July 30th 1944 – Loss of Lancaster PB304 – 106 Squadron.

On Sunday July 30th 1944, Lancaster PB304 from 106 Squadron RAF Metheringham in Lincolnshire, crashed with the loss of all on board, along with two civilians, in Salford Greater Manchester.

Lancaster PB304, was a MK.III Lancaster based at RAF Metheringham in Lincolnshire, flying under the squadron code ZN-S. It was tasked to attack enemy strong points at Cahagnes in the Normandy battle zone following the Allied invasion in June.

The early briefing at 04:00 was not a welcome one, many men having been out the night before following a stand down order due to bad weather and heavy rain over the last two days. On board that day was: F/L. Peter Lines (Pilot); Sgt. Raymond Barnes (Flt. Eng.); F/O. Harry Reid RCAF (Nav.); F/O. John Harvey Steel (Air Bomber); Sgt. Arthur William Young (W.O/Gunner); Sgt. John Bruce Thornley Davenport (Mid-Upper Gunner) and Sgt. Mohand Singh (Rear Gunner)*1.

The operation, code-named Operation Bluecoat, would involve attacking six specific targets, each one identified to assist a forthcoming offensive by British land forces in the Normandy area.

After all the ground checks were completed and the signal given to depart, PB304 began the long taxi to the runway, take off was recorded as 05:55, but it is thought that this was ten minutes early with the first aircraft (ND682) departing at 06:05. Once in the air, the aircraft formed up alongside twenty other 106 Sqn aircraft,  meeting with a smaller formation from 83 Sqn at Coningsby before joining the main formation.

The weather remained poor with heavy cloud blanketing the sky between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, as the 183 Lancasters from No. 5 Group and one Mosquito headed south toward the Normandy coast.

With further poor weather ahead, signals were beginning to come through to abandon the mission and return to base, but communication between aircraft was garbled and difficult to understand, it may have been as a result of German interference broadcasting messages over that of the master bomber. The order to abort finally came through just after 08:00 even though some of the formation had released bombs on target indicators (TI) dropped by the Pathfinders. Smoke was by now mixing with the low cloud causing more confusion and difficulty in identifying the primary targets. Not all aircraft understood the message however, and many continued circling in the skies above Cahagnes. To make a difficult situation even worse, there was by now, an  approaching formation of over 450 American A-20s and B-26s along with just short of 260 P-51 and P-47 escorts on their way to France; the sky was full of aircraft in thick cloud and was an accident waiting to happen.

Difficult communication continued, some aircraft were seen disposing of their bomb loads over the Channel, whilst others retained them. Various courses were set for home, but with many airfields closed in by low cloud, alternatives were gong to be needed and alternative courses were issued to the returning bombers of each squadron.

106 Sqn were ordered to fly north along the western coast, passing over Pershore and on to Harwarden near Chester, before turning for home. The messages coming through continued to be misheard or misunderstood with several aircraft landing at either Pershore, Harwarden or Squires Gate at Blackpool. Gradually all aircraft managed to land, whether at home at Metheringham or at away airfields. Patiently the Metheringham staff waited, nothing had been heard from PB304 and they could not be contacted on the radio, something was wrong.

Precise details of the accident are sketchy, but an aircraft was seen flying low and in some difficulty. It passed low over Prestwich on the northern edges of Manchester, where it was later seen engulfed in flames. It twice passed over a playing field, where some suspect F/L. Lines was trying to make a crash landing, but this has not been confirmed. At some time around 10:10 -10:15 the aircraft came down resulting in a massive explosion, a full bomb load and fuel reserves igniting on impact. Many houses were damaged in the explosion with one being completely demolished.

As a result of the accident, all seven of the crew were killed along with two civilians, Lucy Bamford and George Morris, as well as, what is believed to be, over 100 others being injured all to varying degrees.

PB304 was the only aircraft lost that night, in a mission that perhaps with hindsight, should not have taken place. The poor weather and difficult communication playing their own part in the terrible accident in Salford on July 30th 1944.

RAF Metheringham

The Memorial at Metheringham pays tribute to all those who flew with 106 Sqn.

Notes and Further Reading.

*1 Operational Record Book AIR 27/834/14 notes Sgt. Young as Sgt. A.L. Young.

A book written by Joseph Bamford the Grandson of Lucy who was killed that night, was published in 1996. “The Salford Lancaster” gives excellent details of the crew, the mission and the aftermath of the accident, published by Pen and Sword, it is certainly worth a read for those interested in knowing more about the incident.

Carter. K.C., & Mueller. R., “Combat Chronology 1941-1945“, Centre for Air Force History, Washington D.C.

Freeman. R., “Mighty Eighth War Diary“, Jane’s Publishing. 1980

RAF Warboys – Home to the Pathfinders (Part 2)

In the early years at Warboys, the Pathfinders had had a difficult start. High loses and poor results were compounded by poor weather. But in early 1943 the Lancaster began to arrive, and the old Wellingtons began to be phased out. The weather however,  takes no account of this and for the early part of January 1943, it continued to envelop the country preventing flights from Warboys going much further afield than Wyton, a stones throw away from their base. Even so, on the 13th, the Pathfinders took another major step forward, being formed into a new and unique Group of their own, No. 8 (PFF) Group, with Don Bennett (now an Air Commodore) remaining at the helm.

On the 26th, the squadron were able to use the new Lancasters for the first time on operations, a bombing raid to Lorient in which 4 Lancasters from Warboys took part; ‘ED474’, ‘ED485’, ‘W4851’ and ‘W4853’. On the 27th the same four aircraft, with different crews, went to Dussledorf, an operation that saw the use of Oboe Mosquitoes for the first time, and a mission that was followed on the 30th by Hamburg. All aircraft returned safely from each of these early operations – 1943 was beginning to look better already.

This run of ‘good luck’ ran well into April, with a relatively low loss rate per operation. This included on  April 16th, the death of Sgt. Patrick Brougham-Faddy (S/N: 577758) and the crew of both Lancasters ‘W4854’  and ‘W4930’. What perhaps makes this incident more notable, was the fact that Sgt. Brougham-Faddy was only 18 years of age, making him amongst the youngest to lose their life in Bomber Command operations. With him lost on that mission was also: his pilot P/O. Harald Andersen DFC; P/O. Kenneth Bordycott DFC, DFM and P/O. Frederick Smith DFM along with ten other experienced aircrew. These losses were a major blow to both the Warboy’s crews and the Pathfinders.

In June 1943, the Navigation Training Unit, a Lancaster based unit formed at RAF Gransden Lodge began its move, taking residency at both Upwood and here at Warboys. The split was not be in everyone’s favour, running a unit on two different sites initially caused some difficulty as the idea of the unit was to train crews in navigation techniques ready for postings to Pathfinder squadrons.

By the time 1943 drew to a close, fifty-seven aircraft had been lost from Warboys, a mix of both Lancaster MK.Is and MK.IIIs, the Wellington now having been replaced entirely within the squadron.

RAF Warboys

Buildings mark the edge of the bomb site.

The cold winter months of 1943 – 44 signified another major event in Bomber Command’s history – the air campaign against Berlin.

For almost 5 months, November to March, Bomber Command would attack Berlin relentlessly in pursuit of Harris’s doctrine of area bombing. The Short Stirling would be withdrawn as the losses mounting were unsustainable, a similar fate that began to land on the door of the Halifax. Some compared the Lancaster to the Halifax, similar to comparing a  “sports car and family saloon”*4. The handling of the Lancaster being far superior to that of the Halifax. As a result, the Lancaster squadrons would bear the brunt of the campaign, and Warboys crews would be in the thick of it. The Pathfinders using an updated version of H2S, would operate outside the range of Oboe, the land based navigation system introduced operationally a year before.

The cold of January 1944, did nothing to dampen the flights nor reduce the combat fatalities. Raids on Berlin, Brunswick, Munich and Frankfurt saw heavy losses (seventeen alone failed to return to Warboys in January, all experienced crews) and numerous aircraft returning early. For 156 Sqn this was disastrous, the squadron began to get a name for itself being referred to as the ‘chop’ squadron and consequently morale fell. With high losses the survival rate fell to an estimated 15%, *3 an unsustainable level of loss for any squadron. For the last fourteen days of January the squadron was effectively reduced to non-operational flights, and in a desperate attempt to bolster the men’s spirits and raise morale, a royal visit was arranged for the King and Queen. Both their majesty’s arrived on February 9th, where they talked to aircrew and took lunch in the Officer’s Mess. After a short stay they departed Warboys going on to visit other Pathfinder airfields in the area.

A widely used photo showing King George VI & Queen Elizabeth talking to ground crew of No 156 Squadron at Warboys(IWM CH 12153)

By the end of February 1944, 156 Sqn were prepared to leave Warboys, maybe a new start would give a new impetus. This move would be a direct swap with the remaining Lancasters of the Pathfinder’s Navigation Training Unit (NTU) based there. Perhaps ending the operating of the unit on two sites had been seen as an ideal opportunity to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, moving 156 and reuniting the NTU.  Whatever the reason the transfer began with a small advanced party taking the short drive to RAF Upwood.

By mid March the move was complete, and Warboys settled into its new role with a full complement of the NTU, hopefully now, the harrowing tales of loss were a thing of the past. With courses of generally three to five crews every few days, turnover was rapid.

With the Mosquito taking  a greater role in the Pathfinders, more crews were needing training in its operation. The 1655 (MTU) Mosquito Training Unit (formerly the 1655 Mosquito Conversion unit) originally formed at Horsham St. Faith in 1942, moved across from RAF Marham in Norfolk; Warboys was now awash with twin and four engined aircraft.

The Training unit would only stay at Warboys until December, at which point it moved to Upper Heyford where it would disband at the end of the year, being renumbered 16 Operational Training Unit (OTU). However, for that short time at Warboys, it grew extensively, gaining five flights including a mix of aircraft for training purposes. Whilst pilots were taught how to fly the Mosquito, the navigators were taught Pathfinder navigation & marking techniques, all prior to joining as a new crew for final training and ultimately postings to a Pathfinder squadron.

RAF Warboys

Further buildings survive near the bomb site.

Many of the aircraft delivered to Warboys were veteran aircraft themselves, having served with other numerous squadrons. Mosquito DZ606 which initially arrived in April 1944, had already flown at least nineteen operational sorties before arriving here. It was then passed on to another unit (139 Sqn) before returning with a further twenty-nine sorties under its belt. The dedication of ground crews, ease of repair and the reliability of the Mosquito enabled it to complete thirty-seven more operations with other units before the year was out.  It was eventually struck off charge in 1945 after being badly damaged.

One other notable example that appeared at Warboys with 1655 MTU, was W4053 which had been the Mosquito Turret Fighter Prototype in 1941. The (bizarre) idea of this was the fitting of a four gunned Bristol turret behind the cockpit, rather like a Boulton Paul Defiant. On tests though, the turret seized when turned to the front effectively trapping the occupant inside. After running further tests with the same results, the project was abandoned and no one was allowed to fly in it again – even though some did try! The aircraft had its turret removed and served with both 151 and 264 Squadrons before passing to 1655 MTU here at Warboys. In November 1944 it was damaged in a landing accident, repaired and then reused by the unit when it was renumbered as 16 OTU at Upper Heyford, where the Mosquito was destroyed in a crash.

With the Mosquito training unit moving away, the Navigation unit remained the sole user of Warboys, but years of use by heavy bombers had had a toll on the runway, their surfaces beginning to break up and cause problems. Warboys was going to need considerable repair work carried out. However, the Navigation unit remained here until the war’s end. On the 18th June 1945 a communique came through from Bomber Command and 8 (PFF) Group, announcing the disbandment  of the Navigation Training Unit., Staff began postings elsewhere, the last courses were completed and ‘Cooks’ tours (tours taking ground crews over Germany to see the devastation) were wound down.

Before the closure of Warboys though, two more squadrons would arrive, 128 Sqn and 571 Sqn, both Mosquito Pathfinder squadrons. 571 was disbanded here on September 20th, whilst 128 Sqn transferred out to B58/Melsbroek, then Wahn where it was disbanded in 1946.

After the training units were disbanded all flying ceased. The RAF did return briefly with Bloodhound missiles in 1960 staying for 4 years until the airfield was finally closed and sold off.

With that, Warboys was gone, and its remarkable history now a distant memory. But these memories were not to be forgotten forever. The local village commemorated the loss of one particular pilot who on the 10th April 1944, lost his life whilst flying a Lancaster over the Welsh countryside.

Flt. Lt. John L. Sloper DFC and Bar, was a veteran of 156 Sqn who had transferred out of operational duties to the Training Unit after completing his tour of duty on December 29th 1943. His last mission being a bombing raid to Berlin in Lancaster JB476. Flt. Lt. Sloper had achieved his quota in just seven months. He joined the Mosquito unit to pass on his skills to others, his personality, knowledge and determination making him very popular with the other crews.

RAF Warboys

A plaque dedicated to the memory of both Flt. Lt. Sloper and those who served with 156 Squadron.

Flt Lt. Sloper (S/N: 147214) was killed in Lancaster ‘JB 471’ during a cross country navigation flight near the village of LLanwrtyd Wells in Breconshire. The aircraft crashed after entering cloud, the ensuing fireball killing all those inside. Flt. Lt. Sloper’s remains were buried at Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium, Bath.

The site today houses small industrial units, but it is primarily farmland. Only a small section of the main runway exist, and this has farm buildings upon it. This section, has been cut by the original A141 now a ‘B’ road, and evidence of the runway can still be seen either side of the road.

RAF Warboys

Pathfinder long distance walk.

The farm entrance has a large sign with a Lancaster modelled out of metal. Two memorials on the gate posts mark the runway (since my original visit the sign and one of the memorial plaques appears to have been removed, though I have yet to verify this). Across the road from here, you can see the extension to the runway and the remains of a small building, but probably not war-time due to its location.

There is luckily a footpath that circumnavigates the field called ‘The Pathfinder Long distance Walk’, and uses that iconic aircraft, the Mosquito, as its icon. This path allows views across the airfield and access to some of the remaining buildings.

Entry to the path is toward the village, a gated path that is actually part of the perimeter track. As you work your way round, to your right can be found one of the few Air Ministry designed pill boxes. The manufacturer of these mushroom defences being F. C. Construction, they were designed in such a way as to allow machine gun fire through a 360 degree turn. Often referred to as ‘Oakington’ pill boxes, there are only a few remaining today.

Also, deeply shrouded in hedges and undergrowth, another structure possibly a second pill box or the battle headquarters. With permission from the farmer, you may be able to access these, but they look in a rather dangerous condition.

Further along to your right is where one of the T2 hangars would have stood before its demolition. Tracks lead away from here, and there is what appears to be further examples of airfield architecture buried amongst the trees.

The perimeter track takes you around the rear of the airfield across the threshold of the main runway and round the perimeter track. A local model flying club now uses this part of the site between the runway and perimeter track. To your right would have been the bomb store, now open fields laden with crops rather than bombs. There are a few buildings here marking the boundary of the store, now used for chickens and extensively ‘modified’ by the farmer. They house farm machinery, a far cry from what would have been here many years ago.

The track then takes you away from the site and out across the Cambridgeshire countryside.

RAF Warboys

The remains of the Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station.

Returning back to the road, we go in the opposite direction from the village and come to the entrance of the industrial site. These buildings stand on the perimeter track marking the western corner of the airfield.

Next to this part of the site, is a large telecommunications transmitter, apparently the origins of the site being 1941. Whilst its use and history is somewhat difficult to locate or verify, it is known that this was a Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station used to lock fighters onto incoming enemy aircraft. Later, there was a high-powered transmitter here used by RAF Mildenhall and RAF Wyton. It was also used to communicate with the V bombers on long-range flights. The mast believed to be original, has been updated and refurbished for telecommunications purposes, but the block house remains behind high fencing with very strong padlocks!

