RAF Downham Market (Part 2 – D-Day to the War’s End)

In Part 1 Downham was born, serving the Stirlings of Bomber Command before becoming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. A large airfield, it was often busy and as the war progressed toward D-Day, preparations began for operations over the invasion area.

On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.

The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a  diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.

At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.

Downham Market Cemetery

F.Sgt. Stanley Wharton (RAFVR) 635 Sqn. One of seven Killed 4th June 1944.

Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.

On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.

During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.

608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.

The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.

On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.

The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.

By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.

last raid - Kiel canal ground & air crew photo 2 May 1945 at Downham Market found by Brian Emsley, Welwyn G, father Edward Emsley far left httpwww.bbc.co.uknewseducation-32532153

A recently discovered photograph showing a D.H. Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal. It shows Ground & Aircrew next to their Mosquito and ‘Cookie’. It was found by Brian Emsley,  his father Edward Emsley is far left.*

With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.

"CIVVY STREET COURSE" IN R.A.F. PATHFINDER GROUP

1945 – Landscape and floral gardening are subjects given in the E.V.T. classes at Downham Market. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pickersgill [centre] is now the station instructor. (IWM CH16028)

RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.

Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.

At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.

The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.

Downham Market Runway remains

The remnants of the main runway. Sadly this has now also been removed. It was this runway that utilised FIDO.

The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!

Battle Headquarters

A flooded Battle Headquarters. Several rooms exist below ground level, but these are all flooded, some said to be very deep.

Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.

Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.

RAF Downham Market

Buildings on the WAAF site.

The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works.  This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.

looking back to accomodation area

The sewage site. Through the trees you can see the remains of Communal Site 2.

Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.

The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.

In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.

In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.

Trail 7 next leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich, stopping off at RAF Marham. On the way, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.

Sources and further reading (Downham Market).

* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.

Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350

*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5

*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5

*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006

The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Downham Market (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 7, we visited the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. In this part of the trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.

Not far from RAF Marham, we return to this once busy airfield to see what is left and take another look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)

Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.

Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.

RAF Downham Market

One of the several buildings surviving at Downham Market.

Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.

Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.

Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.

On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.

On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.

Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.

On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret),  the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.

In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.

In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.

Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use.  It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.

Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.

The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.

One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others  escaping with injuries.

With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.

In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts that were left on the airfield.

However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.

The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.

In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.

The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.

Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.

The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.

RAF Downham Market

The remains of the Technical site looking toward the airfield.

635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.

The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.

Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.

635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI  from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.

A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito.  In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.

The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.

Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.

This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.

In Part 2, we see how Downham takes part in D-Day, the end of the war approaches but operations continue and Downham remains busy. After the war, the airfield is used for other purposes, and eventually closes. We then see what remains today and ask what does the future hold?

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

September 8th 1943 – Tragedy at RAF Mepal.

On the night of September 8/9th 1943,  a force of 257 aircraft comprising 119 Wellingtons, 112 Stirlings, 16 Mosquitoes and 10 Halifaxes took off from various bases around the U.K. to bomb the Nazi gun positions at Boulogne. Included in this force were aircraft from the RAF’s Operational Training Units, and for the first time of the war, five B-17s flown by US aircrews of the USAAF’s 422nd BS, 305th BG at Grafton Underwood. This was the first of eight such missions to test the feasibility of the USAAF carrying out night operations over Europe.  After the remaining seven missions, in which the squadron had dropped 68 tons of bombs, the idea was scrapped, the concept considered ‘uneconomical’ although the aircraft themselves proved to be more than capable of the operations.

RAF Mepal - memorial

RAF Memorial – Mepal

The Gun battery targeted, was the emplacement that housed the Germans’ long-range guns, and the target wold be marked by Oboe Mosquitoes. With good weather and clear visibility, navigation was excellent, allowing the main force to successfully drop their bombs in the target area causing several huge explosions. However, not many fires were seen burning and the mission was not recorded as a success. Reports subsequently showed that the emplacement was undamaged due to both inaccurate marking by Pathfinders, and bombing by the main force. However, as both anti-aircraft fire and night fighter activity were light, no aircraft were lost during the flight making it a rather an uneventful night.

However, the mission was not all plain sailing, and whilst all crews returned, the night was marred by some very tragic events.

Three Stirlings were to take off from their various bases that night: at 21:00 hrs from Chedburgh, Stirling MK. III, EF136, piloted by F/S. R. Bunce of 620 Sqn; at 21:30, another Stirling MK.III, from 75 Sqn at RAF Mepal, BK809 ‘JN-T*1‘ piloted by F/O I.R.Menzies of the RNZAF; and lastly at 21:58 also from Chedburgh, Stirling MK. I, R9288 ‘BU-Q’ piloted by N.J. Tutt  of 214 Sqn.  Unfortunately all three aircraft were to suffer the same and uncanny fate, swinging violently on take off. The first EF136 crashed almost immediately, the second BK809 struck a fuel bowser, and the third R9288 ended up in the bomb dump. Miraculously in both the Chedburgh incidents there were no casualties at all, all fourteen crew men surviving what must have been one of their luckiest escapes of the war! The same cannot be said for the second though.

Stirling BK809 was part of a seventeen strong force of 75 Sqn aircraft. Each aircraft was carrying its full load made up of 1,000lb and 500lb bombs. As the Stirling was running along the runway, it swung violently, striking a fuel bowser which sent it careering into houses bordering the edge of the airfield.

One of the occupants of one of the houses, Mr. P. Smith, saw the aircraft approaching and ran into the street to warn others to get clear. As the aircraft struck the rear of the houses, it burst into flames causing some of the bombs to detonate. This brought considerable rubble down on the occupants of the second house, Mr and Mrs John Randall.

Mrs Randall managed to get out, her legs injured, whereupon she was met by a local fireman, Mr. A.E. Kirby of the National Fire Service. Mr. Kirby went on to help search in the wreckage of the house until his attempts were thwarted by another explosion. His body, along with that of Mr. Randall, was found the next day.

Two other people were also killed that night trying to provide assistance, those being F/Sgt Peter Gerald Dobson, RNZAF and Section Officer Joan Marjorie Easton WAAF. F/Sgt. Dobson was later mentioned in despatches. Three members of the crew lost their lives as a result of the accident, F/O. Menzies and F/O. N. Gale both died in the actual crash whilst Sgt. A. Mellor died later from injuries sustained in the accident.

A number of others were injured in the crash and one further member of the squadron, Cpl Terence Henry King B.E.M, was awarded the British Empire Medal “for his bravery that night in giving assistance“.

The mission on the night of September 8/9th 1943 will not go down as one of the most remarkable, even though  it was unique in many respects, but it will be remembered for the sad loss of crews, serving officers and civilians alike in what was a very tragic and sad event.

The crew of Stirling BK809 were:

F/O. Ian Robert Menzies RNZAF NZ415002. (Pilot).
P/O. Derek Albert Arthur Cordery RAFVR 136360. (Nav).
P/O. Norman Hathway Gale RAFVR 849986. (B/A).
Sgt. Ralph Herbert Barker RNZAF NZ417189. (W/O).
Sgt. Albert Leslie Mellor RAFVR 943914. (Flt. Eng).
Sgt. Bullivant G RAFVR 1395379. (Upp. G)
Sgt. Stewart Donald Muir RNZAF NZ416967. (R/G).

RAF Mepal was visited in Trail 11.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Chorley, 1996 “Bomber Command Losses 1943” notes this aircraft as AA-T.

