see him a second time.

The two became inseparable, and within a year they were married, on June 10th, 1940, when William was just one day over 20 years old. The ceremony took place at Clinton, Iowa, but it would be here that the second of their problems would arise. Angry at the marriage, William’s mother objected, stating that he was too young to be legally married. Successfully, and much to the anger of William and Dee, she had the marriage annulled. However, the two were not to going to accept that, they simply ran away to repeat the wedding and reinstate their marriage vows in a new ceremony – love had conquered all.

Second Marriage Certificate

William and Dee’s second Marriage Certificate

After leaving the Cavalry and returning to his studies, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Commerce and Law on June 9th, 1941.  William and  Dee then moved to 64 Sommers Lane, Staten Island, on the southern edge of New York, Dee’s home town. William managed to secure himself a job with the Bethlehem Steel Co.  a company that would become a major supplier of armour plate and ordnance to the U.S. armed forces. Here William worked in the accounts department, whilst all the time continuing to work for his law license with the New York State Bar.

University Certificate

William’s University Certificate

With the war in Europe escalating, William, being a reserve at this time, was called up under President Roosevelt’s Defence plan, in August 1941, and he was sent to the Maintenance Officer Company, 35th Armoured Regiment, Fourth Armoured Division Pine Camp, Watertown, New York. He served as a 1st Lt. Artillery Officer in Company ‘A’, 1st Battalion. It was here that the dedication and hard work that he had shown throughout his education would shine through yet again, quickly standing out from other cadets. William also stood out on the ranges, soon winning himself a medal for artillery and rifle shooting.

A heavily pregnant Dee joined William at Watertown not long after his call up, remaining at home as a ‘Housekeeper’ whilst William went about his duty. The love between them never faltering once. In an interview after his death, Dee described William as “Sweet” saying that “Even after we were married, he would telephone for a date and arrive home with flowers and candy.”

It was this love for each other that produced at 5:45pm on December 1st, 1941, the same month as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, their first child, William Griffiths Rueckert (Little Bill). Bill being born in a small Catholic Hospital just outside the base at Watertown. In those first few years of his life, Bill would grow very fond of his father, a father who would sadly be taken away from him far too soon. William and Bill developing a mutual love for each other.

Four years after his military career had begun with the cavalry, and one year after leaving the Armoured Division at Pine Camp, William would make a big change in his career,  resigning his commission and  volunteering for the United States Air Corps. In Bill’s words referring to why his father left the Army he said:  “After four years of wiping his horse’s ass, and looking up at the new way to travel, he had the flying bug“.

William Rueckert’s life then changed forever. In 1942 as a 1st Lt. Trainee Pilot, he left New York, Dee and his son, and moved to the West Coast Training Centre whose headquarters and administration centre was at Santa Ana Airbase in California.

Early Flight Training.

William would have progressed through several stages of training, from primary to basic, then on to advanced flying and eventually to the heavy bombers. This would take him through many courses at several sites. After primary flight training, he would have gone onto basic flying. Here a nine week course of some 70 hours or so would have taught William more basic flying skills, including: instrument flying, aerial navigation, night flying, long distance flying, radio operations and etiquette, and finally formation flying.

One of these first stations would be Lemoore AAF in California. Whilst here, William would learn firsthand the perils of flying, when on May 20th, 1943 he was involved in a mid air collision with another aircraft piloted by Air Cadet Donald. W. Christensen (S/N: 39677502). Sadly, Christensen would die in the crash whilst William would suffer a wound to the forehead.

I have, since the original post, been able to establish beyond doubt that this is the accident that Dee refers to, although she would later retell the event believing it was a B-24 at a Biggs Field, El Paso, in Texas.

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

The official records (crash number 43-5-20-6)*8 held at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, states that:

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

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

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

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

The enquiry that followed concluded:

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

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

On completion of the basic course, he then transferred to the multi engined Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field*4, California, the Air Force’s first west-coast Advanced Flying Field. Here William was enrolled in Class 43-H.

On the Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field, William would have undertaken a further seventy hours of multi-engined flying, formation flying, night flying and instrument flying using standard training aircraft such as the: Curtiss AT-9, Beech AT-10 or the Cessna AT-17 / UC-78. Upon completion of this course, William would receive his wings and a Commission.

Whilst William was here at Stockton Field, his son Bill, would reach his first birthday and William would send a heartfelt letter home telling Bill how much he missed him, and looked forward to spending time with him again. In his opening paragraph William said to Bill: “This eventful year you have quickly grown from an infant, into one grand, little boy, and I’m certainly proud of you, Billy.

WIlliam's letter to Little Bill on his first birthday.

William’s letter to Little Bill on his first birthday

The course lasted well into 1943, and on August 30th, Lt. William G. Rueckert graduated received his wings and his commission – his dreams were slowly becoming a reality.

For his next posting, William would be transferred to Kirtland Field, New Mexico (formerly known as Albuquerque Army Air Base, being renamed Kirtland Field in 1942 after Colonel Roy C. Kirtland), which specialised in navigation and bombardier training. The aircraft used here were the twin-engined Beechcraft AT-11 or the Douglas B-18 Bolo aircraft. Although split into three specialist schools, it also trained entire crews ready for the heavy Bombers the B-17 and B-24. It would be here that William would have his first encounter with the B-24 ‘Liberator’.

On October 28th 1943, William passed his instrument flying test, and by the time he was finished at Kirtland Field, he was a qualified pilot instructor on B-24s. With this under his belt, William was now ready, his flying training completed, he would transfer again, this time to Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas.

It would be here at Biggs Field that the family would be reunited once again, Dee and Bill joining William on the base’s accommodation. It would also be here that Dianne, Bill’s sister, would be born. Dianne sadly passing away in 2007.

Little Bill in El Paso

Little Bill in El Paso. The boots, he tells me, he still owns today!

Dee’s account of the accident that is now believed to have been the Lemoore AAF collision was retold later to Bill. Her account of the day’s events being sketchy. I am continuing to search for evidence of this but it is unlikely that William was involved in an accident whilst here at El Paso.

Finally, the draw of the war led William to requesting a post overseas. But before departing, he would pick his own crew members,  Harold Emerson Roehrs – his co-pilot, and Jimmy Gardner – his navigator, both of whom he had become good friends with at El Paso.

Later in life, Harold Roehrs would write his own biographical account, “Harold’s Story“, in which he mentions William in a dedication. William being the one who taught Harold to fly a B-24, something Harold had to prove to his Commanding Officer Major (later Lt. Colonel) Thermand D. Brown. In doing so, Harold flew Major Brown around the skies of Hardwick until he was convinced, and convinced he was! In his book, Harold pays homage to William saying of him: “My pilot and friend who shared his knowledge and taught me how to fly a B-24 Liberator“.  William being one of those many people who helped shaped Harold’s life.