The majority of the admin sites are located along the A141 toward Wyton, some evidence exists here but the majority have long gone. Return toward the village and find the church; located just on the outskirts of the village.

A superb memorial window and roll of honour can be found here, and it is well worth the effort. In Huntingdon town is the former Headquarters building of the Pathfinders, Castle Hill House, which now belongs to the local council. A blue plaque describes the historical significance of the building.

Pathfinders

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon. The Headquarters of the Pathfinders. (Photo courtesy Paul Cannon)

Designed initially as a satellite airfield, Warboys went on to be a pioneering airfield for a new and dedicated team of bombing experts. With 156 Squadron it took the war deep into the heart of Nazi Germany. As a result it suffered great losses, but without  doubt it performed one of the most vital roles in the latter parts of the war and it’s a role that should not be forgotten beneath waving crops and developing industry. The name of Warboys should be remembered as a Pathfinder icon.

After we leave Warboys, we head to her sister station to the west, and an airfield with a history going back to World War I. This airfield saw a spy caught and hanged; the making of a film using Lancasters, and more recently the site of a hospital for the treatment of victims of a nuclear war. We of course go to RAF Upwood.

Sources and further reading (RAF Warboys).

*1  A good blog  describes the life of Wing Co. T G ‘Jeff’ Jefferson, DSO AFC AE who served part of his life as a Pathfinder at RAF Upwood. It is well worth a read.

*3 Smith, G. “Cambridgeshire airfields in the Second World War“. Countryside Books (1997)

*4 Flying Officer J Catford DFC “View from a Birdcage“Tucaan Books (2005) Pg 51

National Archive: AIR 27/203/18
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/13
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/14
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/16
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/24

For more details of the Pathfinders see the excellent RAF Pathfinders Archive Website.

A website detailing crews, missions, aircraft and other information about 156 squadron is also well worth visiting for more specific and detailed information.

Warboys was originally visited in 2014 in Trail 17.

RAF Warboys – Home to the Pathfinders (Part 1)

In the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, are a group of airfields that are synonymous with the Second World War’s target marking units, the Pathfinders. This is an area rich in aviation history, and an area that played a major part in not only the European Theatre of Operations of World War Two, but military operations long into the Cold war and beyond. Within a short distance of each other are the airfields at Wyton, Warboys, Upwood and Alconbury to name but a few, and it is two of these we visit in Trail 17.

Our first stop is the former RAF Warboys, once home to the Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys.

Warboys village is an ancient village with records of inhabitants going back to 7,000BC, it also has links to the Bronze age, the Romans, Vikings and the Doomsday book. Even further back, some 350 million years, there was an active volcano in the area, not far from where we start today.

RAF Warboys

The farm sign reminds us of the aviation link (it would appear that this sign may have recently been removed).

The airfield itself was initially constructed as a satellite for RAF Upwood, with a requirement for three 50 yards wide tarmac runways; one of 2,000 yards, another measuring 1,400 yards and the last 1,350 yards. There were initially twenty-four frying pan hardstands, two of which were then used as hangar bases, with a further eighteen loop style hardstands added after. This gave a total of forty dispersal points available for aircraft, and they would certainly be needed.

As with many airfields of this time there were two type ‘T2’ hangars, one each side of the airfield, supplemented with a ‘B1’ hangar. A well developed bomb store lay to the west of the airfield, and eleven domestic sites lay to the eastern side of the A141 to the south of the main airfield. These would accommodate up to 1,959 men and 291 women. Even before its completion, Warboys would undergo further development, an order coming through to extend two of the runways to 2,097 yards and 1,447 yards, its was a sign perhaps, of things to come. This extension work meant altering the perimeter track layout and diverting the main road around the airfield as it would be dissected by the new extension (the original road was reinstated post war, the end of the main runway being cut off as a result).

Construction began in 1940 with the airfield opening in September 1941, initially as a satellite bomber station. Whilst intended for Upwood, it was first of all used by Short Stirling’s from XV Squadron as an overflow from nearby RAF Wyton. As a satellite, Warboys was never far from the war when not long after the first Wyton aircraft landed, the Commanding officer of XV Squadron,  Wing Commander P. Ogilvie, crashed the Stirling he was piloting (W7439) here in bad weather. Luckily he and his crew escaped major injury but unfortunately the aircraft was written off completely. This crash would signify a run of accidents occurring at the airfield whilst XV squadron used Warboys.

However, XV Sqn’s stay was short-lived, and they soon departed the site their vacant place being taken by the Blenheims of ‘D’ Flight, 17 OTU (Operational Training Unit).*1

The Training unit was expanding, and their base at RAF Upwood was becoming crowded. Their move over to Warboys on 15th December 1941, was a part of this expansion, and led to four flights being created, each with a range of aircraft including: Lysanders, Ansons, Blenheims and even the odd Hurricane and Spitfire.

In August 1942, the OTU would receive orders moving the unit elsewhere, whilst over at RAF Alconbury, a few miles to the south-west, instructions came through to 156 Squadron to relocate here to RAF Warboys. The instruction specified that the move was to take place on the 5th and be completed by the 7th, it would involve the ferrying of large numbers of crews and their aircraft. On the 5th the first aircraft was brought across, and then on the 6th a further six aircraft were transferred. This was followed by another seven on the 7th.

Following the move the squadron was put straight onto operations, but many of these were cancelled because of the poor autumn weather. One of the first, occurring on August 11th, saw ten aircraft detailed for operations, and whilst all of them managed to take off,  three of them X37998 (Flt.Sgt. F. Harker); Z1595 (Sqn. Ldr. J. Beavis) and BJ603 (P/O. C. Taylor) would fail to return. All but three of the sixteen aircrew onboard would perish – the squadron’s first fatalities whilst at Warboys.

RAF Warboys

The remnants of the main runway are used for buildings.

On the night of 15th August 1942, eight more Wellingtons took off from Warboys for Dusseldorf, of these, three returned early with a forth being lost. The Operational Record Book simply stating “This aircraft failed to return” – a rather unembellished statement that became so common in operational records. Reports about the raid later highlighted the poor visibility and scattered bombing, with little or no industrial damage being done as a result.

Whilst August 1942 was not proving to be in anyway remarkable for 156 Sqn, it would prove to be a very historic month for Bomber Command. On the same day as the Dusseldorf raid, the Pathfinders – an elite force designed to locate and mark targets for the main bomber stream –  officially came into being. This idea had long been on the minds of the Air Ministry, causing a prolonged and difficult relationship between Sir Arthur Harris and Group Captain Sidney Bufton (Director of Bomber Operations at the Air Ministry). The fallout culminated in the intervention of the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, who came down on the side of Group Captain Bufton. He disagreed with Harris’s arguments, announcing that the Pathfinders were going to go ahead as planned.

This did not meet with Harris’s approval, he feared the Pathfinders would ‘skim off’ the cream of his bomber force, creating a corps d’elite, whilst Bufton was adamant it would vastly improve Bomber Commands accuracy, something that desperately needed to be done.

Harris gained the backing of his Group Commanders, explaining that removing individual crews from squadrons would be bad for morale within the groups and be divisive amongst the squadrons. He and his Commanders preferred a target marking unit within each Group, thus retaining these elite crews keeping the unity of the squadrons and the skills they possessed together. However, the long fight between Harris and Bufton came to a climax with the intervention of Sir Charles Portal, and an ultimatum was given to Harris, ‘accept the new Pathfinders or leave’.

The job of organising this new command fell to the then Group Captain Don Bennett D.S.O., an experienced pilot himself who advocated the use of target marking to improve bombing accuracy; something Bennett had indeed tried himself. However, it was not going to be an easy ride for the Group Captain, for the squadrons chosen all operated different aircraft types: Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. The Wellingtons were becoming outdated and the Stirlings, whilst liked, had their own set of problems. Added to the mix the fact that German defences were improving and electronic counter measures (ECM) were on the increase, difficult times were definitely ahead.

RAF Warboys

Industry marks the south-western perimeter.

As a new force, only four squadrons were initially used, although more were considered and earmarked: 7 (No. 3 Group), 35 (No. 4 Group), 83 (No. 5 Group) and 156 (No. 1 Group), but it would take time for the new crews to settle and for improvements in bombing accuracy to shine through. All the while Pathfinder crews were operating, the remainder of the squadrons continued in their normal duties, this would allow the Pathfinder force to steadily grow.

For the large part, target marking in the latter part of 1942 would be by visual means only – a ‘Finder‘ and an ‘Illuminator‘ using flares and incendiaries respectively. This would prove to be an unsatisfactory method, the markers often being ‘lost’ amongst the fires that followed, or they were simply too difficult to see. However, photos taken after these early bombing raids showed that the number of bombs falling within 3 miles of the aiming point, post August, had in fact risen to 37% from 32%; those falling within 3 miles of the centre of concentration rising to 50% from 35%.*2 Whilst these figures were quite small, and bombing was still relatively inaccurate, it was at least a step in the right direction, and a boost to those who supported both Bufton and Bennett.

So, on the 15th August 1942, Bomber Command operations changed for good, the four squadrons moved to their respective airfields and the Pathfinders began preparations for a new battle. 156 Sqn at Warboys, would be a major part of this. Being one of the four pioneering airfields, Warboys would be joined by Graveley, Oakington and Wyton, as initial homes for the new force.

On the night of the 18th -19th August 1942, the Pathfinders would be put to the test for the first time, and two Wellingtons from 156 squadron were to be a part of it. The raid to Flensburg would not be successful though, one aircraft having great difficulty in locating the target through the haze, and the second having to ditch its flares five miles from the airfield after one ignited inside the aircraft. Of those that did get to mark, it proved to be inaccurate, and one Pathfinder aircraft, from 35 Sqn, was lost.

RAF Warboys

Airfield defence in the form of an ‘Oakington’ pill box.

The day after this, Group Captain Bennett visited Warboys to give a lecture on the Pathfinder Force and to promote its use; he must have made a good impression for after the lecture six Warboy’s crews volunteered for Pathfinder duties.

Further operations were carried out on the night of  27th – 28th August to Kassel. A good night for visual marking meant that bombing was accurate, and as a result all of the Henschel factories were damaged. However, the cost to the Pathfinders was very high. It was on this operation that the Pathfinders suffered one of their greatest losses. Thirty-one aircraft were missing of which fourteen were Wellingtons and three were from 156 Sqn. The next day, the mess hall was devoid of three crews, those from: ‘X3367’, ‘Z1613’ and ‘DF667’, and unbeknown to those sitting around the mess, there were no survivors. A fourth bomber (BJ883) returned to Warboys after the pilot, Sgt. E. Bowker, suffered severe head pains and was unable to carry on.

Not all operations were as bad. On the night of 19th – 20th September following action over Saarbrucken, a flare became lodged in the bomb bay of one of the 156 Sqn Wellingtons. Whilst sitting there it ignited causing a fire in the aircraft’s belly. The Pilot,  New Zealander Sqn. Ldr. A. Ashworth, instructed his crew to bail out, after which the fire extinguished itself allowing him to fly the aircraft back single-handedly, landing at the fighter station RAF West Malling in Kent. The operation itself, undertaken by 118 aircraft, was otherwise uneventful, although haze proved to be an obstacle for the markers.

The last 156 Sqn Wellington raid for 1942 occurred on December 21st and took the squadron to Munich as part of a force of 137 aircraft. The loss of ‘BK386’ crewed entirely by Canadians brought 1942 to a close, and a loss of 15 aircraft this year. To add insult to injury, whilst the majority of the bombers claimed to have hit the city starting large fires, photographs showed that in fact most bombs had fallen outside of the city in open countryside, possibly as a result of a successful decoy employed by the Germans. It had not been the most auspicious of starts for the Pathfinders, nor 156 Squadron at Warboys.

However, by early January, a new aircraft type was starting to arrive at Warboys – Avro’s mighty four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.I. Created out of the under-performing Manchester, the Lancaster would go on to be one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War. Perhaps now the tide of misery would turn and Warboys crews would begin a new era in aviation history.

RAF Warboys

The beautiful Memorial window dedicated to the Pathfinders.

The full trail appears in Trail 17

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 3)

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part Three).

By Mitch Peeke.

In Part 2 we saw how Tony Bridgman’s war had been going, his friendships, falling in love with John Collier’s sister in law and ultimately; how he’d been shot down and taken prisoner. Now, we find him incarcerated in a POW Camp in Germany.

One month after capture, Kriegsgefangenen (POW) 1264, Bridgman: Anthony Oslands, Squadron Leader RAF, was transferred from the Dulag Luft at Oberursel to OffizierLager (Oflag) IX-A. Better known as Spangenberg Castle, it was a traditional medieval German Schloss. There he would find himself in the company of fellow officers from all three services who would later become distinguished escapers.

POW Card back

Tony’s POW Card showing his continual movements (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On 4th March 1941, Tony and a number of other POW’s from all three service branches, were transferred from Spangenberg to Stalag XX-A, nearly 500 miles away to the East. Word had reached the Germans that some of their officer POW’s held in Canada were imprisoned at Fort Henry, which was not a camp deemed suitable for officers. As a reprisal, the Germans sent British officer POW’s to one of their equally unsuitable camps. Three months later, they were transferred back to Spangenberg.

On October 8th 1941, Tony was transferred to Oflag VI-B at Doessel, Warburg; about 50 miles North-East of Spangenberg. On September 4th 1942, he was transferred again, with other RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, this time to Oflag XXI-B at Szubin, Poland; about 480 miles East of Doessel, as the camp at Doessel was temporarily closed.

Escape is forbidden!

By now, Tony had well and truly had enough of this nomadic German hospitality. He was becoming ever more determined not to remain at Oflag XXI-B. It was here that he turned his own skills toward escapism, and I don’t mean idly reading novels, though he did keep a daily journal during his time as a POW.

During his attempt, he and a friend had successfully tunnelled out of their compound. On 5th November 1942, their appointed night to go, Tony went into the tunnel first. By the time he had reached the end of the tunnel and broken the soil to exit, their attempt had been rumbled and Tony’s comrade had already been caught. Tony poked his head out of the ground to find himself confronted by torch beams and the bared teeth of a snarling German Shepherd Dog that was straining at the end of it’s handler’s lead, just inches from his own face. “AUS! AUS!” growled the Dog Handler. Tony climbed out and was marched/shoved back into camp with his hands on top of his head and the barrel of an MP40 Schmeisser at his back. He also very probably had rather a wry smile on his face, too!

As was usual for would-be escapees, the following day he was placed under strict Stubenarrest (House Arrest) for a period of ten days, as a punishment for his Tunnelbau (Tunnel construction). A tedious reminder that “Flucht ist verboten!”

On 28th February 1943, Tony developed a middle ear infection known as Otitis Media. Usually a painful childhood condition, it could also be fairly common among pilots and submariners. The treatment he received was a ten-day course of what was then a crude first generation of antibiotics, known as Sulfa tablets. Given in high doses, these tablets would often have most unpleasant side effects of their own, but it was better than the old treatment of an equally painful incision made in the inner ear to drain it. The condition and especially the surgical treatment for it, could often lead to long term hearing problems for the sufferer.

Another change of address.