National Archives: AIR 27/646/42: 75 Sqn ORB September 1943

Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses – 1943“, Midland Counties, (1996)

Middlebrook M., & Everitt C., “The Bomber Command War Diaries”  Midland Publishing, (1996)

Further details of this accident, the crews and those involved can be found on the 75 (NZ) Sqn blog. This includes the gravestones of those killed and a newspaper report of the event.

My thanks also go to Neil Bright for the initial  information.

RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 2).

In Part 1, we saw how Graveley had been formed, its early years and the how it was drawn into Don Bennett’s Pathfinder Group. We saw the Introduction of FIDO and the benefits of this incredible fog busting system.

In this, the second and final part we see more uses of FIDO, new aircraft and new squadrons arrive, but we start on the night of 18th/19th November 1942 which saw a remarkable turn of fortune for a squadron who had suffered some devastating losses.

Halifax DT488 (TL-S) piloted by Wing Commander B.V. Robinson, caught fire when flares in the bomb bay ignited. He ordered the crew to bail out, but as the last man left, the fire extinguished itself. Robinson then decided to try and nurse the damaged bomber home. Flying single-handed, he reached the safety of RAF Colerne in Wiltshire, where he survived a crash landing. The six crew members who had bailed out also survived but were unfortunately captured and taken as prisoners of war by the Germans.  As a result of his actions, Robinson was awarded a Bar to add to his DSO. Robinson would go on to have a second lucky escape later on, after which, in May 1943, he would become the Station Commander of his home base here at Graveley.

35 Sqn would continue to carry out missions both marking and attacking strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany, but accuracy, whilst improving, was not yet 100%.

By the end of 1942 the new H2S ground scanning radar system was being introduced, and a small number of 35 Sqn aircraft were fitted with the units. The continuing missions were on the whole successful, even after the Germans developed a device able to track aircraft using it, and eventually, the whole of the PFF were fitted with it.

In April 1943, a detachment of 97 Sqn Lancasters arrived at Graveley. Based at the parent station RAF Bourn, they also had detachments at Gransden Lodge and Oakington, and they remained here for a year. After that, they moved on to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

A number of major operations were undertaken by 35 Sqn over the coming months, but with it came the end of good fortune for Group Captain Robinson. Fate was finally to catch up with him, and he was lost on the night of 23rd/24th August 1943. Flying in a Halifax II (HR928) ‘TL-R’, his loss that night brought a further blow to the men of Graveley and 35 Sqn. Following this, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris restricted flying operations by base Commanders as the number of these experienced men being lost was quickly becoming unsustainable.

On November 18th/19th 1943, Bomber Command began the first phase of its ‘Battle for Berlin’, and Graveley’s Pathfinders would find FIDO more than beneficial. A raid of some 266 aircraft would see light losses on the second night of operations, but on returning to England, crews would find many of their bases shrouded in heavy fog. With visibility down to as little as 100 yards on the ground, the order was given to light up FIDO. This would be FIDO’s first official wartime use, and whilst some of Graveley’s bombers were diverted elsewhere, four managed to land safely using the system. This new invention may well have saved precious lives, as others failed to survive landing at their own fog-bound bases. At debriefing, one airmen, was noted as saying he could see Graveley’s fire as he crossed the English coast, a considerable distance from where he was now safely stood.

The night of 16th/17th December of 1943 would go down as one of the worst for Bomber Command and in  particular for the Pathfinders who were all based in the area around Graveley.

In what was to become known as ‘Black Thursday’ a massed formation of almost 500 aircraft attacked targets in Berlin, and although covered in cloud, marking was reasonably accurate and bombs struck their intended targets. On return however, England was fog bound, thick fog with a layer of heavy cloud prevented the ground from being seen. Whilst not operational that night, Graveley lit up its FIDO in an attempt to guide fuel starved bombers in. With little hope for even getting in safely here, crew after crew requested landing permission in a desperate attempt to get down. Many, out of fuel, bailed out leaving their aircraft to simply fall from the night sky. Others, desperate for a landing spot, simply crashed into the ground with the expected disastrous results. At Graveley, several attempts were made by desperate crews, but even FIDO was unable to help everyone. One aircraft came in cross wind losing vital power as he realised his error and tried to pull away. Another crashed a few miles away to  the north-east and a third aircraft trying to land came down to the south-east of the airfield. Of all those lost around Graveley that night, survivors could be counted on only one hand. 97 Squadron at Bourn, Gravely’s sister Pathfinder station, had taken the brunt with seven aircraft being lost. The role call the next morning was decimated.

The new year brought new changes to Graveley. Mosquito B.IVs arrived with a newly formed 692 Squadron (RAF). Their first mission here would be on the night of February 1st/2nd 1944 in which a single aircraft would defiantly attack Berlin.

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Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb into a Mosquito. The Mosquitoes were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. The tower can be seen behind. (IWM)

Some of these 692 Sqn Mosquitoes were later modified to carry the enormous 4,000 lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, This was first used by S/Ldr. Watts in Mosquito DZ647 who took off at 20.45 hours to attack Düsseldorf. The attack took place on  the night of 23rd/24th February 1944 from a height of 25,000 feet. The initial bomb was followed by two further bombs from Mosquitoes of the same squadron, DZ534 and DZ637.

The first casualties for 692 Sqn were reported only three days earlier, on the night of 19th/20th February, which also proved to be the worst night for Bomber Command casualties since the war started – even worse than ‘Black Thursday’. With 79 aircraft failing to return home, the RAF had taken another pounding and squadrons were finding themselves short of crews. These casualties including those in Mosquito DZ612 ‘P3-N’. Flown by F/L. W. Thomas (DFC) and F/L. J. Munby (DFC) the aircraft took off at 01:05 to attack Berlin. The Mosquito was subsequently shot down and both crew members killed.

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Mosquito B Mark XVIs of No. 692 Squadron RAF (PF392 ‘P3-R’ nearest), lined up at Graveley. (IWM)

35 Sqn, who were still flying their Halifaxes, suffered even worse. TL-J, TL-B, TL-N, and TL-O, all fell to the accurate guns of night fighters over the continent. In yet another devastating night of losses, neighbouring Warboys, Wyton and distant Leeming and Waterbeach all lost crews. The casualty list was so high, that barely a squadron operating that night didn’t suffer a loss.

In early April 1944, a small detachment of 571 Sqn Mosquitoes (RAF Downham Market) joined 692 passing through on their way to RAF Oakington. From there that then transferred to  RAF Warboys, where the squadron was eventually disbanded. A series of events not untypical for Graveley.

692 would go on to have another claim to fame a year later, when on January 1st 1945, in an attempt to assist in the Ardennes offensive, they attacked supply lines through a tunnel. A daring attempt it required the bomb to be dropped into the mouth of the tunnel where it would explode. These attacks were carried out between 100 and 250 feet using the ‘Cookies’ and were so successful that smoke was seen bellowing from the other end of the tunnel after the attack.

The final 692 Sqn mission would then be on the night of May 2nd/3rd 1945. As the war was coming to a close, it was feared that remaining resolute Germans would make their escape from Keil, and so 23 aircraft in 2 waves of 12 and 11 went sent to bomb the coastal town. A successful mission, all crews returned safely.

692 Squadron, would operate a variety of Mosquito types during its life including the B.IV, XIV and XVI who would prove to be highly successful and instrumental in 8 Group’s ‘Light Night Striking Force’.