L to R: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

Left to Right: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

The three friends would all be posted together to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk, England to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Air Force, in April 1944. All three serving in the same crew.

The three left Biggs Field travelling to Forbes Field, Topeka, Kansas at the end of March 1944, where they would collect their B-24 to fly to England. The aircraft was loaded up and they took off heading over the southern route.

Off to War.

"Harold's story"

“Harold’s Story” is dedicated to many including William Rueckert.

Harold detailed the journey in his book “Harold’s Story”*3, shining an immense light on the enormity of the trip, one that was made by many crews transporting themselves and aircraft across the vast southern hemisphere to a war very far away.

The journey would be broken into stages, each covering many miles, with hours of flying over water. Much of the journey taking in hot humid days broken by the cold nights, the time when they would fly the most.

The first part of the journey took them from Topeka to West Palm Beach on Florida’s southern point, then via Aguadilla, Porto Rico, to Georgetown in British Guiana. The crew would then fly onto Belem in Brazil before arriving at Fortaleza, their last stop before the next leg and the Atlantic.

The crossing of the Atlantic, then took the crew from Fortaleza, across the monotonous waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. They were aiming for Dakar on the Cape Verde Peninsula, Africa’s most westerly point. The 1,928 miles would take them exactly twelve hours and thirty-five minutes, and cross four time zones point to point.

After a nights rest, the crew then flew from Dakar to Marrakesh in Morocco, where they waited for five days until the notoriously poor British weather cleared sufficiently for them to proceed. Finally, they were given the go-ahead, and the last leg would take them around neutral Spain and Portugal, wide of the Bay of Biscay, arriving finally at the US Staging post RAF Valley in Wales.  (RAF Valley, had been designated a major staging post for US arrivals along with St. Mawgan in Cornwall and Prestwick in Scotland).

As in many cases, the aircraft flown over by the crews was not the aircraft they would keep as part of their operational unit. The new aircraft being taken and flown by ferry crews to other operational squadrons. From Valley, crews would make their way to Liverpool where they would then be transferred to their assigned squadrons, William, Jimmy and Harold making their way to Hardwick by train. The journey not being a direct one, would lead to them arriving at Hardwick (Station 104) on April 24th 1944.

Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be William’s only operational squadron. Having won three D.U.C.s already for operations over Europe including, the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Polesti, and the enormous raids of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were already a battle hardened group.

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (IWM FRE 3762)

Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, were very much in the front line of operations, taking part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area. Here they focused on cutting German supply lines and vital communication routes across France.

First and last Mission.

William’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944, one week after his arrival at the base. It was to be an early morning flight, take off at 05:00. Mission 332 was for more than 500 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions, to attack V- Weapons’ sites in northern France. These “Crossbow” operations were designed to destroy launching areas for the Nazi Terror weapons the V-1s that were targeting London and the South East. On that day William and Jimmy decided to volunteer to fill the vacant co-pilot and navigator spots in the crew of pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (s/n: 0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his other regular crewmen behind at Hardwick including Harold. William’s work ethics playing one last card as he wanted to get familiar with combat missions before taking his own crew out.

2nd Lt. Schreiner, a veteran pilot from Gloucester County, New Jersey had been along a similar path to  William’s, the ‘green’ newcomer. A Cavalry man he had enlisted in 1941, joining the National Guard before transferring across to the Air Corps.

On the night before the mission, William visited the local church at Topcroft, here he said his prayers in preparation for the following day’s flight. The church having strong links with the base, continues to honour the crews today.

The next morning, May Day 1944, two missions were planned, the first to the V Weapons site at Bonnieres, the second to a Brussels railway yard. About half the aircraft managed to get airborne for the first sortie, then it was the turn of ‘Joy Ride’.

The engines roared into life, 2nd Lt. Schreiner had signed the aircraft off fit for flight after a fuse for heating the suits had been replaced; the brakes were released and the aircraft began its roll along the perimeter track to the end of the runway where it sat waiting. After the signal to go was given, the engines were brought to full power, the brakes released and the aircraft shook and shuddered its way down runway 020 heading south. As it reached almost mid point it began to lift off, and when about 20 – 30 feet in the air, Schreiner gave the order to raise the undercarriage. S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw, the Top Turret Gunner / Flt. Engineer reported all instruments were well. He reached down to the undercarriage levers, when suddenly the aircraft hit the ground with an almighty sound.

A heavy landing tore off the left undercarriage leg and the nose wheel collapsed. Unable to gain any height, the aircraft crashed down and slid along the rest of runway 020 spinning round several times before ending up at the crossing with runway 032. Flames had by now engulfed the bomb bay and fuselage, Bradshaw pushed open the top hatch striking the Navigator 2nd Lt. James E. Gardner, on the head. Not seriously injured, both men escaped from the aircraft through the hatch, the top turret now resting on the nose of the stricken B-24, the fuselage engulfed in fire.

In the B-24 lined up behind William’s aircraft was Radio Operator Sgt. Cal Davidson who was stood between the pilot and co-pilot, a common practise on ‘night’ flights which allowed the pilot to focus on the instruments whilst the Radio operator watched the runway. Watching carefully between the rows of burning oil drums that lit the darkened runway, Davidson had a grandstand view of the incident that unfolded in horrifying detail in front of him. He described how he watched as William’s B-24 carrying a full load of fuel and bombs, took off from Hardwick’s north-south runway 020. In his diary that day, Sgt. Davidson wrote*5:

May 1 Blue Monday. No sleep last night as we were called for a mission, briefed at 2:00 and scheduled for a 4:00 take off flying the “War Goddess” to go on a practice mission before going to the actual target. As we sat on the runway next in line to take off, the plane ahead of us didn’t make it off crashing and exploding about 2/3rds of the way down the runway. Flames shot up and lit up the whole field. As I was standing between the Pilot and Co-pilot, the three of us watched stunned at what had just happened. Neast [The pilot: John K Neast] put his head down on the controls and said “O God why did this happen?”. He’d never taken off in the dark before and said he was all set until this happened.  The tower sent up red flares and told all remaining crews to get out of their planes. Once out of the plane with the engines quiet you could hear the 50 calibre bullets going off and the 500 lb bombs began exploding. Colonel Fiegel Base Commander and our Sq. C.O. Major Brown had tears in his eyes as he told us it was a 409th plane. Major Brown is one of the finest officers I have ever met.”

He then goes onto say:

One of those killed was a young French-Jewish boy from our barracks and had the bunk next to mine. We had nicknamed him ‘Frenchie’

‘Frenchie’ was Radio operator Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine, who claimed to be probably the only French-Jew in the Eighth Air Force, he shared a barrack hut with Davidson, having adjacent bunks. Davidson himself, cleared out Sheinfine’s belongings almost immediately, and his loss, and the loss of the crew, had a great impact of Davidson.