After nearly two years of his not being a model prisoner, Tony was moved again on April 14th 1943, with others of his troublesome ilk, to a brand new camp near Sagan; about 100 miles South-east of Berlin, in upper Silesia and 190 miles South-West of Szubin. (It is now a part of Poland). This new camp was sited there because the soil is quite sandy. Also, the topsoil and the subsoil are distinctly different colours, which combined with its sandy texture and the fact that the huts were built raised off the ground; led the Germans to believe that these factors would make tunnelling extremely difficult. Just to be sure, the Germans installed seismographic microphones at regular intervals, into the ground around the perimeter. The camp was opened in March 1942 and Tony and the others were sent there purely because they had been a considerable nuisance to their captors. Oflag IX-A, East Compound, Stalag Luft 3, was now Squadron Leader Tony Bridgman’s latest address.

Someone who frequently used that address, as well as his previous ones, was Tony’s girlfriend, Virginia Bishop. The two maintained as steady a correspondence as was possible throughout Tony’s incarceration, but theirs was very much a long distance relationship now. At least through Virginia, via her sister, Elizabeth; John Collier was being kept informed of his friend’s situation.

Tony was once more in good company at Stalag Luft 3. Among some of his more renowned inmates were people like Roger Bushell, Robert Stanford-Tuck, Roland Beamont, Paul Brickhill and a Naval Pilot named Peter Butterworth, who would later find fame in the Carry On films.

Never look a Gift Horse in the mouth.

In October of 1943, the East Compound was set for the first ever escape from Stalag Luft 3. Inspired by the ancient story of the Trojan Horse, the prisoners had constructed a gymnastic vaulting horse, mostly from the plywood cases of their Red Cross parcels. The horse was designed to conceal one or two men, the tools for digging and bags for excavated soil. Each day, the horse, with either one or two men hidden inside it, was carried out to exactly the same spot near the perimeter fence and while a long line of prisoners conducted gymnastic exercises over it, a tunnel was being dug from within the horse. Two of the many “Gymnasts” vaulting over the horse every day were Tony Bridgman and Peter Butterworth. When Tony wasn’t vaulting; then he, Peter and many others, took turns at tunnelling. The sounds of the men vaulting and landing prevented the sound of the digging from being detected by the buried microphones.

Model Stalag Luft_III used in the film.

Model Stalag Luft_III used in the film The Great Escape. (Free to use image, courtesy Stalag Luft 3 Museum).

At the end of each “exercise period”, a wooden trap door was placed over the tunnel entrance, on a ledge a few inches below the surface, and carefully covered with the surface soil. The horse, with its hidden cargo of men, tools and bagged-up spoil, was then carried back inside to be unloaded, and the day’s excavated soil distributed evenly in the roof space of the prisoners’ huts.

Over a few months the prisoners, working in shifts of one or two diggers at a time, had managed to dig a tunnel over 30 metres (100 ft) long, deep underground. They used bowls as shovels and poked metal rods carefully through the tunnel roof to make air holes. The only shoring they’d used was for the entrance.

In the early evening of 19th October 1943, Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot, all three dressed in “suits” made from blankets, made their escape. All three men spoke German fluently, which is why they were nominated to go. Williams and Codner successfully reached the port of Stettin, where they stowed away onboard a Danish ship. Philpot posed as a Norwegian businessman and managed to catch a train to the port of Danzig. Once there, he stowed away on a Swedish ship bound for Stockholm. All three made it safely back to England and once home, they sent a coded postcard to Herbert Massey, (Later Air Commodore Massey) the Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft 3, which boosted morale in the camp considerably when he read it out to the prisoners, during morning parade.  The story of the escape was made into a film in 1950 called The Wooden Horse. An interesting aside here is that Peter Butterworth auditioned for a part in that film, but was turned down. Apparently, he wasn’t considered to be sufficiently athletic and heroic-looking, to take part!

Obviously, news of the successful escape of three prisoners from this brand new, supposedly very hard to escape from camp, was not well received by the Germans. The Kommandant at Stalag Luft 3 was a Luftwaffe Officer: Oberst (Colonel) Friedrich Von Lindeiner-Wildau. Von Lindeiner was a highly decorated veteran of WW1 and before. He was a German patriot and most irrefutably anti-Nazi in his beliefs. He had a reputation for fairness and liberal open-mindedness. He had tried to retire before the war, but was not permitted to. As a result of the Wooden Horse Escape, he ordered that certain prisoners were to be relocated to other camps. Having spent close to two years in Stalag Luft 3, Tony Bridgman was among those who had to go. This was probably just as well, as that was not the only escape project that had been on the go in Stalag Luft 3. Five months after Wooden Horse, in March 1944, came the mass breakout that would become known as The Great Escape, organised by Roger Bushell. Given his track record for getting involved in these things, Tony may well have been up for it and as history has shown, a very high number of those involved, including Bushell, were recaptured and executed by the Gestapo; an event which sickened Von Lindeiner. Subsequently relieved of command at the camp, Von Lindeiner was arrested. Facing Court Martial and a likely execution, he cleverly feigned mental illness to avoid further punishment. After the war, he identified and testified against those who had been responsible for the wholesale murder of his prisoners, at the Nuremberg Trials. Von Lindeiner himself was found to have behaved impeccably throughout the war. He died in May 1963 in Frankfurt, aged 82.

Oberst Von Lindeiner-Wildau, Kommandant of Stalag Luft 3

Oberst Von Lindeiner-Wildau, Kommandant of Stalag Luft 3 (Photo: Free to use image, commons-wikipedia).

After leaving Stalag Luft 3, the Germans stopped recording Tony’s whereabouts on his POW Identity Card. It wasn’t too much longer till news of the successful Allied D Day invasion and breakout began reaching the camps. As the net closed in on Nazi Germany, the guards became increasingly averse to the idea of surrendering to the Russians coming in from the East. They decided to gather their prisoners and march them Westwards, toward the advancing British and American forces. The overall distance involved in these staged marches was in the order of a couple of hundred miles or more and it was all done on foot. Thirty to forty miles per day was not out of the ordinary and the guards and POW’s slept in Churches and Barns along the way. By the time they reached their destination camp somewhere on the outskirts of Berlin, the POW’s, Tony included, had literally made it there on their hands and knees. Tony later recalled crawling into a bunk and staying there for about three days.

Liberation

By now it was becoming increasingly clear to the Germans that their war was lost. In those final weeks and days, the Germans’ treatment of their prisoners became more relaxed. In the event, that long, agonising march had been for nothing. The prisoners woke up one morning to find that the Russians had arrived to liberate the camp. Now the war really was over!

However, the prisoners had to remain in their camp for another couple of weeks, till transport could be arranged for them all on trucks. Once the trucks had been arranged, the prisoners were driven to an American Army Camp. The Americans then flew them on to Brussels in Belgium, ready for the cross-Channel journey home, but there were naturally delays and problems. By now, Tony was fulfilling the role of Senior British Officer.

From Brussels, the men were finally all flown home to England, but Tony was asked to bring a list of all his fellow POW’s to General Grant, at his headquarters in Paris. Tony was duly put on a C47 (the Military version of the famous DC3 Airliner) and flown to an airfield just outside of Paris. From there he was taken to General Grant’s HQ.

Tony said that he was feeling very self-conscious at this point because he now found himself standing in this very fine building, surrounded by well-dressed Americans, dressed in the clothes he’d been wearing when he was shot down four and a half years previously! Despite his attire, Tony was ushered in to see General Grant.

At the end of their meeting, General Grant put Tony up in the smartest hotel in Paris at Uncle Sam’s expense. He also took Tony out to dinner. Grant asked Tony if there was anything he needed and Tony asked him for a new uniform, if it were possible. Tony was duly fitted out with such.

After a few days and nights of General Grant’s hospitality, Tony was put on a ship back to England. Having arrived in Newhaven, he boarded a train to London. Somewhere on that train journey, Tony had a keepsake of some kind that he’d managed to hang on to throughout the war, stolen from him. He was particularly upset by that, as can be imagined.

Tony stepped off the train at London’s Victoria Station and went to a friend’s house for dinner. After dinner and a no doubt pleasant evening, Tony left his friend’s house to walk to the Barracks where he was being put up. Quite suddenly, he found that he did not know what to do or where to go. He later tearfully recalled that “I just felt finished, and didn’t know what to do”. Wandering aimlessly about and obviously in a state of some bewilderment, Tony was found by a Policeman, who directed him to Knightsbridge Barracks. Tony’s war had suddenly caught up with him.

This was not an uncommon occurrence with returning POW’s. The subject of one of my previous books was a former POW of the Japanese and exactly the same thing happened to him. Driving the normally short distance home from work one night, he just went blank. When he “came to”, he was in his old home village of Radway in Oxfordshire, with absolutely no recollection of how he’d got there. Unfortunately, he lived in Kent.

The RAF officially gave Tony a backdated promotion to Full Squadron Leader and the corresponding back-pay due to him. They also offered him a Commanding Officer’s job, but he turned it down. The RAF wasn’t the same now and besides, he’d lost nearly everyone that he knew. He’d also lost Virginia Bishop. She had met and married somebody else in the four and a half years that Tony was a POW. (Her son would grow up to become Patrick Bishop, the author). A man who seemingly now had nothing much left to lose, Tony went on three months leave and was officially discharged from the RAF in 1946.

Civvy Street.

So, what on earth was a now Ex, highly trained, low-level attack pilot and dedicated serial escaper, going to do in peacetime Civvy Street? Well, to start with, someone he knew got him into Ogilvy and Mather’s of Fleet Street, and certainly for a while, it seemed like a good idea. They had connections in America and were a large advertising and publishing company. But a man like Tony was far more used to giving the daily orders, than he was to taking them.

In 1950, Tony was asked to meet someone at London Airport. An American woman by the name of Jeannette Graef, from New York. Tony got talking to her in the car and it was the start of a whirlwind romance that would see them getting married that very same year, despite the fact that she was fourteen years younger than he was.

Tony in 1951 at Temple Golf Club.

Tony in 1951 at Temple Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

The couple spent the early 1950’s living something of a nomadic life involving London, then Camberley and finally, Canada. For a while, they lived in J M W Turner’s old house at 119 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea; then they moved to Camberley in Surrey. They also found time to have three daughters; Judith in 1951, Frances in 1952 and Kathleen in 1957. Kathleen was born in Canada, as Tony had moved the family to Vancouver in 1956. Tony and Jeannette separated not long after Kathleen was born.  Jeannette took all three children to Nassau in the Bahamas; and there she stayed. Tony remained in Canada, convinced he could still make it.

In Canada, Tony had ended up working in a Gas Station on the Alaska Highway. One snowy, icy night, he was the passenger in a car being driven by a friend, who lost control and crashed. Tony’s back was broken in the accident. As can be imagined, he was in hospital for a very long time and was lucky indeed that he was finally able to walk away from it. Meanwhile, one of his sisters, Marian; concerned that nothing had been heard from him in ages, contacted the Missing Persons Bureau to find him. Find him they did and he was brought back to England; to Hindhead in Surrey.

“Pressed” into action

Once recovered, Tony needed something to do, workwise. Keen not to go down any roads he’d been down before, he still took another chance and bought a small printing company in nearby Guildford. This was the start of the rest of his career, as with presses rolling, Tony Bridgman got Dramrite Printers Ltd off the ground. Guildford was all well and good to start with, but if any money were to be made, it would surely be in London, so Tony decided to move Dramrite’s. He found a small but suitable premises in Long Lane, Southwark, SE1.

In 1968, my Dad, Jim; got himself a job at Dramrite’s, as a printer. My Dad was the original “get on your bike and get yourself a job” type, long before Norman Tebbit’s advice! I was a six year old boy at the time and my Brother was four and a half. It was shift work, as most print jobs were and indeed still are. One week on earlies, one week on lates and some days of double shifts. Fortunately, we lived within easy walking distance of Long Lane; in Great Dover Street.

Most of Dramrite’s work was the urgent kind of jobs, fast turnaround. My Dad loved working there. He loved the small, close-knit fraternity of it and he quickly came to like Tony, very much. My Mum would often help out from home, especially during the school holidays, with some of the finishing work, which Tony paid her for. Typical of the work she did was collating the business forms that Dramrite’s seemed to turn out in their thousands. I well remember the four piles of different coloured paper that seemed to live semi-permanently on a table in our front room. They had to be collated into one pile, in the order white on top, then pink, then yellow and then green on the bottom. Once collated, they were boxed up ready for Tony to collect in the firm’s van. As he collected them, he would of course drop a lot more off to be collated! Tony used to sit in our kitchen sometimes having a cold drink and playing little “where’s it gone?” games with my Brother and I. My Dad always said he was such a fair man to work for, but I don’t remember Tony paying me for any of the collating that I got roped into!

Tony at his desk at Dramrite's, taken about eight years after my Dad worked for him.

Tony at his desk at Dramrite’s, taken about eight years after my Dad worked for him (Photo courtesy Frances Leach).

My Mum says that Tony was always “such a Gentleman”. One day during the second summer that my Dad worked for him, I took my first flying lesson; …….over the handlebars of my bike! The resultant crash landing wasn’t exactly text-book and I broke my left forearm. Crying and cradling my arm, I ran home and my Mum decided it would be quicker if we walked up to Guys Hospital. We had no phone in those days and we’d have to pass Dramrite’s anyway, so we stopped off to let my Dad know what had happened. On hearing me crying, Tony came out of his office to find out what was going on. My Mum quickly told him and then off we went to Guys. Just after we left, Tony told my Dad to get himself cleaned up as soon as he could and come straight after us. My Dad said to him “but what about the job on my press, its urgent?!” Tony said: “They’re all urgent, Jimbo; (Seems being given an RAF-style nickname was still traditional!) don’t worry, we’ll cope! Now GO!” He still paid my Dad to the end of his shift.

It is fair to say that Tony lived and breathed Dramrite’s. He lived in the flat above the print works. Frances recalls visiting him there as a student. Frances would often rent a little bedsit during any term time in London as both she and Judith were living and studying at University in London by then. Tony would often call round to them with food shopping and anything else an impoverished student was likely to be in need of! My Mum said Tony often told her how he missed his girls. Frances describes him as being a good and kindly Dad, but he seemed to find it hard to express emotion. After he and Jeannette separated, Tony never remarried, though Jeannette did.

Tony did have two other passions though. One was Golf and the other was horses. No, not the wooden, vaulting-over kind again! The four-legged show-jumping kind. An accomplished horseman himself, Tony owned two horses at Hickstead. One was named Contrast and the other was called Sandyman. I can remember my Dad taking us to a show somewhere to see Contrast compete. Champion show-jumper David Broome used to ride Tony’s horses for him.

Tony with Sandyman.

Tony with Sandyman (Photo: Courtesy Judy Costa).

In May 1972, my family moved out of Central London to the then leafy suburbs of Sidcup, Kent. My Dad didn’t want to leave Dramrite’s, but with nowhere to park a car nearby, he had to rely on the train to get to work. Despite his earnest efforts, British Rail’s timetable just couldn’t be made to fit the demands of a busy and necessarily flexible shift pattern such as that at Dramrite’s. Reluctantly, my Dad had to leave Tony’s employ, but armed as he was with a glowing reference, he quickly found work locally. Although he happily settled in first at Ashmead Press and shortly after at Masterprint, he always said that he never again found anywhere like Dramrite’s. My Dad (who must have liked his nickname, because he was still known as “Jimbo” 16 years later at Masterprint), died very suddenly in 1988, eight weeks short of his 51st birthday.

"Jimbo" a few years later at MasterPrint.

“Jimbo” a few years later at MasterPrint. (Photo Mitch Peeke).