692 Sqn would move to Gransden Lodge in June 1945 where they were finally disbanded; a sad end to a remarkable career. The squadron had performed well since arriving here at Graveley, and had seen many highly regarded crew members lost in operations, including both Sqn. Ldr. R. Fitzgerald and Wing Commander A. Cranswick; its record of prestige losses reflecting the nature and danger of flying as part of the elite Pathfinder Force. 35 Sqn meanwhile would go on to have a long and established career, operating as late as 1982.

The remaining buildings utilised by the farm, which no longer resembles the Control Tower it was.

Other units to grace the skies over Graveley would include detachments of 97, 115 and 227  Sqns all with Lancasters MK. I and MK.IIIs, mainly prior to thier disbandment toward the war’s end.

692 Squadron carried out 310 operations from Graveley losing 17 Mosquitoes in all. A  total of 150 aircraft were registered either missing or crashed following operations from this station: 83 Halifaxes, 32 Lancasters and 35 Mosquitoes.

As one of the many Pathfinder stations in this part of the country, Graveley is linked by the long ‘Pathfinder Walk’ a path that leads all the way to RAF Warboys in the north. Using this walk allows you to visit a number of these bases linking each one by open cross-country footpaths.

Today, Graveley is all but gone. The control tower is now very well disguised as a farm-house, its shape considerably different to the original design, the concrete huts have been pulled down and the runways mainly dug-up. A couple of buildings do still remain next to the farm-house, storing a range of modern farm equipment. The perimeter track considerably smaller in width, remains used by the local farm for lorries to transport their goods to the main road.

Perimeter Track

The perimeter track where bombers once lumbered.

A small memorial has been erected and sad to say, was poorly maintained when I was there. It stands at the entrance to the former airfield on the northern side, now the entrance to the farm site.

Graveley is typical of the sad end to many of Britain’s lost airfields. The wide open expanses that once resounded with the roar of piston engines taking brave young men to war, are now quiet and the sounds mere whispers in the wind. Lorries roll where the wheels of laden bombers once lumbered. The brave acts of those young men now laid to rest in a small stone overlooking where they once walked. As a pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley and its crews deserve a much greater recognition for their dedication, bravery and sacrifice.

This aside, a beautiful stained glass window can be found in the local Graveley church and is worthy of a visit if time allows.

After the quiet of Graveley we head south-east, toward our next planned destination, RAF Bourn. On the way, we make a brief stop at the now extinct RAF Caxton Gibbet, a little airfield with a colourful history.

*1 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire FIDO – The Fog Buster of World War Two“, 1995, Alan Sutton Publishing, Page 109.

(Graveley was initially visited in 2015, in Trail 29, this is an updated post).

RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 1).

In Trail 29 we turn south and head to the southern end of Cambridgeshire. This area is rich in fighter stations, both RAF and USAAF. Home to Duxford and Bader’s ‘Big Wing’, Mustangs, Spitfires and Hurricanes once, and on many occasions still do, grace the blue skies of this historical part of the country.

We start off though not at a fighter station but one belonging to those other true professionals, the Pathfinders of No 8 Group RAF, and former RAF Graveley,

RAF Graveley

Village sign Graveley village sign depicts its aviation heritage.

Graveley airfield sits on the south side of Huntingdon, a few miles to the east of St. Neots in Cambridgeshire. It takes its unusual name from the nearby village. The airfield itself would see a number of changes to its infrastructure, including both upgrades and improvements and it would be home to several different squadrons during  its wartime life.

Initially built as a satellite for RAF Tempsford, Graveley opened in March 1942 when it accepted its first residents, 161 (Special Duty) Squadron.  Formed from a combination of elements from both 138 Sqn and the King’s Flight, it had been formed less than a month earlier at RAF Newmarket  and would bring with it the Lysander IIIA, the Hudson MkI and the Whitley V.

The role of the Special Duty Sqn  was to drop agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) into occupied France, a role it would perform throughout its operational wartime life.  Their stay at Graveley would however be short lived, remaining here for a mere month before departing to  Graveley’s parent airfield in Bedfordshire, before moving elsewhere once more.

By the war’s end, Graveley would have become a complete operational airfield in its own right, forming part of Air Vice Marshall Donald Bennett’s 8 Group, with the Pathfinders. After upgrading, its initial concrete runways of 1,600 yards, 1,320 yards and 1,307 yards would be transformed into the standard lengths of one 2,000 yards and two 1,400 yard runways; the measures associated with all Class ‘A’ specification airfields.

Accommodation for all personnel was spread around the north side of the airfield, across the main Offord to Graveley road. These were separated into nine separate accommodation areas, incorporating both a separate communal area and sick quarters. Graveley would, once complete, accommodate upward of 2,600 personnel, a figure that included almost 300 WAAFs.

As with all sites, the bomb store was well away from the accommodation area, to the south-west, partially enclosed by the ‘A’ frame of the three runways. The 50 foot perimeter track linked these runaways with 36 pan style hardstands, all suitable for heavy bombers (after the extension three of these were replaced by loops). The main technical area, with its range of stores, workshops and ancillary buildings lay to the north-west, where two of the three T-2 hangars were also located, the third being erected to the south-east next to the only B-1 hangar on the site.

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RAF Graveley (author unknown)

Following the immediate departure of 161 Sqn, Graveley lay operationally dormant. However, in May’s ‘1000’ bomber raid, aircraft from 26 OTU based at RAF Wing, flew from Graveley as part of the massive bombing operation. Sadly four of the Wellingtons (all Mk ICs) failed to return; WS704, DV740, DV707 and DV709. One of these, DV709 crashed some thirteen miles north-east of Cambridge whilst trying to make an emergency landing at Graveley. Unfortunately, when the aircraft came down, it overturned killing two of the crew on board: Sgt. J. Dixon the pilot, and Sgt. B. Camlin the tail gunner. Both these airmen were laid to rest in Beck Row Cemetery, at nearby Mildenhall.

St. John's Church Beck Row, Mildenhall Beck Row Cemetery, Mildenhall.

The difficulty faced by Bomber Command crews in accurately hitting targets at night had, by now, become a problem for the ‘top brass’ at High Wycombe, and by April 1942, it had been decided, much against the views of Arthur Harris, that a new special Pathfinder Force was to be set up as soon as possible. As if adding salt to the wound, Harris was then instructed to organise it, and with a mixed charge of emotions, he appointed the then Group Captain Don Bennett, a man who had proven himself to have excellent flying and navigation skills.

Bennett then took charge, and on August 15th 1942, he formally took control of the new 8 (Pathfinder) Group, consisting of a specialised group of airmen who were considered to be the cream of the crop.

With its headquarters initially at RAF Wyton, Bennett received the first five founder squadrons of which 35 Sqn was one, the very day they moved into Graveley airfield.

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon Castle Hill House, Huntingdon, headquarters of the Pathfinders 1943 – 45. (Photo Paul Cannon)

Initially arriving with Halifax IIs, 35 Sqn would upgrade to the MK III in the following October, and then to the Lancaster I and III a year later. There would be little respite for the crews arriving here however, for they would be flying their first mission from Graveley, just three days after their initial arrival.

On the night of 18th/19th August 1942, a total of 31 PFF aircraft left to mark the target at Flensburg, close to the German-Danish border. However, poor weather and strong winds, prevented accurate marking, and two Danish towns were accidentally bombed as a result. It was a rather disastrous start for 35 Sqn and the Pathfinders.

