July 11th 1945 – Last B-24 leaves the U.K.

As the war drew to a close, encircled German troops, took to flooding the fields of western Holland, forcing the local Dutch people down to starvation levels. In an attempt to help them, Allied operational bombing missions turned to mercy missions. Operations  ‘Manna‘  and ‘Chow Hound’  involved Allied bombers flying low-level to drop supplies of food and other provisions to these people.  They would fly aircraft along mutually agreed routes  to dropping points at the Hague and other sites around Rotterdam.

The first of these RAF operations occurred at the end of April into the early days of May, followed by the USAAF between the 1st and 8th of May 1945. On this first operation, 396 B-17s flew from their bases in East Anglia to unload some 700 tons of provisions over the affected area. Over the next few days similar flights would also take place, which would in total provide some 11,000 tons of food to the starving population. During one of these missions on May 7th, B-17G  #44- 8640 of the 95th BG, 334th BS, was believed to have been hit by ground fire over Ijmuiden,  The aircraft, engine ablaze, ditched in the North Sea. Rescue efforts were mounted to recover the crewmen and observers, but only two survived – eleven were lost. It is believed to be last combat casualty of 8th Air Force in World War 2.

Also during this time, ‘Trolley runs‘ began in which around 10,000 ground crew and other personnel, were given the opportunity to see first hand, the destruction caused by the relentless allied bombing campaign of the previous years. Many were shocked to see the extent of the damage having lived in the relative safety of their airfields back home.

Whilst some crews enjoyed the ‘sight seeing tours’ others were involved in ‘Revival‘ flights, bringing home the many thousands of Allied prisoners of war and displaced persons interned in camps as far away as Austria.

Gradually even these missions began to slow. Squadrons and airfields were wound down, and eyes began to turn to the Pacific. An American force consisting of three P-51 and nine B-17 groups would remain in Europe, the rest of the Eighth  Air force would return home for rest or training and eventual posting to the Pacific.

In the third week of May 1945, the huge operation began, the first B-24 left the U.K. for American shores, a flight that would begin seven weeks of flights across the Atlantic routes. In total some 41,500 men and 2,118 aircraft would depart the U.K. for home, most through either Prestwick in Scotland, or Valley in Wales.

Valley airfield became known as “Happy Valley”, and would see about 90% of the returning aircraft leave from here. Each of the aircraft leaving would carry its crew and 10 passengers, along with sacks of mail for home.

On July 11th 1945, 1st Lt. Gean (or Gene) Williams climbed aboard his B-24, started its engines and pulled off the runway at Valley; the last B-24 the leave the U.K, and with it began the slow demise of Britain’s wartime airfields.

The ‘New York Times’ Published a report on the last Liberator to leave the U.K. on July 12th 1945.

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RAF Tydd St. Mary

Just over the Cambridge border into the area known today as South Holland in Lincolnshire, is a field that was a small airfield during the First World War. Designed for home defence, it was used for attacking marauding Zeppelin airships approaching England across the North Sea. Larger towns and cities such as Norwich and Lincoln were prime targets, although most designated targets were much further north for example Manchester and Liverpool. To protect themselves, the crews of these mighty airships flew at night and at altitude, but navigation skills were poor and crews were generally unaware of their actual location. As a result, they rarely made it beyond the eastern counties or the Fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire. Because of poor weather and inexperienced pilots flying against these ships, some Zeppelins were able to wander – at the will of the weather – for as much as 10 hours unabated, randomly dropping bombs on what they considered to be ‘prime targets’.

A major turning point in this air-war, was the night of January 31st 1916 when nine Zeppelins of the German Navy attacked what they believed to be the industrial north-west. In fact they had barely got beyond the lower regions of Lincolnshire before dropping their ordnance. These attacks resulted in the loss of sixty-one people and whilst no British fighter was known to have engaged the airships, a number of Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C) crews were lost due to bad weather.

This disastrous night led to major changes in the Home Defence Squadrons of the R.F.C and R.N.A.S (Royal Naval Air Service), a process that would take a considerable time to complete.

As a part of these changes, an airfield was developed just south of the South Holland Drain a mile or so north of the village of Tydd St. Mary.

RAF Tydd St. Mary

Designed as a class 1 landing ground, Tydd St. Mary covered 125 acres by the time it closed in 1919. Development of the site began in mid 1916 following the re-organisation of the home defence force, but the first units didn’t arrive until the autumn of 1917. Not much more than a field, it did eventually have a small number of  Bessonneau*1 hangars and a small selection of crew huts.

The main unit to use Tydd St. Mary was 51 Home Defence (HD) Squadron whose main flight was based at Thetford. Formed from the nucleus of 9 Reserve Squadron (RS) on 15th May 1916, they moved to Hingham with flights dispersed at Harling Road, Norwich (‘A’ Flight), Mattishall (‘B’ Flight), ) and Narborough (‘C’ Flight). Initially they were equipped with the BE2c, which were soon replaced by the BE12 and subsequently the FE2b aircraft and then the BE2e in December 1916.

For a short while Zeppelin intruder flights were rare and this breather allowed for extensive practice flights by both 51 (HD) Sqn and their partner unit 38 (HD) Sqn who were based a little further to the north.

This lull in movements ceased in the autumn of 1916, when a large formation of Zeppelins gathered over the wash and headed for London. Badly hindered by fog and bad weather, they were eventually scattered across the southern and eastern regions of England where they dropped their bombs on remote farmland. This attack caused no damage to property, nor were the Zeppelins challenged in any major way – the marauders had little to worry about other than poor weather. Patrols by 51 and 38 (HD) Sqn’s were in vain, a pattern that was to continue for the large part, for the duration of the war.