Steer South-west, more Gardening Ops

With retirement in mind, Tony finally sold his beloved and very successful Dramrite’s in 1980 and moved to the picturesque village of Polruan in Cornwall, where he lived in a very comfortable semi-detached house by the sea. He still loved gardening, but it was the green-fingered type this time, and he grew lots of vegetables, which didn’t explode or sink enemy ships! Frances described his garden as being; “Military. Everything was in very straight rows.” He also kept a meticulous daily journal of his gardening activities. Tony bought a small Sailboat too, but he never really got into sailing and he ultimately sold it with very few nautical miles on the clock.

I asked Frances if she knew whether Tony had ever kept in touch with any of his old RAF friends. She said; “No, not really. Though he would sometimes cut obituaries out of the newspaper and file them away”. Leonard Snaith, his old C.O. in 83 Squadron, died in 1985 and John “Joe” Collier died in 2000. Jamie Pitcairn-Hill, Rossy and Guy Gibson of course were all killed in action during World War 2. Tony had once given Frances a copy of Guy’s book, Enemy Coast Ahead to read.

Tony with Judith 1951, Tony in his garden at Polruan and Tony on an outing in Paris

Tony with Judith 1951, Tony in his garden at Polruan and Tony on an outing in Paris (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

Tony lived happily in his house by the sea for nearly twenty two years till in 2002, he moved up to Hartland in North Devon. By the time he’d reached 85, Tony was starting to have trouble coping on his own. Frances had long been married with two children of her own by then and was an established potter. She and her husband had their own business, a successful pottery in Hartland, and Tony had moved there from Cornwall so that he could be nearer to them. It wasn’t long though till Tony really couldn’t cope on his own any more and he moved into the Lakenham Residential Home in Northam, North Devon; just a few miles up the A39 from Hartland.

Squadron Leader Tony “Oscar” Bridgman DFC, passed away on 14th January 2006 in the care home, aged 90. He left his three daughters and five grand children. In the end, it was he who was the very last of “The Old Guard” from 83 Squadron. However, Tony’s story doesn’t quite end there.

The unfulfilled destiny of Tony Bridgman.

As I mentioned earlier, Dramrite’s was a very busy printers, but they had breaks! During those breaks, the printers, my Dad included, would often get Tony to share one of his stories. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them! During one such break, the subject of Guy Gibson and the Dambusters was raised; possibly after the film had been on the television. Tony smiled and told his “chaps” (as he often called them) “If I hadn’t have had the damned bad luck to get shot down, the history of that raid may well have been different.” Asked what he meant, Tony got up, signifying that it was time to go back to work and said; “Because that could easily have been my show, and not Gibbo’s!”

My Dad didn’t tell me that one till I was about 14. I had more than a keen interest in aircraft by then. I was in the Air Cadets and a weekend flying member of the Kent Gliding Club. I didn’t know all that much about the Dams Raid, then. I’d seen the film (more than once) and read Paul Brickhill’s book, but my knowledge was really not much more than that. So at the time, I tended to think that it may have been something of a “line shoot” perhaps. After all, I’d been brought up with my Grandad’s sea stories and everyone knows how old sailors love to yarn! Why should airmen be any different? Furthermore, Tony wasn’t mentioned in either the film or the book. So, I left it there, but I never actually forgot it.

Fast forward to April/May 2020. I am nearly 58 and we are in the middle of the Coronavirus lock down. For about twenty one years now, I have been something of a writer/historian in my spare time. I’ve had four books and countless articles published in that time and in what is surely a sign of the times, those articles have been increasingly less for printed magazines and increasingly more for websites.

With being somewhat “confined to Barracks” due to the lock down, I have been keeping myself busy (and my sanity preserved), by writing more articles. I was having an email discussion with a man called Paul and he sent me a slightly unusual, though typically posed photo, of Guy Gibson; asking me if I could tell him anything about it. I dug around a bit and was able to tell him where it was taken and that it had been taken shortly before he was selected to command 617 Squadron. I also mentioned that my Dad had once worked for a man who knew Gibson very well.

Then I remembered what my Dad had once said about the possibility of the Dams Raid not being Gibson’s show if circumstances had been different. In what could only be described as my having a “Light bulb moment”, I suddenly found that I had the idea for another article. Little did I realize at the time quite what a mission I had just set myself, or what the sheer size of that article would turn out to be!

So; now that we are all familiar with Tony’s frankly, amazing story; we can come to the $64, 000 question: Namely; is there any truth in Tony Bridgman’s assertion that if he hadn’t been shot down, he may well have led 617 Squadron himself, with Gibson as a Flight Commander.

John “Joe” Collier was a Group Captain by 1943 and was working in Bomber Command’s Raid Planning Dept. As a pilot, he could easily have led the Dams Raid himself, but he was now far too senior and far more valuable where he was. Collier did much of the initial planning of the Dams Raid, including putting forward his suggestions for a suitable leader for such a daring enterprise.

In 1943, in looking at a suitable leader, they were looking for someone with a proven track record in low-level precision attacks. Somebody who was a highly skilled, experienced and successful leader of men. A man who was openly daring, fearless almost. He would have to be a superb pilot of course and if it could be somebody you actually knew personally who possessed all those traits, well; so much the better.

Now, put yourself in Collier’s shoes. He is asked to come up with a recommendation for such a man. Roderick “Babe” Learoyd VC, formerly of 49 Squadron; the man who brought down the aqueduct in August 1940, was available. He was undoubtedly highly experienced and highly skilled. He was certainly extremely brave and a great leader, but he perhaps didn’t quite have that “openly daring” side to him. He was something of a reluctant hero, perhaps; a more than admirable character trait of course but not one that, of necessity, you are looking for at that precise point. Guy Gibson; a skilled and decorated pilot, known personally as both a friend and a squadron mate and still very eager to win himself that VC, was also available. Now, let’s add a third name to the shortlist: That of “Oscar” Bridgman DFC.

Let’s say Tony hadn’t been shot down and that perhaps he had then followed the same sort of path that Gibson did. He’d have left 83 Squadron, been promoted to full Squadron Leader, moving on to larger aircraft types and being given command of a night bomber squadron, followed by further promotion to Wing Commander. Tony was very much the senior man of the two, so he would have done it all that bit sooner and therefore would have had that much more experience. Gibson, if Tony hadn’t have been shot down, would always therefore have been that much behind, following in Tony’s footsteps.

Then the idea for the Dams Raid is put forward. You are still in Collier’s shoes. You have known both those men personally and professionally for years, Tony Bridgman slightly longer. Whom would you choose, if you had to make that choice? The highly skilled but still slightly impetuous and VC-chasing Gibson, or the man who had taught him; the very man that Gibbo himself looked up to: “Oscar” Bridgman. Put it into that context and I really do think there is a great deal of truth in Tony’s assertion.

However, the reality in 1943 was that Tony was shot down, so that choice simply wasn’t one that Collier would ever have to face making. Given the choices that Collier did have available to him, Gibbo was naturally going to be his recommendation and it was Gibson of course who did get the job, as Air Chief Marshal Cochrane evidently went along with Collier’s recommendation.

Ultimately though, I personally feel that if the hand of fate had not intervened that night over Germany in September 1940, this somewhat epic article might never have been written; because Tony Bridgman, like his protogee, probably would not have survived the war. The one thing that both “Oscar” and “Gibbo” never considered, was taking a rest. That mindset certainly took its toll on Gibson. Although he finally got the VC he so desperately wanted, for leading the Dams Raid; his war ultimately cost Guy Gibson his young life.

As something of a finale perhaps, what remained of the wreckage of Tony’s Hampden and that errant 500lb bomb that the German disposal engineers blew up, was found in 2015 by Herr Volker Urbansky; a passionate German local historian. I am indebted to him for the extra information he has so happily and freely provided me with. I am also deeply indebted to Frances Leach, nee Bridgman; for  everything.

Sources and Acknowledgements for (Part 3).

Frances Leach  (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
Judith and David Costa. (Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter and her Husband).
Stalag Luft 3 Museum, Poland.
My Mum; Eve.
My own memories of my Dad; “Jimbo” .
Old Waynfletes Magazine. Issue 36, Page 18. Tony’s Obituary.
Herr Volker Urbansky.
Ditte Trudslev of Aalborg Bibliotekerne, HistorieAalborg, Denmark.
Philippe Listemann at www.raf-in-combat.com

A final acknowledgement must also go to James Marley of The Ringwood and Verwood Round Table; to Mrs Nicky Van der Drift and Dan Ellin, both from the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire, and to Mr Patrick Otter.

My thanks again to Mitch and everyone who has contributed to the story. It can be read in full in Heroic Tales.

Following the writing of this post, a new page has been created in Wikipedia about Anthony Bridgman.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 2)

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part Two).

By Mitch Peeke.

In Part one, we saw how Tony Bridgman had grown up, joined the RAF and how he had fast become a true leader of men; as a Senior Flight Commander in 83 Squadron at Scampton and how he had taken Guy Gibson under his wing. Now, as we rejoin him in mid-April 1940; things were hotting up.

83 Squadron aircrew and Hampden at RAF Scampton

83 Squadron aircrew and Hampden at RAF Scampton (IWM CH266).

April 1940 saw a marked increase in the squadron’s gardening activities and now ploughing ops were growing in frequency, too. By now, young Gibbo was a fully-fledged Flying Officer and an experienced one. He had a tight-knit aircrew who were right behind him and he was well on his way to becoming the legendary leader he would prove himself to be. Although he never did quite lose his disdain for those of a non-commissioned rank or lower, he was definitely a lot better in that respect than he used to be. He also had a ground crew who could now at last take some pride in both “their man” and “their aircraft”. Gibbo idolised his Flight Commander and would have followed him into the very gates of Hell if required. Tony had not only become Gibson’s friend and mentor, he was now very much Gibson’s role model. For Tony’s part, his good friend Gibbo could be trusted implicitly as his wingman; both in the air and on their many drunken sorties on the ground! Gibbo was in fact, doing his level best to emulate his Flight Commander, in everything.

On the night of 17th/18th April, Tony and his wingman that night, Rossy; were out on what had become a two-plane gardening mission in the entrance to the Skagerrak Strait, off the North-western Danish coast. The third aircraft that was supposed to be following them had been unable to locate their intended garden and was now taking its vegetable back home. Having both successfully planted their own vegetables, Tony and Rossy went on to have a look at Aalborg aerodrome.

Aalborg Airport just after its opening in 1938.

Aalborg Airport just after its opening in 1938 (Photo: J A Kirkegaard, via Aalborg Stadsarchiv. By kind permission).

Aalborg was a new, pre-war airport opened in 1938, which the Germans were now using to fly troops and supplies into Denmark and Norway, with their venerable three-engined Junkers 52 transport planes. The Germans were known to be expanding the place already and it was felt that it might be worth “paying them a visit”. Tony and Rossy flew a couple of fast and low “Recce” passes over the airport to see how the Germans were getting on and to see what their responses would be like.

It didn’t take a genius to realize that the two intruders were not at all welcome. Heavy Anti Aircraft fire came at them, but flying low and fast as they were, Tony and Rossy came through it virtually unscathed, as the Germans, caught by surprise, were not able to get their range in time. Unfortunately for the Germans, Tony and Rossy had both seen and noted the three large concentrations of Luftwaffe aircraft parked near the hangars at Aalborg. By the time the pair returned to Scampton, the basis of a Ploughing Plan was formed in Tony’s mind and a “visit” from 83 Squadron was now most definitely on the cards.

German transport and communications aircraft at Aalborg on the first day of the occupation. Tony and Rossy would have seen a similar sight on their recce of Aalborg.

German transport and communications aircraft at Aalborg on the first day of the occupation. Tony and Rossy would have seen a similar sight on their recce of Aalborg (Photo: J A Kirkegaard, via Aalborg Stadsarchiv. By kind permission).

The evening of the 19th April found Tony and Rossy in the officers Mess. Tony had already decided who the third man on this sortie was going to be, so he and Rossy sought out Gibbo and suggested they all go get a bite, to escape the noisy atmosphere of the Mess. Seated in a quieter environment, Tony outlined his plan for the three of them. Taking off at two minute intervals, Tony leading, they would come in from the North-eastern approach, with Sweden behind them. They’d be coming in at 800 feet from behind Aalborg’s Hangars, to hit the airport with a mixture of Incendiary and General Purpose bombs with delayed action fuzes. Prime targets were the Hangars and parked aircraft first, then the runways on the way out. One pass per aircraft low and fast, bombs and incendiaries on the spot then get the Hell out of it, turning starboard away from the Harbour and Limsfjord and back out to sea. The operation was set for the following night, 20th/21st with Tony taking off at 01:00.

The following night, the planned raid was evidently brought forward to 23:00, probably due to the weather. (The squadron’s Operations Record Book records Tony’s take off time as 23:10). The weather was low cloud and light rain, which was set to worsen later. Despite that, the raid was still on. With the three aircraft sat ready, engines running, Gibson tried a radio check. Nothing. He tried again, still nothing but static. Turning to his Radio man, Gibson shouted back to him to try to get it working, fast! Unfortunately, the rain had leaked into it somehow and rendered it useless. As always, there was a spare aircraft prepared. That night it was Jack Kynoch’s Hampden that was standing spare, with the same load as the other three. Gibbo and his crew hurriedly transferred over to it. After a ten minute delay to Tony’s intended take off time and still no sign that Gibbo and his crew would be able to go, Tony and then Rossy took off, leaving a frustrated Gibbo still trying to get Kynoch’s aircraft hurriedly through its pre-flight checks, to join the other two.

Slightly late but otherwise fine, Tony and then Rossy found Aalborg and between them, paid it a comprehensive visit. At 800 feet, as planned, they came in low and fast over the hangars, Tony first. Amid a hail of A/A fire, they paid their individual respects by making holes and starting fires in the hangars, damaging transport aircraft and cratering the runways. Their lower Air Gunners further strafed the parked aircraft and other ground targets behind them, before the two took their leave just as quickly as they had arrived. Both of them now had some “extra ventilation” in their Hampdens; far more so in Rossy’s, but the Hampden had proven its ability to withstand a lot of damage and still keep flying. They headed home, no doubt very pleased with their handiwork. A “good show” as Tony would have said.

Taking off some 35 minutes behind Rossy, Gibson was roundly cursing his luck. He’d always had something of a love/hate relationship with his own “kite”, C-Charlie; which tended to swing hard right on take-off for reasons that had never been discovered, but at least he was used to her wiles. Now, having hurriedly transferred to the spare and got her off the deck, he discovered that this aircraft wasn’t flying right, either. She seemed unusually heavy on the ailerons for some reason. He was having a bit of a fight to keep her going straight and level, but he was determined not to let the side down. Coming in late like this also meant that the Germans would be on their toes when he got there after Tony and Rossy’s visit. They’d certainly be giving him a “warm welcome”.

Nearly two hours into the flight, with the throttles having been set for a fast cruise, Gibson kept checking his watch. By his reckoning, they should have sighted land by now. All he could seem to see, was the North Sea. He asked Jack Warner, the Navigator; to check their ETA again and was told another five minutes to the enemy coast.

When that five minutes elapsed with no recognizable sign of a coast, Gibson asked Jack for an update. They flew on for a few more minutes and then, sighted definite land at last. Crossing the coast, both Jack and Gibson realized that something had gone terribly wrong. They were over Copenhagen! They were way off course, a good 200km South-east of where they should have been. Furthermore, the sun was just beginning to come up. Realizing they were now much deeper into enemy territory than was considered healthy, and that very soon they’d be totally exposed in the coming daylight, Gibson swore at Jack over his duff navigation, set the throttles to “Full” and turned for home. Even staying low and going flat-out as he now was, it would take them nearly thirty minutes flying time, avoiding known defended areas, to re-cross the coast. Finding and bombing Aalborg was absolutely out of the question now. They had failed; which for Gibson, wasn’t an option. Apart from one policeman taking an overly optimistic pot-shot at them with his revolver, the two and a half hour return flight was solemn, and uneventful.