Sgt. Cal Davidson front

Sgt. Cal Davidson (laying down front)

Two nearby Groundcrew Sgt. Harry Kelleher*2 and Sgt. Johnny Findley also witnessed the crash. Sgt. Findley was closest and recalled how he heard “the squeaking sparks flying off, as the plane slid along the runway“. Then he watched as it “burst into flames as it continued down 020 north-south to 032  runway“. Findley ran over to one of the ejected crew members holding him until rescue crews arrived. Sgt. Kelleher leapt into a jeep and raced over to the crash site picking up a further two crewmen. “At that point” Kelleher said ,”the gas tanks exploded knocking over the jeep“. That was enough and they made a quick exit, in Kelleher’s words “they got the hell away.”

Standing on dispersal number 8, Engineering Officer Captain Thomas H. Jackson also saw the aircraft “crash and burn“, as it slid along the runway it “burst into flames“.

Another witness, ground crewman Corporal Johnny Fridell Jr*7, who was standing by runway 020 as the B-24 slid along on its belly, described sparks flying from the aircraft until it reached the crossing with 032, spinning around catching fire. Fridell then jumped into a shelter fearing what was about to happen. Over the next half an hour, seven of the 500 lb bombs on board the B-24 exploded, the full complement of fuel caught fire and the ten  ammunition boxes containing nine yards of .50 calibre bullets, began exploding too. It was a massive fireball from which it was unlikely anyone would survive.

Standing on the balcony of the control tower, the Commander Colonel Leland Gordon Fiegel, also watched as the lumbering B-24 came down onto the runway and caught fire. From where he stood, he didn’t think the damage was any more worse than “an ordinary belly landing“, but noted how “the fires increased rapidly in their intensity“.

B-24 "Joy Ride" Tail section

The tail section of B-24 “Joy Ride” after the crash.

Ground crewman Cpl. Johnny Fridell , along with rescue crews, then ran toward the fireball to try and help anyone they could. Miraculously, of the total number of crew, three were uninjured: Navigator 2nd Lt. James Gardner, Waist Gunners S/Sgt. Harold Loucks and T/Sgt. Kerry Belcher, mostly located within the rear of the aircraft between the bomb bay and the tail. Two further crewmen received injuries; Top Turret/ Flight Engineer S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw and  Tail Gunner Sgt. Anthony Constantine. The remaining five, including Rueckert, were killed: Pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin, Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine and Nose Gunner Sgt. John Dalto. All of these were located in the front portion of the aircraft. The fire and explosions were so intense only a single thumb was found by rescuers.

The B-24 after the fireball

The remains of Reuckert’s B-24.

By 16:00 RAF Bomb Disposal crews had managed to remove and deal with the remaining bombs, it was thought at this stage the aircraft may have suffered from prop wash, a devastatingly dangerous effect caused by preceding aircraft creating turbulent air.

The explosion caused such damage that it created a huge crater closing the two main runways for five days. The mission was scrubbed (22 aircraft had already gotten airborne and carried on), red flares being fired into the night sky instructing crews to abandon their aircraft and return. For the next week all aircraft had to take off using the short runway and climb up over nearby woods approaching Topcroft village. As a result of the difficulty in doing so, there were subsequent crashes at Hardwick, with aircraft falling into the woods beyond the airfield. The crater and burnt debris of William’s B-24 leaving a stark reminder of the dangers of flying a heavy bomber laden with combustible and explosive materials.

Dee finds out!

For seventeen days Dee knew nothing of her husband’s fate. At home, she had been working on the new family flat at St. George, on the north-eastern corner of Staten Island, whilst living a few miles away with her family at Castleton Corners. Dee had been writing letters every day, in many cases two or three times a day, but unbeknown to her they were not reaching her husband very quickly – if at all.

To Dee, the old furniture with scratches and rips from the dogs they had owned held fond memories of their early days together. The many moves they had made as William had been posted from one training airfield to another, were emphatically etched in their structure.

Dee was at her mum’s house on May 18th when the buff telegram arrived. With ‘Western Union’ emblazoned across the top and two tell-tale red stars*6 in the bottom left corner, Dee knew exactly what it meant, she didn’t need to open it. As the tar stained hand of her father held it out to her, her life fell apart. The man she had adored for the last five years was gone, the moment she, and all serving personnel wives’ feared, had happened. She became ill and slid towards depression. Seeing the changes in her, Dee’s mother took charge, she gave up her own job and took Dee and the two children in. Encouraging Dee to go out and get a job, as she cared for Bill and Dianne and nursed Dee back to full strength.

Gradually, Dee recovered and got her life back on track. Small reminders would never be far away though, each one bringing William back to her thoughts. Not long after his death, flowers he had ordered only days before the accident, finally arrived on Dee’s doorstep.

The Telegram that brought the terrible news to Dee

The dreaded Telegram that brought the news of William’s death to Dee

Shortly after the 20th, a confirmation letter arrived from the War Department in Washington D.C. In three short paragraphs it confirmed that William had been “killed in action on 1 May 1944 over England.” It said nothing about the incident, as these are “prepared under battle conditions and the means of transmission are limited“. Signed by Brigadier General Robert H. Dunlop, it told Dee that William’s service had been “heroic“.

Back in the UK, those that had escaped, particularly William’s good friend James ‘Jimmy’ Gardner the Navigator, went into shock. He was sent to London to recuperate, before being sent home. In later years Bill tried to talk to him about the crash, but the shutters came down and Jimmy understandably turned away from Bill.  In June 1944, Harold, Bill’s other good friend from  their days at El Paso, would convince Col. Brown of his flying abilities, being approved as a pilot and then assigned another crew, he would go on to complete 37 missions with the 93rd at Hardwick.

In the official enquiry that followed the crash the engineer stated that all engines were running OK, each at 2,600 rpm with 49” M.P. (Manifold Pressure) in each one; recognised as sufficient power to achieve a good take off with the load being carried by the bomber. Schreiner’s training record was scrutinised and found to be in order. The pre-flight mechanic’s report was checked and several eye witness accounts were taken. After deliberations the committee apportioned 100% blame to the pilot Lt. Schreiner’s night take off technique, saying that he had allowed the aircraft to land again without realising what he had done. As a result, the committee recommended modified training for all crews to include further training in night take off and landings.

First page of the Crash Report

The first page of the accident report which blamed the pilot for his ‘take off technique’. Note the misspelling of William’s name.