Another blow was to fall 35 Sqn a month later, when on the night of 19th September 1942, the experienced 24 year old Wing Commander James.H. Marks DSO, DFC was lost when his Halifax II (W7657) ‘TL-L’  crashed at Blesme in France. Also being lost that night with W.C. Marks, was 19 year old F.L. Alan J. Child DFC and 25 year old F.O. Richard L. Leith-Hay-Clark; the remaining three crewmen being taken prisoner by the Germans. The squadron designation for this aircraft would then be reallocated, as was the case in in all squadrons, and as if bad luck were playing its hand yet again, that aircraft, Halifax HR928, would also crash with the loss of all its crew, including the highly experienced Sqn Ldr. Alec Panton Cranswick.

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Halifax Mark II Series 1A, HR928 ‘TL-L’, 35 Sqn RAF being flown by Sqn Ldr A P Cranswick, an outstanding Pathfinder pilot who was killed on the night of 4/5 July 1944 on his 107th mission. The Cranswick coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.(IWM)

In October, Gravely made history when it was earmarked to become the first operational airfield to test the new and revolutionary fog clearing system, FIDO. Classified as Station II, it would be the second of only fifteen British airfields to have the system installed and whilst it had its opponents, it was generally accepted and greeted by all who used it.

Installed by contractors William Press, the system’s pipes were laid along the length of the runway, a not easy feat as operations continued in earnest. One of the initial problems found with the FIDO system, was the crossing of the intersecting runways, pipes had to be hidden to avoid aircraft catching them and an obvious disaster ensuing. Two types of pipe were laid at Graveley, initially the Four Oaks type burner, but this was later replaced by the Haigas (Mk.I) burner. A more complex system, the Haigas took considerable time to install but by January 1943 it was ready, and an aerial inspection was then carried out by Mr. A Hartley – the Technical Director of the Petroleum Warfare Dept (PWD) and Chief engineer of the Anglo-Iranian oil Co. It was Hartley who later played a major role in PLUTO, the cross channel pipeline installed for D-day. Hartley, himself a non flyer, was flown over the burning pipes in a Gypsy Major by no less than Don Bennett himself.

It was later, on February 18th, that Bennett made the first four-engined heavy bomber FIDO landing at Graveley, using a Lancaster of 156 Sqn from Oakington. Setting off from Oakington, Bennett headed towards Graveley airfield, and with the burners lit, he remarked how he was able to see them from some 60 miles distant, the fire providing a far better light than searchlights alone, the means by which aircraft had been guided home on foggy nights previously. A great success, Bennett requested that certain minor modifications be made as he thought pilots could be distracted by the cross pipes at the threshold of the runway. Hartley keen to please Bennett, duly arranged for the necessary alterations and the modification were carried out without further delay.  However, further problems were to come to light on the the first operational lighting of the system, when bushes, hedges and telegraph poles adjacent to the pipelines were ignited due to an extension of the system passing through a nearby orchard!

The installation of FIDO meant that huge oil containers had to be installed too. At Graveley, sixteen cylindrical tanks were mounted in two banks, each tank holding up to 12,000 gallons of fuel. These tanks were kept topped up by road tankers, there being no railway line nearby as was the case at other stations.

Over the next few months, FIDO was tested further, but for various reasons its benefits weren’t truly exploited. On one occasion it was prevented from being lit by a crashed Halifax on the runway, the resultant lack of FIDO after the accident, was then blamed for the loss of two more aircraft, neither being able to safely put down in the poor conditions.  On another night, poorly maintained pipes caused burning fuel to spill onto the ground rather than heating the vaporising pipes above. Bennett somewhat angry at this, once more requested modifications to be made, needless to say they were not long in coming!

With further trials, one pilot was remarked as describing flying through FIDO as “entering the jaws of hell”*1 but once crews were used to it, the benefits were by far outweighing the drawbacks.

The safety of FIDo could not assist all crews though, and a number of other experienced crews were to be lost from Graveley over the next few months. But all news was not bad. The night of 18th/19th November 1942 saw a remarkable turn of fortune.

In Part 2 we see how Graveley sees out the war, the changes that occur, the new aircraft and new squadrons that arrive.

The whole trail can be read in Trail 29 – Southern Cambridgeshire.

June 25th 1944, loss of a Rugby Star.

Sir Arthur Harris’s continuation of the bomber initiative of 14th February 1942, in which German cities became the focus for RAF raids, led to massed formations of light and heavy bombers striking at the very heart of Germany.

In order to achieve these aims, bomber forces of 1,000 aircraft would be required, meaning every available Bomber Command aircraft would be utilised along with those from Operational Training Units (OTU) and (Heavy) Converstion Units (CU).

On June 25th, 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the third of the ‘1,000’ bomber raids, one of the first operational aircraft casualties  for 1651 CU would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. One factor that made this particular loss so great was that not only did all seven crewmen onboard lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had gained international caps playing for England’s National  rugby team.

Born on September 26th 1909, Lewis Booth was the son of Alfred and Amie Booth. He was educated initially at Giggleswick School in Yorkshire, after which he transferred to the Malsis School becoming one of sixteen boys who was lost during the war and since commemorated on the Chapel’s Stained glass window.

Booth attended the Malsis school for two years, 1920-22, when the school first opened. A grand School, it was founded by Albert Henry Montagu, which grew and expanded over the years.

Ten years after he left the school, Booth made his international rugby debut in a game against Wales at Twickenham (January 21st, 1933), in front of a crowd of 64,000 fans; a game in which Wales beat England by 7 points to 3. Booth played his last international match against Scotland at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium two years later on March 16th, 1935. Throughout his two year international rugby career he achieved seven caps for England scoring three tries, his first for England against Ireland at Twickenham, on 11th February 1933. After serving his national team, Booth went on to serve his country joining  the Royal Air Force where he achieved the rank of Pilot Officer within Bomber Command.

On the night of 25/26th June 1942, he was in a Short Stirling MK.I flying with 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) based at RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire. 1651 CU was one of three Conversion Units set up in January 1942, by merging previously formed Conversion Flights. It served to convert crews of No. 3 Group to the Stirling, a rather ungainly aircraft that developed a poor reputation as a bomber. 1651 CU would join that night, sixty-eight other Stirlings in a force of over 1,000 aircraft; a mix of heavy and light bombers, ranging from the Hampden and Whitley to the Halifax and Lancaster.

Take off was at 23:58 from RAF Waterbeach, the weather that week had been good with little rain for many days. After forming up they headed for Germany a course that would take them across the North Sea and on to the western coast of Holland. Just 40 minutes into the flight, whilst over Waddenzee, the Stirling was attacked by a Luftwaffe night fighter and shot down with the loss of all seven crewmen on-board.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

A Stirling MK.I bomber of 1651 HCU at Waterbeach. @IWM (COL202)

P/O. Booth was publicly reported missing four days later on Tuesday 30th June in an article in the local paper “Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer”, which stated that he had been ‘lost in a Bomber Command raid’. The article highlighted Booth’s rugby career, saying that he had been a member of the Headingly Club playing over sixty games for his county team Yorkshire, before leaving to join up. 

P/O. Booth died just short of his 33rd birthday, he left behind a wife, Gladys, and a son Michael. His son would follow in his father’s footsteps also taking up rugby and also playing for his home country. P/O. Booth’s body was never recovered and remains missing to this day.

P/O Lewis Booth is joined by two other Pilot Officers, two Flying Officers, a Flight Lieutenant and two Sergeant Pilots amongst other ranks and service personnel all honoured by the Malsis School. Amongst the many awards they’ve achieved are three D.F.C.s and an A.F.M.