The three returning aircraft were diverted to Lossiemouth as the weather had clamped right down at Scampton. Tony and Rossy landed at Lossiemouth at 06:10. Gibson was still on his way there. By the time he’d found Lossiemouth and landed, his petrol gauges were decidedly near their empty marks and he was nearly two hours overdue! At that precise moment, Gibson was not the happiest bomber pilot in the land and his Navigator had somewhat borne the brunt of his displeasure.

In refuelling and checking Gibson’s aircraft over, the ground crew at Lossiemouth discovered that the aircraft’s compass was defective, having a huge twenty degree range of unsteady deviation. Gibson thanked the crew chief then went to seek out Jack, his Navigator. Having found him, Gibson explained what he’d just been told about the compass and he duly and sincerely apologized to Jack for the “rough treatment” he’d given him on the flight. With Gibson’s apology accepted, all was deemed well again.

Compass problem fixed, the three aircraft returned to Scampton together later that day. Upon landing, Gibson reported to “Chiefy” Langford that there was definitely something wrong with the aircraft and it was not flying right. Langford later reported back to Gibson that whilst inspecting the aircraft, he’d found that one of the self-sealing fuel tanks had an undetected hole in it and the sealant had swollen to the point where it was fouling one of the aileron control cables.  Due to his own physical strength, Jack Kynoch simply hadn’t noticed it himself!

Of course, Gibson and Warner took a lot of good-natured ribbing in the mess over their “Danish sightseeing trip.” I dare say that comments such as; “I say Gibbo, did you take in the castle? Lovely gardens!” Or; “Oh, you two must have seen the palace. It’s quite splendid, isn’t it?!” were probably quite common, but Gibbo and Jack took it all on the chin, even when no less a man than “Bomber” Harris was laughing at them over it, too! (Harris visited 83 Squadron the day after). Having some time ago found the ability to laugh at circumstance or even himself, rather than simply finding fault or blaming others, Gibson was now considerably more popular around Scampton than he used to be.

Tony and Rossy both got the DFC for that raid and deservedly so, as did their respective Navigators. Their Air Gunners were also decorated with the DFM. Gibson and his crew missed out of course but it certainly hadn’t been for the want of trying! The squadron’s Operations Record Book for that raid simply says that the enemy fire Tony and Rossy met with over Aalborg had been “Intense”. To give the reader some idea of Aalborg’s defences; barely four months later, Twelve Bristol Blenheims from 82 Squadron set out to bomb Aalborg as one formation. Eleven of those aircraft were shot out of the sky by a deadly combination of heavy Flak and Fighters. Almost the entire squadron was wiped out in a little less than twenty minutes. It would have been all twelve aircraft, but one Blenheim had the good fortune to suffer with fuel problems over the sea on the way to the target, and was forced to turn back.

Just three days after their spectacular raid on Aalborg, Tony received some extremely bad news. One of his Brothers, Francis; had been killed in action. Francis Harley Bridgman had earlier joined the RAFVR and was at that time a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner in 105 Squadron, who were flying Blenheims. He was 24 when his aircraft; a Blenheim MkV, code letters GB-T, serial V6370; was shot down and crashed into the sea 5 kilometres West of Westkapelle, Holland. They’d been attacking enemy shipping and were hit repeatedly by Flak.

Blitzkrieg!

Less than a month later, and the German Blitzkrieg was blasting its way across the Low Countries. Europe collapsed like a house of cards beneath the German onslaught. Holland fell, Belgium fell and now the Battle of France was being hard fought. Chamberlain had been replaced as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill and now the gloves were off. Targets in Germany were now very much “on the menu” and if “Private Property” got in the way during an attack, so be it; as long as it wasn’t intentional. 83 Squadron stepped up both their ploughing and gardening operations; anything to try to slow the German advance by causing them supply problems or disrupting troop movements. Railways, Harbours, Canals, Shipping; all became targets for the boys of 83 Squadron, of which Tony was now Acting Squadron Leader.

One of the last gardening trips that 83 Squadron would be doing for a while was to Copenhagen. During the briefing, Snaith reminded them all that it was a place that Gibbo and his Navigator knew well! This trip, Jack Warner excelled himself and the successful round trip was made in just under six and a half hours. It was Dawn when Gibbo landed. Barely had he jumped off his Hampden’s wing when Tony told him that Pit was missing. After a tense two hour wait, a damaged but intact OL-B was spotted with it’s wheels down and coming in to land. The straggling Pit had made it. “Good show, chaps!” Tony said to Gibbo and the others who were waiting. “Now we can go and have some bacon and eggs!” With that, he led the way to get breakfast.

Gibson had a close call himself whilst out ploughing on 17th May. Pressing home his low level attack, one wing of his Hampden struck a balloon cable. Normally, that would have meant certain disaster, but Gibbo and his crew were extremely lucky that the cable snapped. They brought a fair length of the heavy  steel cable back to Scampton with them, wrapped around the wing; the resultant drag from which combined with damaged rudders and her usual wiles, made C-Charlie very hard for Gibbo to fly. But as ever, he was nothing if not determined!

On 31st May, the awarding of the DFC to Tony and Rossy for their daring low level reconnaissance and successful subsequent attack on Aalborg, appeared in The London Gazette, but May turned to June with no let up in operations. The Dunkerque Evacuation was now under way, and 83 Squadron were using their low flying, hit and run skills against a seemingly never ending range of targets. There certainly wasn’t time to mark Tony’s 25th Birthday on the 4th properly, but two days later, the award of his DFC also appeared in the Service Aviation pages of the very popular Flight magazine, along with a brief, but not too specific, description of the Aalborg raid. On June 9th, Wing Commander Sissons arrived to take over from Leonard Snaith as the CO of 83 Squadron.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC's. Guy was on a week's leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC’s. Guy was on a week’s leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time (Image courtesy Judy Costa).

On 27th June, Gibson took part in a ploughing operation against the heavily defended Dornier Factory’s airfield at Wismar, on the Baltic coast of Germany. During the course of the raid, Gibson’s aircraft took a hell of a lot of Flak but he was delighted that his bombs appeared to have been placed on target, despite the Germans’ best efforts to spoil their aim. He managed to nurse Flak-Blasted C-Charlie home somehow. At debrief, there was a heated argument between the crews, Gibson’s included, as to exactly who it was that had started the only fire seen on Messrs. Dornier’s property! Meanwhile, Chiefy Langford’s crews found that Gibson’s aircraft was extremely badly damaged. It took them a full week to get it airworthy again. Deservedly, on 9th July, Flying Officer Guy Gibson and Flight Lieutenant Jamie Pitcairn-Hill were both awarded the DFC for their outstanding flying during several raids. Gibbo had finally been given his Aalborg. The debate as to who’d started that one fire at Dornier’s was finally settled on 27th July; when the squadron returned to Wismar and pretty much everybody started a fire there!

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC's. Guy was on a week's leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC’s. Guy was on a week’s leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time (Image courtesy Judy Costa).

Still no let up.

With the Battle of Britain raging over the Southern Counties, 83 Squadron played their part in the Battle of the Barges. The Germans were putting together a large invasion fleet in the French Channel Ports. The Barges were for ferrying the Wehrmacht’s forces over to England. Over Scampton’s dead bodies! Sadly, that is how it soon began to be played out.

There was one day in early August 1940 at Scampton, which the Luftwaffe would have been so proud of, if only it had been they who had done the damage. Talking amongst themselves that day, Tony, Guy, Rossy and some of the others were sitting on the grass outside of their accommodation block, laughing and joking, when Jack Kynoch came along to say goodbye. He and one other, Sgt Ollason; were being posted away to an OTU for a spell as Instructors. When Tony asked if he knew why, Kynoch told them all that the CO had said something about them having a rest. He said his cheery farewells and left. Tony, Gibson and Rossy all looked at each other. The one thing none of them had ever considered, was having a rest. It was something of a shock.

The three resumed their conversation, which had turned to the subject of different methods of attack. Rossy preferred high level attacks but Tony and Guy definitely preferred the low level ones, though Guy’s personal favourite was dive-bombing, even in the Hampden! Tony reckoned that if you kept low, stayed as far away from defended areas as much as possible (except over the target of course!) and remained alert, he couldn’t see any reason why you couldn’t survive a hundred sorties. Gibson agreed: He thought they could go on forever like that. After all, they had pretty much become specialists in precision low level flying now.  Then, rather abruptly, there came another, much bigger shock.

For reasons never determined, there came an almighty explosion, which interrupted Tony mid-sentence. The ground shook as 18 of Scampton’s stock of “Vegetables” blew up without warning in the station’s Bomb Dump. Among others, Gibson would describe it being the single biggest explosion he had ever heard; one which sent a pall of thick black smoke to a height of nearly 3,000 feet over the aerodrome. Perhaps it wasn’t just the aircrews who were getting over-tired and in need of a rest.

On 12th August, aircraft from both of Scampton’s squadrons made a very daring, low-level attack on the aqueduct and locks on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, at Munster. Rossy, second one into the attack, was shot out of the sky in a horrific fireball, his aircraft having taken the full force of a lethal direct hit. Rossy had followed Jamie Pitcairn-Hill, who’d led the attack and whose aircraft had certainly suffered a lot of damage. “Pit” managed to limp his Hampden home. Rossy’s friend and fellow Aussie, Mull; third into the attack, was shot down and captured. With his aircraft suffering catastrophic damage from the Flak and too low to bale out, Mull quickly ditched his bomb. He clawed his way up to just under 2,000 feet to let his Navigator and the Lower Rear Gunner bale out and then opted for a crash landing in a field. It took the Germans quite some time to free Mull and his Wireless Operator from the twisted remains of their Hampden. Fourth man in was Pilot Officer Matthews. He exited the Flak with one engine smashed.

The aqueduct was successfully breached by the last aircraft to attack, that of Flight Lieutenant Roderick “Babe” Learoyd of 49 squadron. Like the others, Learoyd was coming in very low, flying up the canal at a height of just 300 feet. But of course, with four having gone before him, the German gunners were fully prepared and waiting for Learoyd’s approach.

Even though he’d seen what happened to the four who’d attacked before him, Learoyd flew through the absolute firestorm of Flak and Cannon-fire that was put in his path, to drop his bomb right on the aqueduct. His aircraft was hit severely and his hydraulics were blown away, but his engines were still going strong and he was able to make a safe return to Scampton. Even then, he was forced to circle till daylight, as without their hydraulics, his undercarriage and flaps were not functional. When daylight came and he had used up most of his fuel, Learoyd managed to make a successful wheels up crash landing, which everyone walked away from. Learoyd was justly awarded the VC for his actions. His was Bomber Command’s first VC. Pit was awarded the DSO for his leadership. Mull got a Bar to his DFC.

Wing Commander Roderick "Babe" Learoyd VC.

Wing Commander Roderick “Babe” Learoyd VC (Photo: IWM CH13631 Crown Copyright expired).

In Germany, Learoyd’s bomb had destroyed half of one arch on the old stone aqueduct. It took the Germans ten full days to repair the span with a new concrete section, which given the considerable damage inflicted by Learoyd’s bomb, was pretty good going. Even so, the daring raid caused a significant delay in the movement of a large fleet of Rhine Barges that were being taken to France for use as troop transports. That raid, plus the effects of the other raids the RAF were making on his assembled Barges, caused Hitler to postpone his invasion plans till 21st September. Time was fast running out for the Germans’ Operation Seelowe.

However, the Munster aqueduct raid was very much different to their other, previous attacks inasmuch as the crews had been specifically training for their target. They even had a “special weapon” for the task. A converted Sea Mine with a drogue parachute and a delayed action fuze, it was called an “M-Bomb”. John Collier had greatly helped to plan the raid and it was Collier who led the diversionary attack on the locks. That raid was in essence, the RAF’s first properly planned precision raid of the war, trained for by crack aircrews who’d practised it first, using canals in Lincolnshire. In many ways, it was the forerunner of another raid that would make history later. A raid that would also see its initial planning involving Collier and the advanced planning being done jointly with, and the raid led by, another former 83 Squadron officer. But that was still another two years and nine months into the future.

83(F) Squadron?

Two weeks after Rossy had been killed, two members of 83 Squadron proved just how versatile the Hampden could be; if you were a good enough pilot! On the night of August 24th/25th, whilst returning from a Gardening trip over Lorient, Gibson spotted a lone Dornier 17 “stooging about” below him. He dived on it, raking it with the Hampden’s fixed forward-firing gun, in a Fighter-style attack, which was certainly not a role that the Hampden had ever been designed to fulfil! He was overjoyed to see his victim going down. When he landed back at Scampton, he very excitedly told Tony Bridgman and John Collier all about it.

Two nights later, Tony found himself in exactly the same favourable position and thought he’d give Gibbo’s newest trick a go. To his amazement, he found that it apparently did work like a charm, as he too, observed his “Kill” going down. Both men each claimed a Dornier 17 destroyed, but as neither crash could be verified, both were credited with a “probable”.

Last of the Old Guard.

Then came the night of August 30th when on his 35th Op, John “Joe” Collier’s Hampden suffered an overheating engine as they headed out to raid Magdeburg. With no option but to turn straight back to Scampton, Collier undershot the blacked out runway in making his emergency landing and crashed, with a full bomb load onboard. Mercifully, nobody was killed but, pulled unconscious from the wreckage by one of his  crew members, Collier did have severe concussion. He was posted away from 83 Squadron to recover and would be medically grounded for the next six months.

The strain of these constant operations was more than beginning to tell. The boys of 83 were beginning to look more like veterans of 63. Even an action-hungry pilot such as Gibson admitted to feeling “Jumpy”, but he wasn’t about to let his Flight Commander or his squadron down.

As things stood on 1st September; of the original officers of the pre-war 83 Squadron, only Tony Bridgman, Jamie Pitcairn-Hill and Guy Gibson were left and Tony had been Acting Squadron Leader since May, as the now absent Collier had also been. They all were over-tired, stressed and long overdue for relief, just as their comrades in the Fighter Squadrons were at that time.

Then, on 18th September, came another bitter blow. The lovable and fiercely brave Scotsman that was F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill; promoted into Collier’s position as the second Acting Squadron Leader, “bought it” over Le Havre. Hit by Flak, his Hampden crashed into the Seine Estuary. His body was recovered and interred at nearby Luc Sur Mer, where he remains to this day. Jamie’s death left Tony and Guy as the very last of “The Old Guard” at 83 Squadron.

The Hand of Fate.

Since the Germans began bombing London, at first due to a navigational error, but after an RAF reprisal on Berlin, by design; the German capital had been added to Bomber Command’s “to do” list. On the night of 23rd/24th September 1940, a force of over 200 RAF bombers was sent to raid Berlin. Eleven of those aircraft were the Hampdens of 83 Squadron, led by Tony Bridgman.

The weather wasn’t ideal, with cloud all the way to the target. To make matters worse, the Germans were successfully jamming their loop bearing indicators, so both the navigation and the bombing was being done by dead reckoning. Ultimately, very few of the bombs they dropped actually hit Berlin itself.

Tony was flying Hampden L4049, code letters OL-A that night. After dropping his bombs and turning for home, Tony found that one of his 500lb bombs had not left the aircraft as it should have done. It wasn’t a problem, it was more an annoyance. They’d gone all that way with luck and the weather against them, only to be bringing one back.