Rueckert’s remains was initially buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial at Madingley, a few miles outside of Cambridge, along with the pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner. Later on, William’s mother asked Dee if his body could be returned to Illinois to be placed along side his father in the family plot in Moline. Dee, still angry at her attempts to stop the marriage, and knowing there was little more than bricks in the coffin, agreed to the move and the coffin was returned in 1952. Of the others, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin was buried in section 14 of the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Raytown, Jackson County, Missouri, and Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine was buried at the Beth Israel Memorial Park, Woodbridge, Middlesex County, New Jersey. Sheinfine was only nineteen years of age. The last crewman to lose his life that day, was twenty-one year old Sgt. John Dalto, who was buried in the Long Island National Cemetery, East Farmingdale, Suffolk County, New York. The average age of the crew that day was only 20 years old.

At the end of the war, one of William’s original crewmen stopped off at Dee’s to explain that William had volunteered to fly in ‘Joyride‘ that fateful day, the purpose being to gain experience before taking his own crew into heavily defended enemy territory.

Since discovering a lot more about his father’s death, his son ‘Little Bill’, has repeatedly returned to Hardwick and has become very good friends with the site owner David Woodrow. William’s wings and wedding ring were never recovered from the crash site, and remain buried in Hardwick’s 032 runway, where the concrete patch stands today.

On the farm that now stands in the place of Hardwick airfield, is a small museum, maintained by a volunteer crew set up by both David Neale and David Woodrow. The farm also has a memorial to the 93rd BG and regularly honours those who served. During the time the airfield was open, a pond was located in this area, into this pond aircrew who had passed their statutory mission number were thrown, a right of passage that allowed them to go home. Many however didn’t, choosing to stay on and serve for longer.

Following the accident, 1st. Lt. Rueckert was awarded the Purple Heart, as was the pilot. His son Bill, has since donated a replica of the medal to the church at Topcroft, the church William visited the night before his death.

Purple Heart Certificate

William Rueckert’s certificate for his Purple Heart.

Inside the church, a plaque sits on the wall remembering the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick from missions. William’s name also appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

William G Rueckert was a brave young man who, like many others, went to fight a war a long way from home. Doing their duty came above all else, but like many others he longed to see his wife and family. Sadly, that day never came, and William lost his life serving the country and people he loved.

RAF Hardwick and the story of the 93rd BG whilst based here appears in Trail 12

William G Rueckert appears on the World War II Honours list of Dead and Missing, State of New York 1946 Page 136.

Sources, notes and further reading.

Much of the basic information used was supplied by William Rueckert (Little Bill) through emails, and all pictures (unless stated) were donated and used by kind permission from Bill to whom I am truly grateful.

*1 The Eastern Daily Press ‘Weekender’ was published on December 13th 2014.

*2 Sgt. Harry Kelleher went with the 39th BG when it took part in the Polesti raid. His rank was that of Non-flying Ordnance ground crew. However, it is believed he joined Captain Llewellyn L. Brown’s crew taking the position of Ball Turret Gunner on the B-24 #41-24298 ‘Queenie‘ which was hit by flak and diverted to Sicily. Harry had been denied the opportunity to fly in the bomber by his superiors, but went anyway. He is credited as Ball Turret Gunner on the ‘American Air Museum’ website having been awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Harry had relayed the story to Little Bill before passing away, however, none of the crew have ever verified his claim and no other record seems to exist of it.

*3 Extracts from “Harold’s Story” written by Harold Emerson Roehrs, William’s best friend, were kindly given to me by Bill. The book I believe is now out of circulation.

*4 The History of Stockton Field can be found on the Military museum website, including images of Stockton Field taken during the war.

*5 Email from Cal Davidson to Bill Rueckert 25/8/04, courtesy of Bill Rueckert.

*6 One Red Star would signify Missing in Action or wounded, whereas two meant they were killed. Hence anyone seeing the telegram would know before even opening it what it meant. Dee’s father owned as company that repaired water tanks on top of the skyscrapers using tar, hence his hands were always covered with it.

*7 Corporal John L. Fridell Jr (s/n: 14077456) was one of the ground crew for ‘The Sleepy Time Girl‘ also referred to as “Sleepytime Gal‘ which completed 135 missions without returning once with mechanical problems.

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

All quotes regarding the crash of the B-24 are from witness statements taken from the War Department Investigation, Report of Aircraft Accident Number 0000198.

USAAF Training Aircraft Fuselage Codes of WW II website

Abandoned and Little known Airfields website has a  very interesting collection of photographs and information on Lemoore AAF.

Kirtland Air Force Base Website

MyBaseGuide website

Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research website.

El Paso Times Website.

2Lt. Thomas E. Cartmell Blog by Michael John Hughey, MD

My sincere thanks go to Bill for allowing me to publish his father’s story and to all those who have contributed comments, corrections and information about the accident. I am continuing to search for further information, if / when this arrives, I shall add it to the text.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 3)

In the previous parts of RAF Ludham, we have see how it got off to a slow start and how Spitfire squadrons used Ludham for off shore patrols. We saw how the airfield was handed over to the Americans and redeveloped with concrete runways and a new watch office. Now it was the turn of the Royal Navy to use Ludham, an experience they would rather have not had.

Being only four miles from the Norfolk coast, Ludham (or HMS Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham as it was now known) would have normally been ideal for the Royal Navy, however, this was not the case. The RN had recently set up the Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation, (MNAO) and was looking for a suitable location for its headquarters. The RN had considered locations as far away as the Far East, but in desperation had turned to the RAF for help with a suitable site. The RAF offered Ludham which the Royal Navy reluctantly accepted.

A small party arrived at Ludham and took charge, led by Commander (A) J.B. Wilson and Captain L.J.S. Edes. The airfield still being closed to flying, was commissioned for use by the RN on September 4th.

The purpose of the MNAO, which had by now changed names to Mobile Naval Air Base (MONAB), was as a facility providing airfield facilities working in conjunction with the Fleet as they progress across the Pacific toward Japan. They would take control of captured airfields or otherwise construct their own, thus providing air support and maintenance work for Royal Naval aircraft*1. The range of aircraft that Ludham would cater for included: the Avenger; Corsair; Expeditor; Firefly and Hellcat.

The creation and structure of MONAB is complex, each unit consisting upward (and sometimes in excess) of 1,000 personnel a number that would cause great problems for those at Ludham. With new personnel coming in, the numbers would exceed those that Ludham could realistically cater for and so many were put up in tents or other temporary accommodation. The winter of 1944 – 45 being one of the worst, eventually turned Ludham into a bog, cold, wet and very muddy! Ludham soon became a terrible place to work, let alone live! The RN decided to split the MONAB so that only the Receipt & Dispatch Unit was based at Ludham, which in itself led to more complications. As time went on, the RN began searching for a more suitable location, one with good road and rail connections as well as better accommodation facilities.