The game of rugby was hit hard by the Second World War, during which Germany would lose 16 of its international rugby players, Scotland 15, England 14, Wales 11, Australia 10, Ireland and France both 8, Wales 3 and New Zealand 2. All these losses were a severe blow to the international game, a game that brought many enemies face to face in a friendly tournament where there was little more at stake that honour and a cup.

With no official burial, P/O Booth’s service was commemorated on Panel 68 of the Runneymede Memorial, Surrey.

Lewis Alfred Booth @Tim Birdsall from the Malsis website.

Sources

ESPN Website accessed.

The British Newspaper Archive.

Old Malsis Association website accessed.

Rugby Football History website accessed.

Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 trail (Part 4).

In Part 3 we saw how Dishforth turned from a bomber base to one of training, its role had gone full circle. Now the war was drawing to a close, its future left hanging in the balance. With the dawn of the jet age, opportunities are there but Dishforth gets left out. As Bombers are withdrawn, a new type appears though, and many appear here at Dishforth.

As 1945 dawned, it was becoming clear that the war’s end was in sight. Conversion courses to heavy bombers were being scaled back as losses fell and the need for more crews diminished. On April 6th, the HCU was officially disbanded and the staff posted elsewhere.

1945 would also see the end of 6 (RCAF) Group, the group that had flown almost 40,000 sorties with a loss of 10,000 aircrew from its several Yorkshires bases, Dishforth of course, being one of the first.

Not long after the disposal of the HCU, the 1695 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight, a unit set up to work in conjunction with the HCUs, was also disbanded.  In July 1945, the unit flew its last flight and its Spitfires, Hurricanes, Martinets and Air Speed Oxfords all departed Dishforth. The fighter element had also now gone from this historic base.

For the next couple of years little would happen at Dishforth, the Canadian link was broken, bombers were removed and the airfield remained relatively quiet. However, it was to see the four engined Halifax return once more, albeit very briefly.

1948 was a year of change, with no need for bombers, transport aircraft were to be the new type appearing at Dishforth. Conversion Units continuing on where the HCUs left off. 240 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) made an appearance with a second, 241 OCU forming on January 5th 1948. Formed out of the renumbering of 1332 Heavy Transport Conversion Unit, they operated  a mix of Halifaxes, Hastings, Yorks and Vallettas all of which had now become the flavour of the day.  With these new units coming in, other units such as No 1381 (Transport) Conversion Unit, were disbanded.

Handley Page Hastings C Mk 1, location unknown. (©IWM ATP 16063D)

Another squadron, 47 Sqn also appeared at Dishforth that year. In September, they transferred in from RAF Fairford, and immediately began replacing their ageing Halifaxes with the Hastings C.1 transport aircraft. They remained at Dishforth for just a year, moving on to nearby Topcliffe in the autumn of 1949. This was mirrored  by 297 Sqn, who also came, swapped their Halifaxes and then also departed to Topcliffe.

240 OCU led Dishforth into the new decade. In April 1951, further changes saw them disband and amalgamate with 240 to form 242 OCU, but still the Vallettas and Hastings were top dog. As time progressed they would convert to Argosys, Beverleys and eventually the Hercules, moving on to eventually disband at RAF Lyneham in 1992.

The mid 50’s saw other changes, with 30 Sqn arriving in April also operating the  Beverley C1 until its departure in 1959, and 215 Sqn in April 1956 with the Pioneer CC1. Originally a First World War Sqn they had operated a range of aircraft including the Virginia, Harrow, Wellington, Liberator (B-24) and Dakota, before disbandment and reformation here. They solely operated from this airfield before again being disbanded and reformed as 230 Sqn here at Dishforth in 1958. By November though they would also go the way of their predecessors and move out, this time to Nicosia, before returning (briefly via Dishforth in April 1959) to Upavon.

Another Dakota unit,  1325 (Transport) Flight operated from here in the August of 1956, before it too departed, eventually disbanding in Singapore in 1960.

By the end of the 50s, all these units had departed and Dishforth’s future was now in the balance. With no RAF Flying there seemed little point in keeping it open.

Small training aircraft from other Yorkshire bases including Leeming, Topcliffe and Linton-On-Ouse, then used the base as a satellite and emergency landing ground. The Jet Provosts of 1 FTS and 3 FTS being frequent users.

With the withdrawal of all RAF personnel, Dishforth was handed over to the Army Air Corp who based a number of helicopter units here during the 1990s and early 2000s. These units primarily: 657 ; 659; 664; 669; 670; 671 and 672 Sqns all operated the Lynx or Gazelle helicopters in a range of roles.

As of 2021, Dishforth remains in the possession of the Army, home to 6 Regiment Royal Logistics Corp, who consist of three squadrons: 62 Squadron and 64 Squadron (both hybrid squadrons made up of Drivers and Logistic Supply Specialists) and 600 HQ Squadron including the Regimental Head Quarters who provide support to the other two task squadrons. Their role is to provide logistic support to 1 UK Division, preparing forces for both fixed and responsive tasks.

With other non military units using the site as well, Dishforth’s future is once again in doubt. A large airfield, with extensive hangar space and ground area, it is ideally located near to the A1 road. The tower has recently been boarded up and parts of the perimeter track are beginning to decay, Dishforth too will soon close (earmarked for closure in 2031) under Government cutbacks, but hopefully its history will live on and the memories of those who passed though its doors will remain alive and well.

Dishforth currently remains an active Military site and as such access is limited. The A168 runs parallel to the main runway between it and the A1. The hangars remain, the tower is also present although in the last two years or so it has been boarded up. Remnants of the Second World War can be found round the perimeter by using the smaller roads around the base, but again these are restricted.

With the recent announcement of the closure of Linton-On-Ouse, both Dishforth and Topcliffe will also close, three more of Britain’s war time bomber airfields will then be gone from Britain’s landscape.

The full page can be seen in Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 Trail.

Sources and further reading.

*1Bygone Times‘  – Halifax LK930 remembered and a tale of two Palterton village heroes. by Jack Richards. A web page detailing the crash of LK930 on the night of 21st/22nd March.

National Archives AIR-27-141-1

National Archives AIR-27-660-1

National Archives AIR-27-1837-1

Harris, A., “Bomber Offensive‘ 1998, Greenhill Books.

Millar, G., “The Bruneval Raid – Stealing Hitler’s Radar” 1974, Cassell & Co.

RCAF 425 Alouettes Sqn – a blog honouring 425 Sqn by Pierre Lagacé

Ward. C., “4 Group Bomber Command” 2012, Pen & Sword.

Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 trail (Part 3).

In Part 2 we saw the first of the Canadian units form at Dishforth, still a new unit, they very quickly become part of the new 6 Group (RCAF).  As they began operations over occupied Europe, they quickly learnt that war brings casualties. We also see that Dishforth soon becomes ‘upgraded’ to a Standard ‘A’ specification airfield, and then the Canadians move out and a new training unit move in. The aircraft now get bigger.

The new year brought new changes both at Dishforth and within the RAF. Expansion of the force saw a new Group born, that of 6 (RCAF) Group, and after some four years of wrangling between the Canadians and the British, all but two of the Canadian squadrons, and their airfields, were transferred over to RAF control. The formation of the Group was with mixed emotions though, the Canadians having no control nor say over its operation, but still paying the bill for the squadrons for the duration of the war – a rather one sided agreement in the eyes of the Canadians. However, the expansion increased Squadron numbers, now some 37% of the RAF’s pilots were from the Dominion and of these, almost two-thirds were Canadian.

On January 1st 1943, 6 (RCAF) Group was therefore officially up and running, and it would be now that 426 Sqn would become operational.