As they passed a little to the South-west of Bremen, more than halfway back to the German coast and on a direct route home, the German searchlights and Flak Gunners found them; with devastating effect. Within seconds of being illuminated in an intense white light, Tony’s Hampden was crippled. With one engine now on fire, his Wireless Operator; Sgt Gorwood DFM; sent a message that they were bailing out. That was quickly followed by another message saying they were trying to make it home. Then the German gunners scored another, fatal hit. OL-A was going down fast, and in flames. No more messages were sent.

Tony pressed the emergency signal to all crew stations, giving the order for everyone to jump. As the stricken Hampden plummeted earthward, Tony unplugged his radio lead, unfastened his straps, pushed the cockpit hood back and took to his parachute. As noted in part one, evacuating a Hampden in an emergency, wasn’t a prospect to be relished. This is graphically borne out by the fact that unknown to him at the time, Tony was the only one who’d made it out of that blazing aircraft alive.

The burning Hampden hit the ground in a field behind a barn near Bethen; a village in Niedersachsen, Lower Saxony; in Germany. Tony was coming down under his parachute fairly close to it.

Wreckage Pieces from Hampden. L4049

Wreckage Pieces from Hampden. L4049 (Photo Volker Urbansky, by kind permission).

The village teacher there was a Herr Niemeier, who kept a journal of local events of the Second World War. With regard to Tony’s Hampden crashing he noted the following:

“Evening sorties, wave after wave. It flashed and crashed, rumbled like a storm that passed over us. At about 2 clock in the morning, there crashed an Englishman, down in flames behind a barn. The pilot had been able to save himself by his parachute. Three others burned with the aircraft on the ground. The aircraft was a “Handley Page, Hampden” type.

The rescued pilot met with the hurrying villagers and at first the police missed him. The square was cordoned off. In the afternoon the charred corpse remains were placed in a coffin. The aircraft wreckage was towed. No one suspected that beneath the aircraft was still a 250kg bomb. In cleaning up the crash site it was discovered with horror. The next day it was taken by a task force (further into the same field) and was exploded. The crater after was 5-6m deep. It had a circumference of about 40 steps”. 

(Author’s note: Herr Niemeier’s journal entry was tidied up a little by me, but only where strictly necessary, as the direct translation from German rendered some of the phrasing a little confused).

There stood Tony, somewhat incongruously, with his parachute bundled in his arms, amid all the commotion he’d caused; till he was finally found and arrested by the local Police. They in turn handed him over to the military authorities to be taken away for interrogation.

POW card front

Tony’s POW Card (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

He was taken to the main interrogation centre at Oberursel; a holding centre where he was questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. A special note about his distinctive freckles was also recorded on his personal details. When asked during his interrogation, he’d politely and sarcastically given his Mother’s maiden name as “Goring”. The Germans evidently also had trouble with his middle name, which they recorded as “Oslands”. Both “facts” can be seen officially recorded on his POW Identity Card!

POW Card

Tony’s POW Card details (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

Back at Scampton, the rest of the pilots waited anxiously. In Enemy Coast Ahead, Guy Gibson recalls how they waited and waited till dawn broke, but their hopes faded as the light grew. “Still we waited……..but Oscar never came back”. Tony and his crew were posted as “Missing: Presumed Killed In Action”. Gibson was devastated by the loss. The next day, the reading of Tony’s Will took place in the mess. Gibson recalled being struck by the overwhelming realization that he was now the last one left, mournfully noting;“All my friends have gone”. Included in that statement of friends lost was Pilot Officer Francis “Watty” Watson DFC, his own Navigator/Bomb Aimer. Watson had flown some 20 ops with Gibbo, including the ones when they’d hit the balloon cable and when they’d shot down the Dornier. Through careful nurturing, Gibson had turned the man into a first class Navigator and Tony had “pinched him” a couple of sorties ago, after his own Navigator had been wounded. Much to Gibbo’s chagrin, Tony told Gibbo to take the squadron’s newbie in Watson’s place, so Watson was in Tony’s crew over Berlin. The Squadron would remain unaware of Tony’s survival till the Red Cross sent word that he was alive and well, and now a prisoner.

Meanwhile, the Germans were burying the remains of Tony’s crew. Watson, Gorwood and Blatch were buried in a local cemetery. After the war, their bodies would be moved to the Becklingen War Cemetery in Germany, where they remain to this day.

Sources and Acknowledgements (Part 2).

Frances Leach. (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
Enemy Coast Ahead. By Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
The Authorised Biography of Group Captain John “Joe” Collier. By Simon Gooch.
Herr Volker Urbansky. (For more detailed information about Tony’s crash, details of his crew’s interment and for Herr Niemeier’s journal entry).
https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/15714
http://www.bomberhistory.co.uk/canal_raids/muenster1940
National Archives; No. 83 Squadron, Operations Record Books, April to September 1940.
Flight Magazine, Service Aviation section, Page 514, June 6th 1940
The London Gazette, May and July 1940.
International Bomber Command Centre, Lincolnshire.
David Costa. (Husband of Judith, Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter).
Letters to Tony Bridgman from Dr G. Pearson.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 1)

This three part post has been researched and compiled by Mitch Peeke. It is a fascinating story of Sqn. Ldr. Anthony Bridgman DFC who, if fate had dealt a different hand, may well have been in Guy Gibson’s seat when 617 Sqn. attacked the ‘Great Dams’ of the Ruhr. Anthony Bridgman was also in Stalag Luft III at the time of the ‘Wooden Horse’ breakout. His story is incredible, and appears in whole, under Heroic Tales.

My thanks go to Mitch for his remarkable research of Anthony, and to the many people who have contributed to Anthony’s story.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part One).

By Mitch Peeke.

Squadron Leader Anthony Bridgman DFC, is a name that could have been; and perhaps should have become; a household name from the dark days of World War 2. If you know where to look, you will find him frequently mentioned in the books that were written by his RAF contemporaries. You will find that he is mentioned with affection and with very high regard too, for to them; Bridgman was practically a legend.  But on the night of 23/24th September 1940, whilst returning from a raid on Berlin, the fickle hand of fate intervened and decreed that Anthony Bridgman would not fulfil what was perhaps his destiny: Another man would. That other man was somebody Bridgman knew well, a friend of his in fact;  who would ultimately, daringly and famously, make Anthony Bridgman’s destiny his own. He would do it flying a Lancaster bomber over the Ruhr one moonlit night in May 1943; whilst Anthony Bridgman was a POW, “helping out” as he once succinctly put it, with the preparations for what would soon become known as The Wooden Horse Escape.

Anthony O. Bridgman was born on 4th June 1915 in North Stoke, in the parish of Keynsham,  Somerset; which in turn lies on the River Avon, about four and a half miles North-west of Bath. The only reason he was born there was that he, perhaps inconsiderately, decided to enter the world whilst his parents were paying a rare visit to England. Anthony was born into a family where he would have five siblings and rather distant parents. His Father managed a Tea plantation in Munar, Southern India and as soon as it was possible, baby Anthony was taken there, where he would spend the first five years of his life. As soon as he was able to go, his parents packed him and his brother, Kit; off to Boarding School; Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”) College School, Oxford to be exact. Even during the school holidays, he was often “farmed out” to the locals on behalf of his parents. He was destined never to return to India, even after he finished Magdalen, at the age of eighteen.

By the time he was in the Lower 4th  year, he would have been encouraged to take part in the activities of school’s Officer Cadet Unit, (OCU) before joining it became compulsory in the Lower 5th. The school’s cadet unit was at that time divided into Army, Navy and Signals, and Air Force sections. (Today, it is known as the Combined Cadet Force, or CCF. The Navy and Signals section closed comparatively recently, leaving today’s student with just the Army or Air Force sections to choose from). Tony, as he preferred to be called, had become attracted to the idea of flying and it was a dream he would pursue with vigour as an officer cadet right through to his Upper 6th.

Magdalen College School was established in 1480 as part of Oxford University’s Magdalen College. This meant that Tony, as one of the school’s Air Force Officer Cadets, had full access to the Oxford University Air Squadron. In 1933, now aged eighteen, he was to be found actively undergoing flying training, at nearby RAF Abingdon, where Oxford UAS was based.

Learning to fly 1933

Learning to fly 1933 (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

The following year, he moved on from Oxford UAS, to N0. 3 Flying Training School at RAF Grantham, for advanced flying training. If there was one thing that the now nineteen year old Tony Bridgman knew for certain, it was that Tea-growing was most definitely not in his blood! He was joining the exclusive ranks of “The Best Flying Club in the World”, as the inter-war RAF was known, and if the truth be known, he was rather enjoying it! In the photo of him taken at RAF Thornaby, he is standing beside a Hawker Hart T, having completed a cross-country exercise as part of his advanced training.

RAF Thornaby in 1934.

RAF Thornaby in 1934. (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On 29th February 1936 (obviously a Leap Year!) Tony, who was already a qualified service pilot of course, gained his Private Pilot’s Licence, No. 9160, after passing the necessary ground exam and a short flying assessment at Brough in East Yorkshire. This is borne out by the address given on his licence; “c/o North Sea Aerial and General Transport Ltd. Brough, East Yorkshire”. North Sea Aerial and General was in fact wholly owned by Blackburn Aircraft Ltd, who had a factory and airfield at Brough. They provided flying training there for RAF and RAFVR pilots, under contract to the Air Ministry. Tony probably had their address put on his new licence as he was about to be given his first posting. There would have been no point in using the address of whichever RAF Station he was posted to, as that could change frequently. Given that the RAF was Tony’s home, it would have made sense to have any correspondence relating to this “pleasure flying only” licence, (renewals etc) sent to the address of the training establishment, which was of course a fixed address. Tony could easily contact them if he needed to. He probably felt that having such a licence might well come in handy, especially later, when he left the Air Force. It was and in fact still is, something service pilots often do.

Private Pilots Licence

Private Pilots Licence (Image courtesy Judith Costa, via Mitch Peeke)

On 23rd March 1936, he was granted a short service commission as an Acting Pilot Officer On Probation in the RAF. On 27th January 1937, 37667 Bridgman, Anthony O; was commissioned as a fully fledged Pilot Officer and posted to 2 Group, Bomber Command. He was sent to 83 Squadron, a day bomber unit then equipped with Hawker Hinds, that was still in the process of being re-formed in their native Scotland; at Turnhouse, near Edinburgh.

83 Squadron was originally formed at Montrose on 7th January, 1917. They were formed as a night bomber unit in the Royal Flying Corps and equipped with the Royal Aircraft Factory’s FE2b and FE2d. After training, the squadron moved to France in March of 1918 and quickly specialised in attacking railway targets, as well as performing vital reconnaissance duties. On April 1st 1918, the RFC was merged with the RNAS to form the Royal Air Force. The motto of what was now 83 Squadron RAF, was “Strike to Defend” and the squadron crest features the Red Deer’s antler, due to the squadron’s connection with Scotland. The antler emblem has six points, which commemorates one outstanding occasion during WW1, when six DFC’s were awarded for one extremely crucial reconnaissance operation.  It was an operation that was successfully completed by six individuals in three aircraft on 14/15th June 1918. Those three aircraft from 83 Squadron were the only Allied aircraft flying; the weather having grounded all others. The antler is outlined in black, which refers to their night flying role.  After WW1, 83 Squadron was disbanded; on the last day of 1919. Now, in 1937, it was being re-formed; due to the RAF’s expansion programme.

83 Squadron Crest.

83 Squadron Crest. (Photo IBCC digital archive, by kind permission).

Upon arrival at Turnhouse, Tony met a group of fellow officers who, over the next four years, were to become more than just squadron mates or friends. Outside of his siblings, the RAF was probably the nearest thing to a family that he now had. Among those he struck up a close friendship with at Turnhouse was Jamie Pitcairn-Hill. Upon introduction, it was a popular RAF practice to be given a nickname, usually based on one’s real name. Jamie’s nickname was “Pit”.

F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill.

F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill (Photo: Patrick Otter by kind permission).

 

A regular officer, graduate of Halton and then Cranwell and above all, a true Scot; Jamie had played Rugby for the RAF. Asked what the “O” in Anthony O. Bridgman stood for, Tony smiled and said; “Oscar”. But Tony had simply used the code word for the letter O in the phonetic alphabet and for one very simple reason: In reality, the “O” was for “Orlando”; after Sir Orlando Bridgeman. It seems to have been a popular choice for the middle name of boys whose last name was Bridgman/Bridgeman in those days. Either way, it was a name that Tony had disliked intensely from day one. Nobody in the mess questioned his phonetically coded statement and thereafter, Tony was always referred to as “Oscar” Bridgman. Many believed that it really was his middle name.

In April of 1937, another junior officer arrived to join the mess at Turnhouse. Acting Pilot Officer John Collier. Tony, Jamie and John quickly formed a close friendship. John’s nickname had come with him, it was “Joe”.

Flight Lieutenant John Joe Collier.

Flight Lieutenant John Joe Collier (Photo Ringwood and Verwood Rround Table via Mitch Peeke)

With flying their two-seater Hawker Hind biplanes on cross-country flights, formation practice or else dive-bombing practice in the Firth of Forth; then re-living the day’s events in the convivial atmosphere of the mess after dinner, squadron life was pretty easy-going in those days. John Collier later recalled in his memoirs that if you were selected to perform the ground based task of Range Officer during bombing practice, it was pretty much a sunny day by the sea, (albeit with a pair of binoculars, a pen and a score sheet), that you were in for. A hardship indeed!

The Pilots not only formed great bonds with each other, but also with their ground crews and Air Gunners, too; all of whom they relied upon. Pilots often took members of their ground crew up on pleasure flights around the immediate locale and this greatly helped to engender a deep pride in “their aircraft” and “their man” in the ground crews.

On 12th May 1937, not long after John Collier had arrived, the coronation of King George VI was taking place in London. Tony and John somehow managed to wangle last-minute permission (and a three-day pass!) from their C.O, to attend. Dashing off to London, they took in a bit of a detour to RAF Upper Heyford, there to collect one of John’s friends; the dashingly Bohemian, half English/half German Count Manfred Beckett Czernin. (Manfred would later distinguish himself as an RAF Fighter Pilot, particularly during the Battle of Britain).

The three arrived in London in time to be too late for the main event, probably due to their detour, and realized to their horror that in their haste to leave, nobody had thought to bring much in the way of cash! Undeterred, the three officers duly called on Count Czernin’s Mother, obtained the necessary funds and then went out to find a suitable party to invite themselves to! It didn’t take them long to find one and a thoroughly decent time was had by all! Oh, and the new King was crowned as well, apparently!

The start of Tony and Guy.

Guy Gibson VC as Wing Commander 1944. The photo was taken shortly before his death.

Guy Gibson VC as Wing Commander 1944. The photo was taken shortly before his death (Photo: IWM CH13618 Crown Copyright expired).

In September of 1937, yet another junior officer arrived at Turnhouse to join their ranks. Acting Pilot Officer Guy Gibson. He was assigned to the care and tutelage of Pilot Officer Tony Bridgman, in A Flight, but when Gibson arrived, he already had something of a blot on his copybook: A for Attitude.

The young Guy Gibson has been described as being something of “an acquired taste”. Gibson came from a remarkably similar family background as Tony had, but where Tony’s parents had been distinctly distant, Gibson’s parents had added a further dimension to distant parenting. Like Tony, Gibson was born to Colonial parents in India, but his Mother and Father separated when he was just six. His Mother took the children and returned to England, but sadly she also took to drinking and became increasingly abusive and bullying toward her children. As she descended into alcoholism, her treatment of her children worsened and Guy was more or less taken into care via his school. It may have been this factor that had led the young Gibson to adopt a very condescending attitude toward his ground crews.