The whole saga ended up being so poor, that by January the RN were almost as desperate for a new location as they were before being offered Ludham. In February, the Air Ministry offered Middle Wallop, an airfield under the control of 7 Group RAF. On the 16th, the transfer occurred and RNAS Ludham ceased to be, Middle Wallop taking on the both the role and the name HMS Flycatcher.

After the Fleet Air Arm vacated Ludham, the airfield was handed back to RAF control, although many of the functions continued to be carried out by the remaining Naval personnel. In mid February, the former Station Commander of Matlask Sqn. Ldr. P. G. Ottewill (previously awarded the George Medal) arrived to formally take over control of Ludham. His arrival would signify the definitive end of the Navy’s links, and the last Naval personnel finally moved out on the 24th.

Ludham wouldn’t stay quiet for long though. Within days of the Navy’s departure two new squadrons would arrive bringing back the old favourite, the Spitfire, with the arrival of both 602 and 603 Sqns.

Armourers set the tail fuses on a clutch of 500lb bombs in front of a Spitfire XVI, 603 Squadron, Ludham, March 1945. The bombs were destined for V-2 sites in the Netherlands (© IWM CH 14808).

Both 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron were Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) Squadrons, devised out of the remnants of the First World War, and led by Sir Hugh Trenchard. Post war apathy however, prevented the official formation of this force until 1924 when a Bill was passed in Government making them both legal and official. Initially designed to be ‘reservists’ they were to be located near to the city of their name and would be called upon to protect that region in the event of an attack. Manned by a cadre of regulars and non-regulars, the Auxiliary Air Force officially came into being on January 17th, 1939. Throughout the war the AAF, sometimes seen as ‘part-timers’, were responsible for a number of both high ranking officials and remarkable feats. Indeed, the AAF were a force to be reckoned with, the first Luftwaffe aircraft shot down over Britain*2 (the ‘Humbie Heinkel) going jointly to both 602 and 603 Sqns in an attack over Edinburgh.

602 (City of Glasgow) Sqn had the honour of being the first of these AAF units to emerge from this Bill, being formed on 12th September 1925 at Renfrew, Glasgow. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn joining them not long after on 14th October 1925 at Turnhouse. Throughout the war years both units would move around covering the length and breadth of Britain (603 even having postings to Egypt) before reuniting here at Ludham in February 1945.

February 1945 had been a wintery month, the poor weather causing several missions to be postponed, with all commands of the Allied forces suffering. 602 Sqn returned from France to Coltishall, after which they moved between Matlask, Swannington and back to Coltishall before arriving here at Ludham on February 23rd 1945. The following day, their sister squadron 603 Sqn, arrived having been abroad operating with Beaufighters. Their arrival here at Ludham meant that 12 Group would have six operational squadrons in the vicinity, all dedicated to defeating the V2 rocket menace that was plaguing London and the south east. Upon moving in, neither squadron took long to settle, and the general consensus was that Ludham was a ‘good airfield’ to be based at, especially compared to Matlask and Swannington!

By this time 602 would have the Spitfire XVI which allowed for a 1,000lb bomb-load. This would be used not only against ‘Big Ben‘ (V2) sites, but bridges, railways and other communication lines across Holland and western Germany. 603 Sqn had the LF XVIE Spitfire, capable of carrying a more modest 500lb bomb load (either as 2 x 250lb or 1 x 500lb bomb) as a dive bomber, a role that the Spitfire was not designed for. As might be expected, a friendly rivalry had grown between the two squadrons resulting in a competition to see who could hit the most locomotives or other vehicles. This resulted in numerous ground attacks being carried out, some 1,008 hours being flown by 603 Sqn alone.

The daily routine continued with the bombing of sites in Holland as ‘Ramrod‘ missions. Crews from Matlask, Swannington and Coltishall all joining the Ludham crews. These sorties focusing on the V2 rocket sites, the Haagsche Bosch taking a particular pasting  in these last few cold days of February 1945.

Following information provided by the Dutch resistance, these Spitfires would patrol, with, pretty much, ‘free-reign’ over the Dutch countryside concentrating on areas around The Hague. Woodland became a source for many attacks, the Germans being particularly clever at hiding mobile V2 sites in such areas. Pilots, being acutely aware of Dutch civilians, would look for any traffic movement on roads around these areas and these were to be ‘fair game’, civilian traffic unlikely to be roaming so freely at this time.

Pilots of No. 602 Squadron study targets in Holland, with the aid of a large-scale map and target photographs in the Operations Room at RAF Ludham (possibly March 1945). This was part of a series of ‘posed’ photographs. Note the pilots names on the lockers and the seat-type parachute on the top of one. The pilots are (left to right): P.O. W. J. Robert, F.O. R. F. Baxter (the famous TV presenter, Raymond Baxter), Sgt. S. Gomm, W.Off. L. T. Menzies, W. Off. Crossland, Sgt. T. L. Love, W. Off. J. Toone and W. Off S. Sollitt. (© IWM CH 14810)

Attacks would normally come in from between 6,000 and 8,000 ft, diving down at about 70o, letting bombs go at around 3,000 ft. It was a difficult attack, keeping the target in the sights whilst avoiding flak and keeping the aircraft together. On one occasion, a Spitfire was seen to lose its wings pulling out of a dive too quickly, the bombs still attached to their mounts.

The whole of March saw similar patterns, attacks on railway yards, locomotives, transport facilities, trucks and V2 sites.

By April,  the war was all but over, with which came a final move for both 602 Sqn and 603 Sqns to Coltishall. Prior to this, on the 3rd, the two squadrons were given an ‘Easter gift’ in the form of a day out on the Norfolk Broads. For 603 breakfast finished at 10:30 at which point the bar opened for Guinness, providing a liquid recreation for those who wished it. Other 603 Sqn crews took boats up to the Broads where they joined with 602 crews spending the day relaxing on its quiet waterways.

On the 4th the order to vacate Ludham came through, the airfield was busied, sorting and packing equipment and tools, and on the 5th all aircraft, ground staff and equipment of both squadrons departed in shuttle flights for Coltishall – another link had been broken.

However, this was not to be the end of Ludham. Even as the Nazi war machine ground to a halt, Ludham would continue on, with two more squadrons arriving. Throughout the war the Spitfire in its various marks had been the main type to use Ludham, this was no different, 91 Sqn bringing the Spitfire XXI (8th April), and 1 Sqn the F.21.

There time here at Ludham was filled with mass formation flying, cross-country flights, dive bombing practise and regular parties. The crews even enjoying time fishing and boating on the Broads. Events were becoming so predictable that almost anything different was news, on August 1st Fl. Lt.R. (Tac) Brown became a father, a baby son being recorded in the ORB for that day!