Their start to the war began with an attack on the French port at Lorient on the night of 14th/15th January. 6 Group’s first attack as an operational group, was part of a 122 strong aircraft formation, sending nine Wellingtons and six Halifaxes. Only two aircraft were lost that night, both Wellingtons, one a Polish crew from 300 Sqn and the other a Canadian crew from 426 Sqn.

The aircraft, piloted by 21 year old P.O. George Milne (s/n:J/9355), was lost without trace, presumably crashing into the sea on its way to the target, it was not heard from since leaving Dishforth at 22:37.

Within a month of 6 Group’s inauguration, 426 Sqn would suffer a heavy blow when its Commanding Officer Wing Commander Blanchard would be shot down whilst returning from Germany. The aircraft, a Wellington III ‘X3420’ was shot down by Hauptmann Manfred Meurer near Limburg with the loss of all six crewmen. It was a bitter blow to the fledgling squadron.

The role of commander then passed to Wing Commander Leslie Crooks DFC a non-Canadian, he would lead the squadron into battle on numerous occasions. A brave and determined leader, he would soon add a DSO to his collection, dutifully awarded after surviving an attack from a night fighter, when he nursed the stricken bomber home. Unable to land the aircraft due to its extensive damage, he ordered the crew to bail out leaving the Wellington to its ultimate and final fate.  Crooks, would go on to lead further operational missions with the squadron, but sadly his luck would run out over Peenemunde on the night of August 17th/18th 1943 when he was lost for good.

The time then came to upgrade Dishforth, its now unsuitable surfaces needed replacing and the airfield needed bringing up to ‘modern’ standards. The two Canadian units moved out – 425 Sqn to North Africa in May, and 426 Sqn to Linton-On-Ouse in June. That left the airfield operationally silent. The bulldozers and earth-movers then moved in;  its three concrete and tarmac runways were constructed, and the whole site was upgraded to the Class ‘A’ specification. By November the works were all but complete and it was handed over to No.61 Training Base, 6 (RCAF) Group, led by the transfer in of 1664 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) operating the four engined heavy the Halifax Mk.III.

Formed in May 1943 at Croft, they were renamed 1664 (RCAF) ‘Caribou’ HCU on moving to Dishforth and were primarily a training unit converting pilots onto Halifaxes from other aircraft – usually twin engined bombers like the Wellington. One of their first customers was the former Dishforth unit 425 Sqn, who returned from Tunisia with their Wellingtons to convert over to the Halifax over the next month. By mid December they were all done, and they departed for RAF Tholthorpe where they picked up their new aircraft.

RAF Dishforth

A rather sad end to the Watch office.

Converting crews to the four engined types was no easy task, and whilst crews were experienced, accidents did still happen.

The first Dishforth blow came to 1664 (RCAF) HCU two days before Christmas 1943. Halifax V ‘ZU-C’ crashed after getting into difficulties whilst on a night training flight. The aircraft was partially abandoned, but three of the crew were killed and a further two were injured. This tragic accident would not be the last for the Dishforth unit though, and would draw 1943 to a sad close.

Some of these accidents were understandably down to the inexperience of crews on the new type, as the night of January 30th 1944 showed. Halifax V DG308 flown by F.L. J. Bissett DFM along with a student, came into land at Dishforth. The student inadvertently lowered the bomb doors rather than the flaps causing the aircraft to come in too fast. Bissett, in an effort to avert a catastrophe, swung the Halifax off the runway subjecting it to great stresses. As a result of this action, the undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft fell on its belly severely damaging it. But Bisset had done his job, and the student had learnt a valuable lesson.

With two further accidents on the following night, one due to a strong cross wind and the second when the aircraft hit high ground due to excessive drift, the training programmes were proving hard going for the Dishforth unit.

For some crewmen there was even the misfortune of multiple crashes, and for one man in particular, these unfortunate events occurred in the space of just one week.

For Sgt. H. (Ray) Collver, mid March would be his worst week. During a training flight on the 16th, his Halifax swung on landing, badly damaging the undercarriage. Thankfully however, there were no major injuries and all walked away relatively unhurt. But then on the night of 21st/22nd, he was on a night training flight (thought to be a nickle flight), when the port inner engine failed, and refused to feather. The cause of the problem was not clear, but the aircraft began to shake violently as a result. Before coming down in Derbyshire, Sgt. Cullver gave the order to abandon the Halifax, two of the crew escaping through the nose hatch. By then though, the bomber was too low for others to escape, the remainder of the crew were effectively trapped inside. When the aircraft hit the ground, two of the four left on board were killed, the remaining two Sgt. Russ Pym and Sgt. Cullver were injured, Cullver being thrown clear as the Halifax struck a bank aside a road*1.

On many occasions though, pilot error was not a cause, engine faults seeming to have been the primary cause of the aircraft’s demise; problems that either required an engine to be shut down or engines failing, seeming to be high on the list of causes for the squadron’s losses.

During August a Lancaster Finishing Flight was set up within the HCU at Dishforth, its job to polish pilots and crews in their Lancasters before returning them to operational units. Loses here would be far lower.

By the years end, the HCU would have lost some fifty aircraft on training flights, which for a training unit, was a substantial number of heavy aircraft and for the Command.

With the close of the war ahead, changes are in the pipeline for both the Royal Air Force and Dishforth. With the need for bombers diminishing, a new form of aircraft arrives and in good number. In the final part we see Dishforth head in to the jet era but opportunities are missed and sadly it gets left behind, its future then looks bleak.

The full page can be seen in Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 Trail.

Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 trail (Part 2).

After seeing Dishforth’s pre-war construction and arrival of its first squadrons in Part 1, we head in to 1941, more trips to Germany and a special mission to Italy.

The beginnings of 1941 were much the same for the two Dishforth units. Trips to Germany were very much the order of the day. But on February 3rd, six Whitleys from 51 Squadron were sent as part of a force to blow up the aqueduct crossing the Tragino river in the Campania province of southern Italy. Code named Operation ‘Colossus‘, it was a daring operation where troops would be parachuted into enemy territory, destroy their target and escape by submarine.

After departing to Mildenhall, the Dishforth aircraft then flew on to Malta, arriving at Luqa airfield after a long, eleven hour flight. On the night of the 11th, the plan was put in place. Two aircraft were to perform a diversionary attack on the marshalling yards at Foggia, whilst the remainder dropped members of ‘X’ Troop in the valleys near to the target. Whilst the aqueduct was successfully blown apart, none of the ground forces, nor the crew of one of the 78 Squadron Whitleys on the diversionary raid, managed to get home. All were unfortunately picked up by Italian forces and placed in POW camps. The raid being a success, had suffered high losses.

That same night, the remaining crews at Dishforth fared little better. On returning to the airfield following a raid on Bremen, they were ordered to divert to RAF Drem in Scotland. Four of the aircraft either misunderstood the instruction, got lost or ran out of fuel, resulting in each of them being abandoned over the British countryside. Unfortunately even abandoning an undamaged aircraft was not entirely safe, as nine of the twenty crewmen suffered injuries whilst doing so. All four of the aircraft were left to their inevitable and catastrophic rendezvous with mother Earth.

A new Bomber Command Directive drove the Group’s Whitleys to Germany night after night. Then a turn of focus to aircraft factories saw a change in operations, and although losses for Bomber Command were high, both the Dishforth units managed to scrape through relatively unscathed.

April saw the departure of 78 Squadron from Dishforth, this time though there would be no return, and their time here had finally come to an end.  Dishforth however, continued on, retaining its one operational squadron, that of 51 Sqn, who continued to soldier bravely on with their Whitley Vs.