In the Officer’s Mess, he was called “Gibbo” and despite his perhaps being an acquired taste, Tony, Jamie and John happily accepted Guy into their circle of friendship. It would fall principally to Tony, as Gibson’s supervising officer, to smooth off the rather immature Gibson’s rough edges.

At the end of June 1937, John Collier was promoted to Full Pilot Officer and 83 Squadron got a new CO. Squadron Leader Leonard Snaith, a former member of the victorious 1931 Schneider Trophy Team, had arrived to take up command. The pilots of 83 Squadron felt justly proud of their new CO.

On 16th November 1937, Guy Gibson was also promoted to the rank of Full Pilot Officer. This elevation in status and responsibility though, did little to curb his attitude toward the lower ranks. He could still be pretty obnoxious, to his ground crews in particular, and there was still little sign that his attitude toward them was changing. Though known as “Gibbo” to his fellow officers, Gibson was now known to his ground crews as “the Bumptious Bastard”. This was something that could not be allowed to continue and changes were coming.

Nothing much changed immediately, though. During the Winter of 1937/38, the squadron practised attacking such vitally important targets as Tilbury Docks and Worthy Down. A “bracing” practice to say the least, dressed up as they were, very much like their RFC predecessors and flying an equally antiquated, open cockpit biplane. As the Spring of 1938 came, so too did a slow-growing tension with Hitler’s New Germany.

Changes.

Hawker Hinds of 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton, 1938.

Hawker Hinds of 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton, 1938 (Photo: http://www.raf-in-combat.By kind permission).

On 14th March, 1938, the first big change came. The squadron “upped sticks” from 2 Group and Turnhouse and moved South, to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. They were now part of 5 Group, Bomber Command and were sharing Scampton with 49 Squadron. Soon, they would also be saying goodbye to their Hawker Hinds as 83 Squadron, like their comrades of 49 Squadron, were about to be modernised. Between March and May of 1938, Pilots, Air Gunners and ground crews were all sent off in batches to different stations for armaments, technical, gunnery and other courses. All books, cramming for exams and no flying!

On 20th May 1938, Tony was made Acting Flying Officer and on 27th August that same year, having proved his worth, he was duly promoted to the rank of Flying Officer. He was also now the Acting Flight Commander of A Flight. His friend John Collier was made Acting Flight Commander of B Flight. 83 Squadron were gearing up for war.

However, the tensions with Hitler were seemingly resolved that September by the Munich Agreement. “Peace for our time” declared a jubilant Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, as he stepped off the Imperial Airways airliner at London’s Croydon Airport. But it was an uneasy peace, obtained at the betrayal of Czechoslovakia, that Chamberlain had in fact won.

With the political tensions eased, at least for now, the Pilots started their aircraft conversion courses. They converted onto the Bristol Blenheim to start with, as 83 Squadron were going to be re-equipped with the new Handley-Page Hampden; a (fairly) fast, twin engined, monoplane medium bomber carrying a crew of four, soon to be dubbed “The Flying Suitcase” by its crews.

The Flying Suitcase

The Hampden was a rather peculiar aircraft. It was designed by a German, Gustav Lachmann. It was very long and slim, much like the German Dornier 17, in the crew section particularly. The Hampden had a maximum speed of 260mph, a theoretical maximum bomb load of 4,000lbs and carried a crew of four.

Internally, the aircraft was rather cramped, being only about three feet wide. Up front, on the lower part of the stepped deck, with his own personal entrance/exit, was the Navigator/Bomb Aimer.  Aft on the lower section, also with his own personal entrance/exit, was the aft-facing Ventral gunner. Between these two crew positions, was the aircraft’s Bomb bay.

On the upper stepped level of the deck sat the Pilot, with the aft-facing Wireless Operator/Dorsal gunner some ten feet or so behind him.  Boarding the aircraft, the Wireless Operator/Dorsal gunner had to climb in first, much in the manner of a Fighter Pilot; up onto the wing (via a ground crew ladder) then climb in through the pilot’s sliding canopy to clamber through to his position. Once inside, it was his job to fold the back of the pilot’s seat up, so that the pilot could then clamber aboard in the same fashion to take his seat in the cockpit.

Pilot's cockpit of the Handley Page Hampden.

Pilot’s cockpit of the Handley Page Hampden (Photo: IWM CH1207. Crown copyright expired).

The pilot’s cockpit (or “Office” as it was usually called) was a very busy place. He had literally every control for the aircraft in front of and around him. There was also a fixed, forward firing gun which, (if he had any spare time!) the pilot could use. Moving about inside the cramped interior of a Hampden with a parachute strapped on, was practically impossible. Trying to get out of a Hampden in an emergency, frankly; didn’t bear thinking about too much.

In October, once conversion training was completed, the new aircraft had to be collected from the factory by their crews and flown back to Scampton. Thereafter, a friendly rivalry began to develop, not only between 49 Squadron and 83 Squadron, but also between  A Flight and B Flight of 83 Squadron; in everything from flying prowess to drunken partying!

As Gibson later recalled in Enemy Coast Ahead, they were “forever putting it across B Flight.” Hi-Jinks in the Mess, pranks, drinking games, but above all; flying. With John Collier in B Flight, and Tony Bridgman, Jamie Pitcairn-Hill and Guy Gibson in A Flight, Tony began surreptitiously using this inter-Flight rivalry to smooth out some of Gibson’s less admirable traits. Gibson was competitive to say the least and it was this trait that Tony tapped into. In flying, Tony first began nurturing Gibson’s considerable piloting skills, by supplementing them with his own. He was sharpening and focusing Gibson’s daring side, yet carefully imbuing in his protogee a sense of respect for his crews, both Air and Ground. Having achieved that aim, he started pushing Gibson little by little as a pilot, by making Gibson compete with him, in a “anything you can do, I can do better”, style.

The Hampden, never the most beautiful of aeroplanes, was still something quite new, revolutionary almost, for pilots who were used to biplanes. For a twin-engined bomber type, the Hampden could almost be flown like a fighter, if you were a good enough pilot; which Tony knew of course, was something that Gibson was just so itching to prove that he was. Flying the Hampden in such a manner was something that both of them would later prove was quite possible.

Tony often said that he’d always felt Gibson wanted to be famous for something and Gibson himself made no secret of the fact that he wanted to win a VC, somehow. The friendly rivalry between A Flight and B Flight not only greatly strengthened the camaraderie of each Flight and the bond between the four friends at the head of it, but also helped to firmly bolster the brotherhood of the squadron’s officers. Flying hard together, training hard together and partying hard together, theirs was a fraternity that each would come to rely on over the coming two years, as the clouds of war were ominously forming for all to see. On August 31st 1939, telegrams were sent out to all officers on leave: “Return to unit immediately”.

War!

The balloon finally went up on Sunday 3rd September 1939; as with a heavy, leaden tone, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to the nation over the wireless, that Britain was once more at war with Germany. The “World’s Best Flying Club” was suddenly forced to closed its peacetime doors and that hitherto carefree life now came to an abrupt end. Flying Officer Tony Bridgman and 83 Squadron would be in action from day one of the conflict.

That Sunday morning of 3rd September 1939, saw the boys of A Flight gathered in their Flight Commander’s office. Guy Gibson gave a wonderful description of that momentous morning, not only of the setting but also of his Flight Commander; Tony Bridgman, in Enemy Coast Ahead.  They had just finished their morning Tea, which had been brought to them by a girl from the NAAFI, and the room was full of palpable tension and cigarette smoke.

“There Oscar Bridgman, the Flight Commander, sat with his hat to the back of his head, his feet up on the table and his chair looking liable to fall over backwards at any minute. He was a tremendous character was Oscar. He had a quick temper, but could fly as well as any man. I could never wish for a better Flight Commander and we were all right behind him”. In reading those and his next few sentences, one is acutely struck by the maturity of his attitude and the reverence with which he described not only Tony. There were others present that Gibson noted: “…Mulligan and Ross (we used to call them Mull and Rossy), two Australian boys who joined us back in 1937. They did practically everything together. Sometimes they would have long heated arguments which were the amusement of the whole Flight.”

However, it is his next paragraph that is perhaps the most telling. Gibson recalled that the Flight Sergeant in charge of maintenance (known to one and all as “Chiefy”) came in to report that all aircraft were ready for flight testing. Gibson continues: “Great fellow was F/Sgt Langford…I could write a lot about the ground crews. They are wonderful men and do a really hard job of work for very little pay; only their pride in their squadrons keeping them going.” So wrote Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the Winter of 1943/44. The “Bumptious Bastard” was by then no more; and that was very largely due to Tony Bridgman’s influence and leadership. In fact, it would not be long at all before Gibson would be taking care to nurture his own crews, just as Tony had shown him, by example.

With Chamberlain’s announcement over, Tony inhaled his cigarette deeply, then blew the smoke out through his nose. Turning to his assembled Flight, he said: “Well, boys, this is it. You’d better all pop out and test your aeroplanes. Be back in half an hour’s time. There will probably be a job for you to do.” As it turned out, there wasn’t. After flight testing, the crews all had lunch. They were all called to the lecture hall over the Tannoy, but it was for a brief talk from the Station Commander about the situation. It was the next day that the squadron was called to action.

Tony with P/O Powell. Taken at Scampton in 1939

Tony with P/O Powell. Taken at Scampton in 1939 (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On that first day proper of the war, confusion was rife. People were seeing enemy aircraft where there were none and the same went for enemy warships. 83 squadron were required to provide six aircraft; three from A Flight and three from B Flight. As Squadron Leader Snaith was going to lead the raid himself, his Senior Flight Commander; Tony Bridgman,  would be remaining on the ground. His job would be holding the Fort or leading if another operation was required whilst Snaith and Co were out on this one.

Snaith chalked up the two other crews from A Flight as being those of Rossy and Gibbo. Joe Collier would lead the three from B Flight. Each aircraft was armed with four 500lb bombs with the fuzes set at eleven and a half seconds delay. “So we can come in pretty low”, Snaith told them. The targets were possible German Battleships anchored in Schillig Roads at the entrance to the Kiel Canal. Snaith continued: “If by chance there are no Battleships there, you may bomb the ammunition depot at Marienhof, but under NO circumstances are you to bomb civilian areas or houses”. Initially, this was to be a gentlemanly war, it seemed. Take off was at 15:30, the weather was expected to be bad with low cloud and they were told to watch out for balloon cables. The balloons themselves would be hidden in the clouds. Prime target was the Battleship Admiral Scheer. If she was there.

In the event, the sortie was a washout. All they found was a lot of very low cloud, a choppy and murky-looking sea and fast fading light. No Admiral Scheer, in fact no warships of any kind. Disappointed yet possibly slightly relieved, they brought their bombs back to Scampton.

What followed now was a long period of ennui. The Autumn weather soon arrived and militarily, nothing much was happening. The period known as “The Phoney War” to the British and “Sitzkrieg” to the Germans, had set in. 83 Squadron contented themselves with further training, including night flying. They may not necessarily have welcomed it, but in truth, they needed it.

On 3rd December 1939, three months exactly since the outbreak of war, Tony was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was now the actual senior Flight Commander, not the acting one. There was excitement later that month when someone had evidently started seeing German warships again. This time it was the Lutzow they were sent forth to hunt. Taking off at short notice, the squadron raced out to sea; North-east, toward the Norwegian coast. Nearly eight hours later, they returned having yet again seen nothing but a great expanse of grey sea, grey cloud and their own breath condensing inside their frigid aircraft. Handley-Page it seemed, had not deemed an internal heating system to be necessary for the Hampden’s crew compartments. Either that or they’d simply left themselves with no room to install it!

The only other bit of excitement for the squadron was when John “Joe” Collier got married on 30th December, to his fiancée of two months; Miss Elizabeth Julia Bishop. Collier’s best man was Jamie Pitcairn-Hill. It was perhaps somewhere around this time that Tony had started seeing Elizabeth’s sister; Virginia.

The Winter of 1939/40 was a harsh one with heavy snowfalls. Not much good for flying. In the meantime, improvements such as armour plating and self-sealing fuel tanks were being fitted to the Hampdens. Still no crew heating though!

With so much in the way of bad weather keeping both of Scampton’s squadrons grounded, the older officers on the base, some of whom had seen action in WW1, did what they used to do back then: Gather round the piano and sing songs. There were the old favourites such as The Bold Aviator, I don’t want to join the Air Force and of course newer songs like He had to go and Prang her in the Hangar and The Flamin’ Firth o’ Flamin’ Forth. With 83 and 49 Squadrons both having their roots in the RFC, each had their own “War Cry”, too. With battle lines drawn from each end of the Mess, and trying to outdo each other for sheer volume: “Up the Forty-Ninth!” and “It’s not Eigh-ty-one, it’s not Eigh-ty-two; It’s EIGHT-TEE THREEE!” was loudly chanted by each beer-fuelled squadron’s officers, before they all “sallied forth” into the fray, hell-bent on the “de-bagging” of their respective opponents!

In his book, Guy Gibson recalls one, though somewhat less livelier, evening in the middle of January. “One night Oscar Bridgman came howling with laughter into the Mess. It was unlike Oscar to howl with laughter, so we asked him what was wrong. He could hardly speak. ‘Go into the Billiard-Room’ he said, ‘and see what I have seen’. Quickly we went along, and there a sight met our eyes that made us almost collapse. Three Padres were sitting solemnly around a piano, each with a glass of beer in his hand, each one looking very serious. They were singing ‘Here’s to the next one to die’ !”

With the weather abating, training resumed in February. Blind flying using radio beams was included. This was not exactly “new” as the system was the commercial pre-war German Lorenz System for blind approach and landing, but it was useful.

Spot of Gardening, anyone?!

As the Spring came, both 49 and 83 Squadrons turned to Gardening when the weather permitted. No, they hadn’t all developed green fingers with the Phoney War’s boredom. “Gardening” was the code name for a fairly dangerous pastime; one which both squadrons would become specialists in.

The “Back Room Boys” or “Boffins” as they were usually known, had been very busy refining the design of a new German, Air-dropped Magnetic Mine. One had kindly made itself available by obligingly washing up on a beach and after some brave soul had successfully managed to defuse the Hadean device, it was taken away to be thoroughly investigated. Not only did the Scientists quickly come up with a counter measure, they greatly refined the mine itself and the RAF now took on the job of returning the favour to the Germans.

The refined British version weighed in at 1,700lbs; just under half of the Hampden’s absolute maximum load, but the mines were physically rather large so each aircraft could only carry one of them.  The mine had to be planted accurately and its position marked on a chart. It also had to be dropped from very low altitude on a parachute, to ensure the accuracy of its placement, in areas known to be shipping lanes in and out of enemy harbours. Each mine was referred to as a “Vegetable” and each area was called a “Garden”. In turn, each Garden had its own code name, such as “Carrot” or “Cabbage”. Even flower names were used, such as “Daffodil” or “Hollyhock”.

With the sudden German invasion of Denmark and Norway, 83 Squadron started “Planting” their vegetables in gardens such as the Baltic approaches to Kiel or Harbour entrances on the Danish Coast. Anything to disrupt enemy shipping, Naval or Merchant. At that time, there really wasn’t any kind of overall bombing strategy in place. The type of operations were decided at Group level but the details of who, when and where, were decided at Squadron level. On Chamberlain’s order, non-military targets were strictly off limits. The phrase “There must be no danger of hitting Private Property” became an RAF euphemism for “not killing civilians”.

So, with nothing much in the way of detailed operational orders coming down from “on high”, it was quite common for Pilots to “go off and do a spot of gardening”. Pilots planned their own routes, take off times, etc. They filed their flight plans and if there were no objections, off they went. 83 Squadron’s monthly Operations Record Books start to feature such operations from around the last days of March 1940. Comments such as “Four aircraft detailed for Gardening operations. Carrot successfully planted. All aircraft returned safely” almost begin to appear routinely thereafter.