Both units would stay until mid / late July 1945, at which point they departed, 1 Squadron heading to Hutton Cranswick, the Spitfire being the last piston-engined fighter aircraft to fly with this prestigious unit before taking on jets; and 91 Sqn to Fairwood Common, again the Spitfire seeing the end of piston engined aircraft before the dawn of the jet age. With their departure, the end had now come for Ludham as an active military airfield. The site was closed, put into care and maintenance and eventually sold off for agriculture.

By the time it closed Ludham had developed from a basic satellite station to an airfield in its own right, with the addition of three hard runways, twelve pens, nine hardstands and the addition of (US type) single and double hardstands. It also had one type T2 hangar and four blister hangars – one of which survives today although not in its original location.

As with many of Britain’s wartime airfields, Ludham returned to agriculture, the runways were dug up and many of the buildings pulled down. Some remained used for agricultural purposes and part of one runway was left, used for crop sprayers and private light aircraft, one of the blister hangars was uprooted and placed on the end of the runway. Those buildings that were left decayed, including the two watch offices. In 2000 – 01, they were restored, and in 2005, Historic England (entry No: 1393540) designated both buildings as Grade II listed, as an “exceptionally well-preserved example of a Second World War control tower.” However, they were both left empty and the inevitable happened again, they began to decay and fall into disrepair once more a state they exist in today*3.

Dotted around the perimeter (a mere track) are a handful of buildings, defensive posts and firing butts, all remnants of Ludham’s once chaotic but meaningful past.

Ludham airfield rests between the villages of Ludham (to the south west) and Potter Higham (to the south east). The main A149 passes to the eastern side and the entire site is circumnavigated by a minor road. From this road, the majority of remnants can be seen, with good views across the entire site. A small private road leads up to the watch offices, and parts of the peri track and runways are still in evidence. Various buildings and structures can be found around this track too, some hidden in private gardens and utilised for storage.

Ludham started out as a satellite airfield, its future seemingly never intending to be major. But, circumstances dictated otherwise, eventually becoming a major player in the front line against enemy shipping, the V2 menace and as a safe haven for returning aircraft, limping home from battles over occupied Europe. If that isn’t sufficient for an entry in the history books, then what is?

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Sources and further reading.

National Archives: AIR 27/253/24 
National Archives:AIR 27/2107/15
National Archives: AIR 27/2107/19
National Archives: AIR 27/1164/17
National Archives: AIR 27/1164/14
National Archives: AIR 27/2078/31
National Archives: AIR 27/2080/29
National Archives: AIR 27/4/33

*1 For further information and a detailed explanation of MONAB, including photographs and history, see The MONAB Story – A history of the mobile airfields of the Royal Navy website.

*2 The shooting down of the ‘Humbie Heinkel‘ can be read in Trail 42 – East Lothian, Edinburgh’s Neighbours. 

*3 Historic England Website Listing 1393540

Simpson, B., “Spitfire Dive-Bombers versus the V2” Pen and Sword (2007) – for further information about Spitfires used against the V2 rockets.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Ludham began its life and how things got off to a slow but steady start, the period April to August 1942 being  pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles. But the autumn signifies the beginning of many changes here at this Norfolk airfield. First however, the resident Spitfire squadron, 610 Sqn, would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham airfield

One of several buildings located around the perimeter of the airfield.

On August 16th, a need arose for fighters to bolster 11 Group for ‘Operation Jubilee‘ –  the raid on Dieppe by allied forces, primarily Canadian. The raid was supposed to achieve a number of objectives, but only one was successful, the main force being held on the beach where vehicles became bogged down in the shingle. 610 Sqn formed part of the aerial umbrella, along with 411 Sqn and 485 Sqn who all jointly formed the 12 Group wing flying from a temporary base at RAF West Malling. On the previous night to the raid, the 19th, ground crews were busy at West Malling fitting long range drop tanks to the Spitfires which according to the ORB, “proved their worth on this occasion“. During the air battle, which raged between the Spitfires, Typhoons and around fifty Me 109s and FW 190s, 610 Sqn claimed two 109s along with one FW 190 as destroyed and two FW 190s as damaged.  Three of 610 Sqn’s aircraft went down, one of the pilots Flt. Sgt. Creagh, being picked up from the sea. Interestingly enough, during this skirmish, pilots noted seeing FW 190s in Italian markings! By 09:30 hrs the squadron had returned to West Malling.

The flight then returned to the skies over Dieppe three further times that day, taking off at 11:20 hrs and then again at 14:00 hrs, each time to cover the withdrawal of shipping. The last evening sortie took off at 17:35 hrs. On the 20th, 610 Sqn flew out to France once again, this time though it was to escort  US bombers returning from the continent, perhaps seeing the carnage left by the disastrous raid the day before.

By the 21st it was all over, and the sixteen aircraft returned to Ludham where they would receive a message of thanks from the AOC 11 Group – Leigh Mallory.

As the squadron were returning to Ludham, so too came a new delivery, the squadron’s first batch of Spitfire Mk.VCs, with three arriving on the 21st and one further aircraft arriving on the 22nd. These were gradually absorbed into flying duties as the squadron returned to normal patrols and escort duties from Ludham. 610’s tally for the month stood at 123 enemy aircraft destroyed and 41.5 probables.

Over September, flights were pretty much routine once more, then October arrived and Ludham became frantic again. On the 8th, a road party was sent as advanced party to Biggin Hill with a view to taking part in a “Hush-Hush” operation. Unfortunately the operation was cancelled just prior to the party’s arrival, and they had to return to Ludham somewhat disappointed; road and rail transport being provided for the next morning.

That day also saw 610 Sqn Spitfires provide withdrawal cover for “over 100 Fortresses”, which at the time was a “headline” mission, this being the largest daylight raid of the war so far. The incredible sight of this massed formation would be dwarfed in comparison by the wars end with formations consisting of 1,000 aircraft or more, in a stream that lasted for what must have seemed forever.  Whilst enemy aircraft were seen in this first momentous occasion, there were no claims of ‘kills’ or ‘probables’ made by pilots of Ludham’s 610 Sqn.

By now, rumours of another move were circulating widely, hopes for a move south nearer to the action were dashed, when signal O2OB, dated 11.10.42, came through instructing the squadron to move to Castletown, near Caithness in Scotland – the opposite end of the country to where they wanted to be.

The move was to take place on the 14th October, and would be a direct swap with 167 (Gold Coast) Sqn, yet another Spitfire VC squadron. The airlift of 167 Sqn was late in arriving, meaning that many men were left ‘Kicking their heels” at Ludham, so a number headed to Norwich and a little light entertainment at the cinema. The transfer then happened on the next day, the 15th, with many of the pilots suffering sickness on the way up, thought to be due to the poor weather. Now 610’s link to this small Norfolk airfield was broken, and a new link in Ludham’s chain of history would be forged – a new squadron had arrived.