Industrial targets were then once again at the forefront of Bomber Command’s agenda. 51 Sqn joining many other units on raids to the German heartland. In early May, they visited Ludwigshafen, followed by Dortmund, Duisburg and Dussledorf losing one aircraft on each operation (P5106, Z6663, Z6657, and Z6563 respectively) with the loss of all but five of the airmen on board.

Whilst 51 Sqn’s losses per operation continued to be relatively light, overall they suffered some of the highest losses for the year, some 43 aircraft being lost on operations throughout 1941. A tally that put them amongst the top five biggest losses of Bomber Command squadrons for the year.

As with many bomber stations, support and training flights also operated from these larger airfields, Dishforth was no different with 1512 Beam Approach Training Flight (formally 12 Blind Approach Training Flight) forming here in October 1941. The unit trained pilots to land in poor visibility using a system designed ironically by the Germans. Previously known as ‘Blind Approach’, it was felt the the use of the word ‘Blind’ was not very reassuring for pilots and so all units were changed to Beam. Also ironic as no beam was actually used, but more a single distorted radio transmission.

The dawn of 1942 saw more of the same for the Bombers of 51 Sqn and 4 Group. With a renewed focus on the German fleet anchored at Brest, Bomber Command would soon pay the price, and it would be Operation ‘Fuller’, that would be the cause.

On the night of February 12th, a determined and combined force of naval vessels and aircraft along with RAF aircraft, would attack the a force of mighty ships including the ScharnhorstGneisenau and Prinz Eugen as it made its way through the English Channel to home waters from Brest harbour. For over a year, the ships had been a thorn in the sides of the RAF, being damaged and repaired they could not be put out of action permanently. Patched up but not fit for heavy warfare, the attacks came in poor weather, ideal for a sea escape. The resultant allied losses were a tragedy for both services, and would leave them blooded and badly scarred.

Thankfully though, the fortunes of the Command would soon turn, albeit briefly on the night of the 27th-28th February, bringing a smile to both the faces of the British forces and the population as a whole. February would thankfully close on a good note.

The events began at Thruxton airfield, where twelve Whitley bombers were having holes cut in their floors and special doors added to allow paratroopers to jump through. This small force would be led by 51 Sqn W.C. Charles ‘Percy’ Pickard who, described as a tall, fair haired pipe-smoker, was known as a real character within 51 Sqn. Pickard’s character had been projected well beyond the mess halls of Dishforth though, noticeably after he took a leading part as Squadron Leader Dickson in ‘Target for Tonight‘; the RAF’s 1941 film about a crew on a bombing mission over Germany. Pickard would eventually leave 51 Sqn, transferring to the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Operation ‘Jerrico’, and the attack on the prison at Amiens where he met his death with almost seventy operations to his name.

The February raid was to be carried out by a small force of British Paratroops, which involved them being dropped into enemy territory to capture a secret German radar site. Once established, they were to remove vital components from the radar and bring them back to England for analysis. The raid, whilst not without its hiccups, was a huge success in the war of the electronics, and not only allowed the British to examine the workings of the radar, but also provided them with a prisoner who was one of the operational technicians at the site. The night had been a real coup, and a much needed morale booster for the RAF and the UK’s population. Known as the ‘Bruneval Raid‘, Britain now had a significant insight into the German Wurzburg radar system, and 51 Sqn played a major part in delivering those gallant men to their drop zone. For his part in the operation Pickard was awarded a bar to his DSO.

Charles ‘Percy’ Pickard (believed to be at Lissett, Yorkshire) with his dog ‘Ming’.(© IWM CH 10251)

In May 1942, 51 Sqn received orders to depart Dishforth for the base at Chivenor in Devon. This too would be their final farewell to the Yorkshire base as they would not be returning. By the end of the year they would be replacing their Whitleys with the Halifax, their last Whitley being lost whilst at Dishforth a few days prior to their departure on the night of 23rd/24th April 1942.

A short period of calm then led to further changes. It was during this ‘quiet period’, that the 1472 (Army Co-Operation) Flight formed here at Dishforth. Using only light aircraft: Battles, Tomahawks Hurricanes and Masters, they didn’t require the lengthy runways that heavy bombers needed, and operated in conjunction with land based forces primarily on training operations.

It was after this that a new Canadian unit 425 (Alouette) Sqn RCAF was formed here at Dishforth. The first ever French-Canadian unit formed in the U.K., it was led by W.C. J. St. Pierre, and was part of a Canadian force manned totally by Canadian personnel. It would not be ready and operational though until the October of 1942.  It was also during October that another Canadian squadron would be formed, also here at Dishforth, that of 426 (Thunderbird) Sqn led by W.C. Sedley Blanchard. A third unit, that of 6 Group’s Communication Flight also joined the Canadians here at Dishforth.

Both these squadrons flew the twin-engined Wellington, with its remarkable geodetic design, a sturdy aircraft it would be the main type used by the two squadrons for the next year.

425 Sqn spent the next weeks building up to operational status, training flights both cross country and in the local area being carried out when the weather permitted. It was on one of these flights that the first Wellington was lost from the squadron. During a fighter affiliation exercise, in which cloud ranged from 3/10 to 6/10 at 3,000 ft to 10/10 at higher altitudes, the 403 Sqn Spitfire ‘attacking’ the Wellington collided with the nose turret bringing down both the Spitfire and the Wellington. There were no survivors from the bomber.

Once declared operational, 425 Sqn’s inauguration into the war soon occurred. On the night of October 5th/6th 1942, they took part in a raid on Aachen. 101 Wellingtons, almost half the force, were sent to the town but weather was poor and target markers were way off track, some 17 miles away over the Dutch town of Lutterade. As a result, little significant damage was done to the target, and it was the Dutch who bore the brunt of the force. To make matters worse, 425 Sqn lost one of its aircraft, Wellington III ‘X3943’ KW-G piloted by Sgt. O’Driscoll. The first operational loss for the squadron with the entire crew being killed when the aircraft crashed in Essex on its return home.

In Part 3, we head in to 1943 where we see the official formation of 6 Group (RCAF) – the Canadians officially arrive in Yorkshire and the Group begins operations over occupied Europe. Dishforth plays a big part in those operations.

The full page can be seen in Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 Trail.

Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth Along the A1 trail (Part 1).

As we continue our journey north along the A1, the ‘Great North Road’, (Trail 54, Trail 57) we come across an airfield that began life in the prewar expansion period of the 1930s. Destined to become a bomber station for a large part of the war, it soon returned to its initial role as a training base, a role it carried on after the war’s eventual end. Today the base is still active but in the hands of the British Army, and although no major flying takes place, it does occasionally see the odd aircraft pass by.

This airfield sits alongside the A1 road, this offers opportunities to see what’s left and observe the goings on at the base. On the next part of our trail along the A1, we stop off at the former RAF Dishforth,

RAF Dishforth.

As a prewar airfield built during the expansion period, Dishforth was a ‘non-dispersed’ airfield, distinguished by having both its accommodation and technical areas located closely together. Initially it fell under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command, but would soon transfer to 4 Group for use as a training airfield for their bombers; a Command which in itself was also born out of the expansion era of the 1930s.

By the war’s end, Dishforth would have grown considerably, eventually being capable of catering for over 2,500 personnel, and upgraded to the standard Class ‘A’ specification with three concrete and tarmac runways (1 at 2,000 and 2 at 1,400 yards in length). The main runway runs parallel to the main A1 road, in a north-west to south-east direction, with the two subsidiary runways running east / west and north-east to south-west, thus forming the recognisable ‘A’ shape of this airfield design.