Tony's escape map

Section of one of Tony’s RAF escape maps. Designed to be sewn into the lining of aircrew Flying Jackets, these maps were printed on incredibly thin, silk-reinforced paper. They were issued to aircrew operating over enemy territory in case they were shot down (Courtesy Judy Costa).

With Sweden being neutral, a lot of pilots on gardening trips would cross the North Sea and turn onto the heading for their dropping run, by finding a suitable Swedish landmark to go from. The Swedish coast was lit up like a Christmas Tree, which made their job a lot easier. Initially, the Germans didn’t seem to realize exactly what these nocturnal low-flying singleton aircraft were up to either, presumably because they seemed to be coming from neutral Sweden. It wasn’t till later, as France was falling, that the Germans; rather un-sportingly it was felt, deployed Flak ships out in the Roads.

Occasionally though, the weather over the garden prevented planting. In which case, the pilots were under strict instructions to bring their vegetable back or to dump it well out into deep water. Under NO circumstances was one of those mines to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. As far as was known, the Germans hadn’t realized that the British knew about their new magnetic mine, let alone that they had devised a counter measure to it and refined the design. Any successes the British sown mines were known to have had were never made public either, for the same reasons.

In between sorties, squadron life now tended to consist of horseplay, drinking and high jinks. Guy Gibson’s book is laced with rich stories of such capers, which usually occurred as a result of Tony Bridgman “taking over” a pub and getting Gibson to drive them all there, with far too many people crammed into his car!

Gardening however, was not the only type of operation that 83 Squadron undertook. “Ploughing” was another. This was a low-level, hit-and-run strike. A sneak attack, where the objective was to “Plough the field, then scatter”! It was one such raid that would win Tony Bridgman his DFC.

Sources and Acknowledgements (Part 1):
Frances Leach (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
www.rafcommands.com/archive
Howard Eastcott, for locating Frances Leach and for some background information on Tony.
http://www.mcsoxford.org/history Modern website of Tony’s old school.
The Authorised Biography of Group Captain John “Joe” Collier. By Simon Gooch.
Enemy Coast Ahead. By Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
National Archives; No 83 Squadron, Operations Record Books, February, March and April 1940.
www.warfactory.com  Specs for the Handley-Page HP52 Hampden Mk 1.
The Airman’s Song Book by C. H. Ward-Jackson. Published 1945.
Most Secret War by Professor R V Jones.
David Costa. (Husband of Judith, Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter).
Letters to Tony Bridgman from Dr G. Pearson.

Rear Gunner Flight Sergeant Nicholas S. Alkemade, 115 Squadron RAF

There have been many stories about bravery and acts of courage in all the Armed Forces involved in war. Jumping out of a burning aircraft at 18,000 ft without a parachute must come as one of those that will live on in history.

There have been a number of recorded incidents where this has occurred, and the crew member involved has lived to tell the tale. On the night of March 23rd/24th 1944, such a thing happened, and to the astonishment of both the Germans and the crew member, who survived to tell the tale.

Flt. Sgt. Nicholas  Stephen (Nico Stephan) Alkemade was born the 10th December 1922 (believed to be North Walsham, Norfolk, England), and was just twenty-one years old on that eventful night. He was stationed at RAF Witchford in Cambridgeshire, England and operated as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber.

On the night of the 23rd March 1944, the squadron was called to report to briefing to find that their mission for that night would be Berlin, the heart of Germany. They would form part of an 811 strong force made up of Lancasters, Halifaxes and Mosquitoes. This was to be the final run over Berlin.

Later that night, Alkemade climbed into the rear turret of his 115 Squadron, Lancaster ‘DS664’ named ‘Werewolf‘ and prepared himself for the coming raid which was to be his 13th mission.

Once over Oberkochen, nr, Frankfurt, Germany, the aircraft was attacked by Luftwaffe Ju 88 night-fighters, it caught fire and began to spiral out of control.

Now fearing for his life, the aircraft burning furiously, he looked round for his parachute. Turrets being notoriously small, he was not wearing it and would have to find it from inside the fuselage and put it on before exiting the aircraft.

He found himself surrounded by fire, the heat melting his mask and his skin burning. The fuselage was by now a massive fire. It was at this point, that he noticed his parachute no longer on the rack but burning on the floor of the aircraft. In his recount later in life, he describes how he felt:

“For a brief moment I stared while it dissolved before my eyes. It was not so much a feeling of fear, or dismay, or horror, as a sensation, a sort of twisting in the stomach”.

The fire reached his turret, his clothes scorched, now began to burn. With two options, die in an inferno or jump, he rotated the turret, elbowed open the hatch and fell back, he was 18,000 feet (5,500 m) up. As he fell, he could see the stricken Lancaster explode, then the stars beneath his feet. As he gained momentum, breathing became difficult, again his account reads:

‘Funny, I thought, but if this is dying, it’s not so bad . Then the rushing air, the stars, the ground, the sky, all merged and were forgotten as unconsciousness crept over me…’

Three hours later, Alkemade opened his eyes and looked at his watch, it read 3:25. He had jumped just after midnight. cautiously, he moved each part of his body to find everything was alright, if not a little  stiff.

It was at this moment he realised what he had done and that he was lying beneath pine tress in snow. It was these trees and snow that had saved his life. Cold and unable to move, he needed help.  Taking out his whistle, he blew hard, and continued with alternate blows and smokes of his remaining cigarettes, until found, unfortunately for him, by a German patrol.

The Gestapo interrogated Alkemade, at first in disbelief of his story, but after examining the wreckage of his aircraft, they found the remains of his parachute and were so amazed by his escape, they (reputedly) gave him a certificate in acknowledgement of his testimony.

He was taken to Stalag Luft 3, North Compound, in Poland, and was given Prisoner number: 4175. On the night he jumped, 76 men escaped from the very same prison, an event that became known as ‘The Great Escape’.

Alkemade’s stay was initially very unpleasant, spending days in solitary confinement for being a spy. He was eventually billeted amongst other airmen in the very same hut that one of the tunnels was dug from. He, like other prisoners, was given a diary which was his only and most prized possession. In it he wrote about the boredom and monotony of prison life. He became friends with the artist Ley Kenyon, who added illustrations to his diary.

Sporadic letters from home kept his spirits up, and eventually the Allies reached the camp and he was set free.

Alkemade found out later that the Lancaster had crashed, killing the pilot Jack Newman and three other members of the crew. Both the wireless operator and Navigator survived being thrown clear on impact. The deceased are all believed to be buried in the CWGC’s Hanover War Cemetery. Alkemade was repatriated in May 1945. Post war he returned to Leicestershire, where he married Pearl with whom he had been sending letters and was employed initially in a chemical works (where he survived 3 chemical accidents) and then as a furniture salesman until his death on June 29th 1987, in Cornwall.

Nicholas Alkemade’s story, along with his whistle, is recorded in the RAF Witchford display along with artefacts and other personal memorabilia from the crews and staff of the airfield. His diary and letters remain with his son in their Leicestershire home. Pictures from his diary were published in the ‘Leicester Mercury’ Newspaper, November 2013.

For more information about RAF Witchford see Trial 11.

alkemade

Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade

RAF Leeming Part 2 – The Canadians arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Lancaster C-GVRA

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

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

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

1.10.42.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for Lana Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It goes onto say:

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

it ends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Leeming.

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

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

RAF Leeming

One of Leeming’s Hangars today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staton's Whitley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Flt. Sgt. Rawdon H. Middleton VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF

100641

Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton (RAAF)*1

Middleton (s/n: 402745) was born on 22nd July 1916 in Waverley, New South Wales, Australia. Son of Francis and Faith Middleton, he was educated at Dubbo Hugh School. Nicknamed ‘Ron’ by his friends, he was a keen sportsman excelling at many sports particularly cricket and football. After leaving school, he worked as a ‘Jackaroo’ (cattle handler) until joining the Royal Australian Air Force on the 14th October 1940 under the Empire Air Training Scheme. He learnt to fly at Narromine, New South Wales and then was sent to Canada for further training in preparation for his posting to the UK. He finally arrived in Britain in September 1941, as a second pilot, and his first operational squadron was No. 149 Squadron RAF, who were flying Short Stirling bombers out of both Lakenheath and nearby Mildenhall in Suffolk.

P01019.003

Five student pilots from No. 7 Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) course at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School (5 EFTS) Narromine. They are left to right: Aircraftman (AC) Gordon Orchard; AC Douglas Scott; Leonard Reid; Pilot Officer (PO) Douglas Wilberforce Spooner (DFM); PO Rawdon Hume Middleton*2

Middleton’s first experience of operations, was in a Short Stirling over the Rhur, the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. After spending a short time with 149 squadron he moved temporarily to No. 7 Squadron (RAF).

In July 1942, as first pilot, he was given his own aircraft and crew, it was also around this time that he returned to 149 squadron.

Their first mission together would be on July 31st, to bomb the strategic and heavily defended target, Düsseldorf. Middleton and his crew would continue to fly together and took part in other prestigious missions; namely Genoa on the 7th of November and his 28th mission, Turin on the 20th November. His 29th and final mission, would take place on the night of 28/29th November 1942.

In the early evening of the 28th he took off in Stirling BF372 coded ‘OJ-H’ as part of the raid on the Fiat works in Torino, Italy, along with 227 other aircraft which included – 117 Avro Lancasters, 46 Short Stirlings, 45 Handley Page Halifaxes, and 19 Vickers Wellingtons.

Middleton’s crew consisted of: Ft.Sgt. Leslie Anderson Hyder, Ft. Eng: Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey, Bomb Aimer F.O. G. R. Royde, Wireless Operator: Sgt. John William Mackie; Gunners: P.O. N. E. Skinner, Sgt. D. Cameron and Sgt. H. W. Gough. Three of these had already completed their tour of 30 operations and could have left. However, their dedication to Middleton kept them together.

The mission would take the aircraft over the Alps and the Stirling, laden with bombs and fuel combined with having a notoriously poor ceiling, had to negotiate through the mountains rather than fly over them. A factor that often resulted in a high number of casualties.

Once over the target area, OJ-H was subjected to an extreme flak barrage. With poor visibility, Middleton had to make three passes over the target area to enable his crew to positively identify it. It was on the third pass that a shell burst hit the cockpit. The resulting damage was severe, and fragments had hit Middleton’s head badly injuring him. His right eye was lost and his skull exposed. There were further hits on the aircraft’s fuselage causing considerable damage to the control systems and airframe. Knocked unconscious by the blast, Middleton lost control and the aircraft plummeted through the skies to an altitude of around 800ft. The second pilot, Fl.Sgt. Hyder eventually managed to take the controls, release the bombs over the target and then pull the aircraft into a climb, safely reaching 1,500ft.

With his aircraft severely damaged, Middleton had a choice, get his crew to bail out over occupied France and certain capture, fly to Africa or head back to England; a journey that would last over 4 hours and put the aircraft at risk of attack and the crew in danger. Wanting to give them a fighting chance of getting home, he opted for the latter, and set a course for England.

SUK10501

Middleton was buried with full military honours at St. Johns Church, Beck Row. Suffolk.*3

The aircraft experienced a number of attacks as they crossed occupied France, but Middleton, fighting for survival, kept reassuring the crew that he would get them home. Eventually, and against all the odds, they made the English coast, and once over land Middleton ordered the crew to bail out. Five crewmen left the stricken aircraft whilst the other two remained to help him control it. Turning for the Channel, Middleton ordered the two remaining crew members to bail out, whilst he stayed at the controls, steadying the aircraft.

By now the Stirling was very low on fuel and it finally gave up the fight and crashed at 03:00 on the morning of November 29th 1942. Middleton, too injured and too weak to escape the wreckage, drowned within the aircraft fuselage. His two crew members, Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey (576050) age 19 and Wireless Operator Sgt. John William Mackie (994362) age 30, despite escaping, also drowned. Both the bodies of Sgt Mackie and Sgt. Jeffrey were washed ashore later that day on the 29th.

Middleton’s body remained in the aircraft, but was eventually freed from the wreckage by the action of the sea, and was washed ashore on Shakespeare Beach, Dover, in February 1943. His remains were taken to RAF Lakenheath and he was buried in St John’s churchyard, Beck Row, within sight of his airfield in Suffolk, with full military honours. Middleton was only 26 and only one mission away from ending his tour and returning home.

For his action, dedication and bravery, Flt. Sgt. Middleton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to any serving member of the R.A.A.F in World War II. He was also posthumously awarded a commission as Pilot Officer, backdated to mid November before his sortie to Turin. Thirty years later, in 1978, Middleton’s V.C. was presented to the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra for safe keeping and preservation.

For their actions, the other crew members received three DFMs and two DFCs. Fl.Sgt. Leslie Hyder (DFM) was injured, P.Officer. N. Skinner (DFC) was also injured, along with Sgt. H. W. Gough (DFM). F.O. G. R. Royde (DFC) and Sgt. D. Cameron (DFM) escaped unhurt.

The London Gazette published a report on 12th January 1943. It said:

“Fl. Sgt. Middleton was captain and first pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack the Fiat Works in Turin one night in November, 1942. Very difficult flying conditions, necessitating three low altitude flights to identify the target, led to excessive petrol consumption, leaving barely sufficient fuel for the return journey. Before the bombs could be released the aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and a splinter from a shell which burst in the cockpit wounded both the pilots and the wireless officer. Fl. Sgt. Middleton’s right eye was destroyed and the bone above it exposed. He became unconscious and the aircraft dived to 800 ft. before control was regained by the second pilot, who took the aircraft up to 1,500 ft. releasing the bombs, the aircraft meanwhile being hit many times by light flack. On recovering consciousness Fl. Sgt. Middleton again took the controls and expressed his intention of trying to make the English coast, so that his crew could leave the aircraft by parachute. After four hours the badly damaged aircraft reached the French coast and there was once more engaged and hit by anti-aircraft fire. After crossing the Channel Fl. Sgt. Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Five left safely, but the front gunner and the flight engineer remained to assist the pilot, and perished with him when the aircraft crashed into the sea”.

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Funeral service for Flight Sergeant Middleton. Air Vice Marshal H. N. Wrigley represented the High Commissioner for Australia (Mr S. M. Bruce) and the RAAF. The graveside service was conducted by Squadron Leader H. C. Thrush of Prospect, SA, RAAF Chaplain.*4

Middleton’s citation read:

“Flight Sergeant Middleton was determined to attack the target regardless of the consequences and not to allow his crew to fall into enemy hands. While all the crew displayed heroism of a high order, the urge to do so came from Flight Sergeant Middleton, whose fortitude and strength of will made possible the completion of the mission. His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force”.

In honour of Middleton’s bravery, Number 1 RAAF Recruit Training Unit at RAAF Base Wagga has renamed the club in his name, the “Middleton VC Club”, and he also appeared on one of the 1995 Australian 45c stamps. The dining hall located at the nearby (now American) base at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, has also been named in his honour.

Rawdon Hume Middleton, VC, St. John's Church, Beck Row, Suffolk.

Fl. Sgt. Rawdon Hume Middleton, VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF, St. John’s Church, Beck Row, Suffolk.

Middleton was a brave and dedicated young man who gave his life to save those of his crew. Each and every one of them acted with the highest dedication, sadly for some, it cost them dearly.

Sources

*1 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image 100641, Public domain.

*2 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image P01019.003, Public domain.

*3 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10501, Public domain

*4 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10500, Public domain

Heroic tales – Aviation Trails.