167 Sqn stayed at Ludham for five months, after which they took part in exercise ‘Spartan‘, a twelve day posting first at Kidlington and then Fowlmere, before returning to Ludham on March 13th, 1943. Exercise Spartan was a prelude to D-day, a huge military exercise that took place in southern England as a practise for the allied offensive across Europe in June 1944. Like Operation Jubilee, it consisted heavily of Canadian units, and also like Operation Jubilee, there were many shortcomings, the result of which was the loss of Command for three Canadian Generals.

A further short two month stay at Ludham then saw 167 Sqn depart in May for good. This left the Norfolk airfield to the only Typhoon squadron to use the base – 195 Sqn.

Formed in November 1942, 195 Sqn had formed at Duxford, transferring to Hutton Cranswick where they were assigned their Typhoons. A further move to Woodvale then brought them to Ludham where they would stay until 31st July 1943.

Ludham airfield

The second Watch Office also in a very poor state of disrepair.

On arrival at Ludham the squadron was immediately confirmed as operational, and on the 15th May 1943, the very day the operational  notice came through, Sgt. R.A. Hough spotted an Me 109f bombing Southwold. He engaged the enemy shooting him down into the sea, the squadrons first confirmed kill of the war.

With four more Typhoons arriving on the 20th, the squadron was in good spirits and eager to get on. But like their predecessors before them, their month consisted of patrols, practice scrambles and training flights some of which included the squadron’s Hurricane (7778) and Tiger Moth (209). By the end of the month, the Ludham unit had made 362 flights, most as patrols or as training flights. June was similar, the lack of contact frustrating the pilots; a note in the ORB saying “Patrols carried out dawn to dusk, 12 operational sorties being flown, but the Hun wouldn’t play“. The highlight of the day was perhaps the darts match against the local Home Guard, the Home Guard winning that night! As the month progressed, the squadron began to venture further afield taking on trains and oil storage facilities on the continent, scoring many hits and receiving flak damage as a result. On the 8th July the squadron suffered its first Ludham fatality when Flt. Sgt. F. Vause hit the ground in a low flying exercise. A talk by Sqn. Ldr. Taylor reflected the sentiments of the unit when he said they had lost a “Damn good pilot”. He went on to stress the low flying rules.

The end of July came and notification to depart Ludham for Matalsk, and a share of the airfield with 609 Sqn. There was some regret withe the more ‘romantic’ types of the squadron and due honours were paid to Ludham on that last night of the 30th July.

The last Spitfire squadron before Ludham left RAF control was 611 Sqn, with their Spitfire LF VBs. This was a short stay lasting only until August 4th, when they were told to move to Coltishall as Ludham was being closed down in preparation for transference to the USAAF. After one sortie at Ludham the move went ahead on the 4th, but it was not overly welcomed as Coltishall was already busy and accommodation was cramped.

With that, Ludham was closed, and the airfield was taken over by the Air Ministry (Works) whereupon construction work began on three new concrete and tarmac runways, a project that would take a year to complete. During this time new hardstands were installed – a mix of (17) double and (18) single types using pierced steel, some of these were located outside of the perimeter, and a small maintenance unit took care of the running of the airfield. A new two storey watch office was built with the original being re-purposed.

Designated Station 177, Ludham was never actually occupied by the Americans though, even though all the upgrade work had been completed, it remained firmly deserted apart from a small maintenance unit who oversaw its use.

Instead, it was decided to use Ludham as a dummy airfield and emergency landing ground for returning aircraft. A decision that was partly made for them as heavy bombers returning from daylight missions over occupied Europe would often come in over this part of East Anglia, and Ludham was the first airfield they would come across. Because of this, Ludham would see some eight B-17s, a B-24, one P-47, and a P-38 aircraft have to either crash or make emergency landings at Ludham or in the immediate vicinity.

The first to make use of the airfield in this way occurred on October 8th, 1943 barely a month into the airfield’s upgrading. A B-17F #42-3393  “Just-A-Snappin” was badly damaged over Bremen. The aircraft, piloted by Capt. Everett Blakely, made it back to England crossing the Norfolk coast east of Ludham. The aircraft had sustained severe damage from flak, the Number 4 engine, the hydraulics and the brakes all being put out of action. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Ludham crashing into a large tree causing further damage to the air frame. It was salvaged a few days later. This particular aircraft had only been assigned to the 418th BS at Thorpe Abbots, part of the Bloody Hundredth, in the July. It also went under the name of  “Blakely’s Provisional Group” and ”Did You Say Ten Cents?“, the multitude of names causing confusion in a number of references.

Part of a door cover from P-38 Lightning named

Part of door cover retrieved from wreckage of P-38H5LO #42-67053 ‘CY-L’, flown by Lt. Goudelock on December 13th 1943. The aircraft crashed in Ludham after flying for 375 miles on one engine (IWM FRE 158)

A second aircraft would attempt to use Ludham as a safe haven not long after this. On the 13th December, 1943 P-38H #42-67503 of the 55th FG, 343rd FS, “Vivacious Vera” piloted by First Lt. Hugh J. Goudelock, sustained damage to one engine whilst escorting bombers also over Bremen. After nursing the aircraft back to Britain he attempted a landing at Ludham when, suddenly, the second engine gave out. This left the P-38 powerless, causing it to crash in Ludham, the pilot sustaining only minor injuries. The strength of the P-38 having brought the pilot back for 375 miles on a single engine,

A similar story was repeated on December 23rd when B-17F #42-3273 “Impatient Virgin” crashed at Potter Heigham, another village only a stones throw from the airfield, while attempting to land at Ludham following damage it received over Munster. A sudden loss of power meant the aircraft had to put down in a field rather than on the airfield, all ten crewmen luckily returned to duty and the aircraft was salvaged.

B-17F “Impatient Virgin” #42-3273 of the 95th Bomb after crashing at Potter Heigham near to Ludham airfield. (IWM FRE 3903)

December had certainly been a busy month for Ludham, even though officially it was closed to flying, it had more than proved its worth as an emergency landing ground.

The work continued at Ludham and eventually, in August 1944, it was complete. By then though the US forces had decided against using Ludham and it was handed over to the Royal Navy (RN).

In the concluding part we saw how the Royal Navy fared at Ludham and how eventually Spitfire squadrons return. The V2 becomes a menace to be dealt with and then the war comes to a close and Ludham’s future is decided.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 1)

In this second part of Trail 58, we leave Rackheath behind and head east towards the coast of East Anglia, and an area known as the ‘Broads’. A few miles across this flat and wetland we come across a small airfield, currently used by crop sprayers and small light aircraft. This private field, almost indistinguishable from the farming land around it, just hints at its past, with two rundown towers, a blister hangar and a small collection of pathways, its history is fast disappearing.

In this the last part of Trail 58 we visit the former RAF Ludham.