Around the perimeter were twenty-seven pan and eleven spectacle hardstands, and to the south-east, located between the legs of the ‘A’, were five ‘C’ type hangars and a range of ancillary, technical and storage buildings. The Watch office, initially located between the hangers overlooking the pan, was later rebuilt to the north of the airfield over looking the entire flying site now to the south.

Alongside Dishforth came airfields at Linton-on-Ouse, Driffield, Leconfield and Finningley, all of which would see a range of light and medium bombers grace their runways. Other major airfields built at this time included the bomber bases at Wyton and Upwood in Cambridgeshire, Scampton in Lincolnshire and the fighter airfield at Debden in Essex, the RAF was indeed expanding at great speed.

On January 12th 1937, the first of the squadrons arrived, 10 Squadron RAF, with a mix of Heyfords and Virginias. The move was led by the advanced party, followed by the main party on the 25th and the rear party on the 2nd February. Whilst settling in and preparing the airfield for operations, they were joined by another squadron, 78 Sqn, also with Heyford IIIs.

K3489 the first production Handley Page Heyford the last biplane heavy bomber. These aircraft were well liked at the time and were, unbelievably, able to be looped as was seen at the 1935 Hendon Air show.  Note the retractable gun turret. (©IWM ATP 7352C)

Within a month of their arrival at Dishforth though, 10 sqn would begin to replace these now obsolete biplanes with Whitleys, flying both the MK.I and later the much improved Merlin powered MK.IV, until their eventual departure from Dishforth in July 1940. The first of these Tiger IX powered MK.Is arrived on the 9th March, followed by sporadic arrivals culminating at the end of June, with a full complement of aircraft; the last of these being Whitley K7195 on the June 25th.

One of the highlights for 10 squadron’s posting to Dishforth, was to perform a ‘set piece’ at the 1937 Hendon Air Show, five Dishforth aircraft performing well to the gathered crowds below. This was nothing new to the Squadron, having previously performed at Mildenhall for the King’s review and at Old Sarum for an Indian Army Officers School, both in July 1935.

Over the remainder of the year and into 1938, a number of observer calibration flights took place. These were later supplemented with squadron operations, under what was described as ‘war conditions’, and although repeatedly hampered by bad weather, the squadron managed 3,733 daylight hours and 752 night flying hours, over the two year period.

78 Sqn, which was officially reformed on 1st November 1936 under the command of Wing Commander M.B. Frew DSO, MC, AFC, was also assigned the obsolete aircraft. With a second flight forming in April 1937, they too soon began updating these models with both the MK.I and later in 1939, the MKIVa Whitleys.

Following the disbandment of the rather mashed together Air Defence Great Britain (ADGB) and the introduction of the four commands (Fighter, Bomber, Training and Coastal), Dishforth and its two squadrons would now fall under the control of the newly formed 4 Group. With Air Commodore A. T. Harris as its (short lived) lead, 4 Group’s headquarters made its move from Mildenhall to Linton-on-Ouse, only a few miles to the south-east of Dishforth. Yorkshire would now become the county synonymous with the Group and its aircraft.

4 Group had struggled obtaining a suitable bombing range to use with its Whitleys, Harris, in his book ‘Bomber Offensive‘, talks about being frustrated because he repeatedly came up against local objections. Abbotsford was one such site that dragged on largely due to objections about the local swan population. As it turned out, having a range actually kept people away and as a result the swans thrived!

The dawn of 1939 would herald a new era. January introduced Dishforth to the forthcoming events with the loss Whitley K7211 off the coast of Kent. The last message from the aircraft being received  at 18:20 on January 23rd. There then followed an extensive search, but despite the efforts of the Royal Navy, neither the aircraft, nor its crew, were ever found, and the Whitley along with its crew remains missing to his day.

The declaration of war by Neville Chamberlain in September 1939, shook the nation. It brought with it immediate mobilisation orders to the Group. Within days 10 Squadron were ordered to send eight aircraft on a reconnaissance and ‘Nickle‘ flight over northern Germany. Following Air Plan No. 14, they were loaded with propaganda leaflets, the aircraft then flew over the ‘target’ dropping these ‘paper bombs’ on the citizens below. Returning anti-aircraft fire was light and sporadic, and as a result, all aircraft returned without incident.

RAF Dishforth

Two of Dishforth’s five hangars.

On the night of the 21st, two more 10 Sqn aircraft were ordered out on another Nickle operation, this time over Bremen and Hamburg; an additional order was given to “create a disturbance in Berlin”. Again no enemy aircraft were encountered, and anti-aircraft fire was very light. But with that, and a flight of three more Whitleys on the night of 1st/2nd October, 10 Sqn had gained the honour of being the first allied squadron to fly over the German capital during wartime.

Meanwhile, Dishforth’s other squadron, 78 Sqn, were allocated as 4 Group’s Reserve Squadron, acting as a pool for training crews and a reservoir for the Group’s other front line squadrons. I wonder if, at the time, there were any reservations about such a move from those within the squadron.

However, by early October 1939 a move was on the cards for 78 Sqn. Linton-on-Ouse was now calling, and early in the morning of 15th the move had begun with the Whitleys landing at Linton. This move, a few miles south, would temporarily leave Dishforth with only one operational squadron.

This lull lasted until early December, when 51 Sqn joined those at Dishforth. Like other squadrons, they had ditched their ageing Virginias for the more modern Whitley and were now in the process of upgrading these to the MK.V.

The winter of 1939/40 was a harsh one, and as a result little flying took place from the snowed in Dishforth. With only a short lull in February, aircraft were well and truly ‘frozen in’ for the large part of the winter months. It was most certainly a cold start to the war, and even when the thaw came, the ground remained dangerous to fly from due to water logging from the melting snow.

Following the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, 4 Group’s aircraft began attacks on airfields and supply routes being used by the Germans. Both 51 Sqn and 10 Sqn visited several of these airfields including Aalbourg on the night of 22nd-23rd April. On this operation, one of 51 Sqn’s aircraft, Whitely IV ‘MH-G’ piloted by F.O. J Birch, was lost without trace not long after departing Dishforth at 21:50.

By July 1940, the Battle of Britain was in full swing and 10 Sqn were moving out; the period between January and July being filled with numerous and relatively uneventful trips to Germany. Barely cold, their vacant beds were quickly filled by 78 Squadron, who had previously departed to Linton-on-Ouse; now they were given orders to return back to Dishforth.

The month of July had been one of some confusion for the squadron, initial orders requiring they transfer to the unfinished RAF Leeming, the place where kit and materials had, by now, been sent. What’s more, they were also informed that they would continue performing the role of reserve squadron whilst at Leeming, but now however, on moving to Dishforth, they were made fully operational for the first time since war had broken out with Germany.

The move went relatively smoothly, aircraft were deposited at Topcliffe (Dishforth’s satellite) with personnel transferring directly to Dishforth. The move involved organising transport from not only Linton, but also York and Leeming too, such was the wide spread of both men and equipment. As a result, “very little useful work” was done, the primary objective being to reorganise the squadron following the confusion of the orders and counter orders over the previous weeks.

A Whitley at an unknown location revving up its engines. © IWM CH 681

As we leave 1940 behind and head to 1941, we see, part 2, what changes come to Dishforth. There are more ventures into Germany and a special mission to Italy that results in success but at a great cost.

The full page can be seen in Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 Trail.