At the end of 1916, Tydd St. Mary was re-designated a Night Landing Ground (NLG) following the renaming of R.F.C Home Defence Stations. 51 (HD) Squadron would soon fly from here in the defence of the eastern counties.

51(HD) Sqn aircraft hangar modified for agricultural use post war.*2

The Zeppelins main advantage over the British was the poor performance of the aircraft types the R.F.C used.  Whilst capable of operating at the 8,000 – 10,000 ft altitude used by the Zeppelins, many aircraft simply took too long to get there and thus could not reach the airship in time to attack it.

As performance improved along with the development of the explosive ammunition that would ignite the airship’s gases, the odds were a little more balanced and larger numbers of airships were being brought down over the eastern region. The tide was turning and pilots of 51 (HD) Sqn were playing a large part in this.

In the early part of 1917  cuts to the Home Defence units were announced based on the increasing gains made by units of the Norfolk / Cambridge / Lincoln squadrons. But the Germans had not given up yet. Reductions in weight enabled new Zeppelins to reach greater altitudes. Now capable of 16,000 – 20,000 feet, few British defences could reach them.

As the tide was turning in France, attacks became fewer and fewer. These high altitude flyers were more at the mercy of the bitter cold and poor weather than defending aircraft.

In August 1917 51 (HD) Sqn moved their headquarters to Marham, and ‘A’ Flight arrived at Tydd St. Mary and 51 (HD) Sqn began replacing their BE2e aircraft with the Martinsyde G.100 ‘Elephants’ – so-called because of their size and poor manoeuvrability.

A large contingent of airships gathered once more on the night of October 19th 1917, requiring extensive sorties by 51 (HD) Sqn at Tydd St. Mary and her counterparts. Whilst a determined effort was made by the R.F.C crews, they had little or no impact, and the gathered airships made off only to be badly beaten by bad weather and anti-aircraft fire over France.

Further changes to R.F.C Squadron designations  in the latter parts of 1917/18, dropped the title ‘Home Defence’ and Tydd St. Mary became the base for 51 Sqn ‘A’ Flight in Eastern Command. Aircraft by now were primarily Royal Aircraft Factory FE2bs, although 51 Sqn were now replacing some of their ‘Elephants’ with BE12b variants which they kept until the autumn of that year. Further changes in February 1918 meant that ‘A’ Flight moved to Mattishall, whilst ‘B’ Flight took their place at Tydd St. Mary.

As the R.F.C turned into the R.A.F on April 1st 1918, Tydd St. Mary would once again become significant. On the night of April 12th 1918, Zeppelin L62 was sighted close by and aircraft took off to intercept. As it was dark at 22:00 the flare path was lit to assist the now R.A.F crews, which openly guided L62 directly onto the airfield. Gliding above the site, L62 dropped a small number of incendiary bombs onto the aerodrome in an attempt to damage or destroy aircraft on the ground. Fortunately the bombs fell well away from parked aircraft and caused no damage to either buildings or aircraft. Pursuit was made by Lt. F. Sergeant in FE2b ‘A5753’, but to no avail and he returned to base empty-handed. Other pilots also tried to catch L62, some crashing due to engine failure, but many simply weren’t able to catch-up with the intruder. Eventually L62 reached the coast and made a break for it across the sea under the protection of yet more bad weather.

By November 1918 the final FE2bs had been relinquished and for the remainder of the year and into May 1919, 51 Sqn operated Sopwith Camels. A move by ‘B’ Flight in May to Suttons Farm (RAF Hornchurch) not only signified the end of the Camels (replaced by Sopwith Snipes) but the end of 51 Squadron who were disbanded in June. This departure also meant the end of Tydd St. Mary and in November 1919 notice of closure was given and the site finally closed in January 1920.

At its height Tydd St. Mary covered an area of 125 acres, and contained two Home Defence flight sheds as single units (believed to measure 130 x 60 ft). These were utilised by local farmers and business and lasted for many years. Other buildings were also utilised, the last, believed to be the Flight Office, is thought to have been demolished as late as 2009.

Not a major player in the war and never to return to aviation, Tydd St. Mary is a notable site and perhaps when passing, a second thought for those who flew from here in defence of the Eastern counties, should be offered.

Tydd St. Mary forms part of Trail 37.

Sources and Further Reading

*1 Early Bessonneau hangars were constructed of wood covered in canvas. Various types were made and were designed to be erected by small trained groups of men. Later models replaced wood with metal and were more permanent.

*2 Photo on display at Thorpe camp, Woodhall Spa.

Goodrum, A. ‘No Place For Chivalry: RAF Night Fighters Defend the East of England Against the German Air Force in Two World Wars‘. 2005, Grub Street

The Great War Forum – website 

Kings Cliffe under threat!

Following my recent revisit to RAF Kings Cliffe (Trail 6) I have been contacted by a reader who informs me that there is a planning application in to change the site to a caravan and camping site.

The application will utilise the site of the T2 hanger used by Miller for his final hangar concert in October 1944 and the memorial that now stands there. Details and photos of the site are in the trail update.

In the application, there is no reference to maintaining or preserving this memorial or any of the few remaining buildings that exist on this site.

This application was placed just prior to Christmas and so the offices have been shut for a large part of the holiday.

This is an area of natural beauty, used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders, not to mention visitors to the memorial. The roads are narrow and the surrounding villages are beautiful.

From an aviation point of view, Kings Cliffe is an historical site and is yet another example of world history being developed with little or no regard to its significance.

If you wish to see this application, it can be found on the East Northants Website application reference 14/02225/FUL. Linked below – The closing date for any objections is January 12th 2015.

http://pawebsrv.east-northamptonshire.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=NFDYXIGO03N00 or google ’14/02225/FUL’

Thank you
Andy.

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