RAF Ludham (Station 177, H.M.S. Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham).

Ludham is a small airfield that has been in existence since September 1941, when it opened as a satellite for RAF Coltishall located a few miles to the north-west. It would change hands on more than one occasion over the next few years, being assigned to the RAF, the USAAF and the Royal Navy before returning to RAF ownership once more.

Throughout this time, it would operate as a fighter airfield seeing  range of Spitfire Marks along with a Typhoon Squadron. A number of B-17s would crash here as would a P-38 lightning and several other USAAF aircraft; part of Ludham’s history being that of an emergency landing strip for returning aircraft.

At its inception, Ludham was a grassed airfield, with a hardened perimeter track linking a number of dispersals. Being a fighter airfield the perimeter was only 40 feet wide but of concrete construction, thus it was not designed for the larger, medium or heavy bombers of the allied air forces.

Furthermore, as a satellite, Ludham lacked the design features of a major airfield, and so the accommodation and technical facilities were not up to the same standard of those found on other sites. The accommodation huts were scattered around the north-western side of the airfield, and an initial single storey watch office was also built to the west. A standard wartime design for satellite airfields (design 3156/41), it was a single-roomed structure with a pyrotechnic cupboard and limited views. A switch room was then added to the building (design 1536/42) in early 1942, before the entire building was abandoned and a new twin storey watch office built. As with most airfields of this type, the twin storey building was constructed in conjunction with the addition of the concrete runways. This new office  (design 12779/41) with lower front windows (343/43) would have many benefits over the original not least better views across the airfield site.

Ludham airfield

The much dilapidated original Watch Office.

Another interesting, but not unique feature of Ludham, was a Modified Hunt Range, a structure designed to teach aircraft recognition. The structure, built inside a Laing Hut, saw the trainee sat in front of an enormous mirror. A moving model was then placed behind the student on an elaborate turntable that could not only move in the horizontal plane, but both turn and bank. A selection of lights and a cyclorama added to the realism, with the model reflected in the mirror in front of the student. The combination of all these features provided the students with life-like conditions, thus recreating the same difficulties they were likely to find in combat situations.

For much of its early life, Ludham was used as a satellite of Coltishall, although many of its squadrons were based here from the outset. The primary aircraft seen here was Supermarine’s magnificent Spitfire, the first of which was the MK.VB of 19 Squadron.

19 Sqn had only had this mark of Spitfire since October, previously operating the MK.IIA at RAF Matlask not far from here on the north Norfolk coast. The Mk V was the most produced Spitfire of all 24 marks (and their sub variants) and was armed with a combination of machine gun and canon depending upon which wing configuration was used. The link between the Spitfire, Matlask and Ludham would be a long one, with units moving from one to the other. forging a bond that would last the entire war.

Arriving in the opening days of December 1941, 19 Sqn immediately began carrying out patrols and bomber escort duties over the North Sea, a duty they had been undertaking whilst at Matlask. On several occasions they would fly out to meet incoming Beauforts and their escorts, after they had completed their anti-shipping missions along the Dutch coast. Daily flights would take: Red, Green, Yellow, White, Black or Blue section, each containing two aircraft, over Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and around the coastal regions of the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline.

However, most of these encounters produced little in the way of contact – even when pilots were directed onto the enemy aircraft. On the 9th, P.O. Halford and Sgt. Turner were vectored onto an intruder, but neither aircraft saw, nor encountered the ‘bandit’, and they returned empty handed. Another two scrambles that same day by ‘Green’ and ‘Black’ sections also proved fruitless, although ‘Black’ section did manage to locate the aircraft which turned out to be a friendly.

Ludham airfield

An original Blister hangar now located on the former runway.

Other duties carried out by 19 Sqn included shipping reconnaissance flights, shadowing and monitoring shipping movements across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast. Taking off at 11:20 on December 18th, F.O. Edwards and P.O. Brooker flew at zero feet across the Sea to Scheveningen where they spotted a convoy of 11 ships. One of these was identified as a flak ship protecting the convoy as it left for open waters. The pair then turned north and flew along the coast to Yumiden where they encountered three more ships. No enemy aircraft were encountered and the pair returned to Ludham to file their report.

Then on Christmas Eve, P.O.s Vernon and Hindley in ‘Blue‘ Section were tasked with a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission to attack the aerodrome at Katwyk. On route, they came across a convoy and two Me. 109Es, who were acting as escort / cover for the ships. The two Spitfires engaged the 109s, Blue 1 getting a two second canon and machine gun strike on one of them at 300 yards range. Black smoke was seen coming from the fighter which dived to the sea only to pull up at the last minute and head for home. Blue 2  engaged the other enemy aircraft, but no strikes were seen and the German pilot broke off also setting a course for home. The two Spitfires then engaged the convoy attacking a number of vessels, each pilot recording strikes on the ships, claiming some as ‘damaged’. After the attack they returned home, this leg of the flight being uneventful.

These events set a general pattern for the next four months, and one that would become synonymous with Ludham. Then, on April 4th 1942, 19 Sqn would move to RAF Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a direct swap with 610 Sqn who had been stationed there since the January.

Also during this time a supporting squadron had also been at Ludham, 1489 (Fighter) Gunnery Flight, (formerly 1489 (Target Towing) Flight) which had moved in to help prepare fighter pilots for air-to-air combat. Around the time that 19 Sqn departed Ludham, 1489 Flt also departed, also going to Hutton Cranswick with 19 Sqn where they were disbanded in 1943.

610 Sqn were another Spitfire squadron also operating the MK.VB at this time. They too got straight back into action carrying out the patrols undertaken by 19 squadron before them. No engagements were recorded until the 8th, when what were thought to be two ‘E’ boats were sighted but not engaged.

The remainder of April was much the same, several convoy escorts, reconnaissance missions along the Dutch coast and scrambles that led to very little. On the 27th two Spitfires did encounter and Ju 88 which they shot down, the crew from the Ju 88 were not seen after the aircraft hit the water. On the next day, ten Spitfires took off between midnight and 01:05 hrs to patrol the Norwich area. Here they saw green parachute flares, and flew to intercept. Sticks of bombs were then seen exploding in the streets of the city, and various pilots engaged with Do 217 bombers. Strikes were recorded on the enemy aircraft, but they were lost in smoke and they could not be confirmed as ‘kills’. Further attacks occurred again on the 29th and again strikes were seen by the RAF pilots on the enemy intruders.

The period April to August was pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles.  Then in mid August, 610 Sqn would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham had a mainly uneventful entry to the war, sporadic scrambles, intermittent contacts and many hours of training, its future looked secure. But, there were many changes ahead and many events that would put it firmly on the map of history.

In Part 2 we see how these changes affect Ludham and its future.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.